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At Deborah Oropallo's new show, the line between paintings and photos barely exists

Wednesday, Feb 14 2001
Like a couple of highbrow chameleons, painting and photography have nearly morphed into mirror images of each other. As photography first proliferated in the mid-19th century, the camera exerted a strong influence on the avant-garde painting of the day (Degas' composition and Manet's lighting, for example). Today, as digital technology gets more affordable, contemporary artists -- particularly painters -- find it creeping into their work with greater frequency. As a result, the line demarcating painting and photography has become increasingly blurred -- and, in some instances, the two are tantalizingly intertwined.

In her most recent body of work, Berkeley painter Deborah Oropallo embraces the high-tech machinations of digital photography and calls into question the whole notion of what constitutes painting. Though Oropallo has long been celebrated as one of the Bay Area's premier painters (she'll have a solo show at the San Jose Museum of Art in October), it's amusingly ironic that the physical act of painting has receded into the background of her work. Unlike that of South Bay painter Kathryn Dunlevie, who laboriously hand paints over photomontages of the urban landscape, Oropallo's own hand never touches a brush in her latest show, "Material Handling." Nonetheless, the pieces bristle with smarts and wry humor.

The catalyst for the 46-year-old conceptual painter's new work was an encounter with workaday danger: Returning home one evening, she found several fire engines battling a blaze at one of the industrial plants on her block. The incident fueled Oropallo's imagination, and she began taking digital photographs of containers stockpiled in a chemical plant across the street from her West Berkeley studio. Some of these images are now on display in the Stephen Wirtz Gallery, where viewers encounter what at first appear to be life-sized paintings, veering on photo-realism, of heavy-duty industrial containers: barrels, pails, and pipes. In reality, Oropallo produced these large iris prints of her digital snapshots on swatches of unstretched canvas, then collaged them in sections onto larger, traditional canvases. Nothing is ever quite what it seems in Oropallo's heady trompe l'oeil world.

In one sense, Oropallo's imposing industrial vats are the heirs of Andy Warhol's soup cans and Coke bottles. Just as the artist's previous series of striped train track paintings coyly detoured minimalism off its straight and narrow path, "Material Handling" lays waste with deadpan glee to pop, minimalism, and conceptual art's penchant for squeaky-clean stacks of objects and serial imagery. Oropallo's photographs, while frequently shot through with computer-generated repetition, playfully subvert the rigid minimalist-conceptualist dogma of hard edges, straight lines, right angles, and pristine geometry in favor of unruly jagged edges, corrosive surfaces, off-kilter angles, and warped shapes. The results are engagingly irregular and irreverent.

While Oropallo's subjects may portend poisonous waste and wholesale ecological calamity, one might also remember that traditional painters routinely handle toxic materials. Since we only see the outer shells of these hermetically sealed hulks, we're left to fill in their (possibly hazardous) contents -- even as they dredge up memories of Love Canal or the Exxon Valdez.

To partially offset the industrial-strength male aesthetic she has immersed her- self in, Oropallo silk-screens dainty, "feminine" touches such as daisies and doilies atop the images of imposing metal receptacles. The name of one picture, Stacked, might bring to mind a construction-site slang term for a well-endowed woman, but the piece instead appears to depict eight tripartite white barrels arranged in two staggered stacks of four. Upon further scrutiny one might notice the same object incorporated more than once. A thin, latticelike grid silk-screened on top of the image punfully "veils" the painting (rather than unveiling it, as most artists would prefer), obscuring the objects underneath and flattening the 3-D illusion. Although the canvas' streamlined composition calls attention to the painting's abstract and conceptual underpinnings, its Photoshop hocus-pocus should remind us to proceed with caution when confronting images purporting to document truth.

A barbed diptych titled Industrial Strength displays a pair of golden barrels adorned with cutesy white daisies. If these garish containers conjure up pricey garbage cans in Beverly Hills, they also bring to mind Jasper Johns' famous Painted Bronze, that cheeky sculpture created in response to his dealer's boast that he could sell anything -- even beer cans -- by Johns. Oropallo could easily change those barrels from brown to gold or any other color -- it's as easy as popping in a pair of designer irises -- so she's got a world of possibilities at her fingertips. Audacious artists like her will continue to broaden the boundaries of painting in the digital age.

Tony Oursler specializes in creating singularly creepy video installations. His macabre Hole at the Lab projects a pair of fleshy lips and ultra-bright teeth onto a colossal human skull that spits out sultry sound-bite meditations on mortality ("I decompose ..."). Anthony Discenza's accompanying video, Persisting in Some Fashion as Yet Unknown, abstractly regurgitates electronic remnants of TV channel surfing as if fed through a shredder at the speed of sound. Jointly, the pair humorously reminds us of the fast-forward fleetingness of it all.

At Intersection for the Arts, local graphic design collaborative tom & john documents the diversity and individual character of several San Francisco neighborhoods (the Mission, Lower Haight, and Castro) through 150 photographs shot on a cheapo camera. As an "interactive" blackboard invites viewers to add their two cents, a Web site ( reaches out to spectators in cyberspace. The installation promises to be a moving, intimate portrait celebrating our fair city's melting-pot-mecca ambience.

About The Author

Harry Roche


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