Mutable: The Work of Mary Lou Zelazny”
February 1 - April 12, 2009
At the Hyde
Park Art Center, a few blocks from the home of President Obama,
is a retrospective of Chicago artist, Mary Lou Zelazny (b.1956).
The artist, an adjunct professor at the Art Institute of Chicago,
describes her work as “paintings with collage.“ Thirty
years are represented in this mid-career exhibit (1980-2008), and
most of the seventy works are large oil or acrylic paintings. Zelazny
incorporates papers with exceptional skill, and collage serves to
intensify the social commentary inherent in her work.
Influenced by the Chicago Imagists, Zelazny’s early style
navigates between Surrealism and Realism. Her paintings startle
and unnerve us, with human or alien forms centered prominently in
abstract landscapes. Figures are faceless, with fluid boundaries
(Thick As Thieves, 1986; Silver Lining, 1986). Zelazny fills them
with vintage newspaper and magazine images from the 1940s and 1950s:
mechanical/electrical parts, military weapons, appliances, household
gadgets. These creatures carry our cultural detritus inside them,
yet remain eerily unconnected to their surroundings. In The Emblematic
Twins 1 and 2 (1988), two alien forms rise above a barren landscape.
Their torsos are images of planes, bombs, guns, bone marrow, binoculars,
soldiers marching, and the anti-war sentiment is unmistakable. In
Amazon Papoose (1987), a very large black-haired figure carries
a papoose. Papers in the figure’s back reflect nature: Monarch
butterflies, zebras, snakes, plants, a waterfall. The papoose is
constructed of plane parts, TV monitor, satellite, computer, camcorder,
microphone, telephone, gauges, clock. The painting makes a powerful
statement about the disconnect between our technologically-driven
lives and the natural environment of our ancestors.
In 1989, Zelazny
begins a significant transition. She paints more detail into less
abstract landscapes, and uses media images more selectively. In
three collage and oil paintings in 1990, she lines the edges of
flowers with images: knives, a hair dryer, screws, cameras, watches,
perfume, iron, scissors. This alters traditional still life, and
asks us to reflect on what we consider beautiful, meaningful, and
worthy subjects for art. In She Had Blue Eyes (1997), a ghostly
apparition drifts above an abstract meadow. She has no face, and
wears diaphanous fabric. Her figure is painted except for a collage
tiara of rubies and diamonds. Scattered around her are magazine
images from brooches, rings, and pearl necklaces. Other necklaces
encircle her body like chains. We see her only as dress and jewels.
The feminist statement is clear and remains relevant.
Zelazny makes another transition toward a less edgy Realism. Her
forms are clearly human and the landscapes more inviting. She begins
to replace media images with her own painted papers. In House Proud
(2003), two women relax on a living room sofa. Zelazny adds collage
fragments everywhere, repeating color and pattern to render the
women inseparable from the décor. Even their faces are partially
constructed with “swatches” from nearby curtains. She
blurs the boundaries between form and background through this same
use of collage in Beautiful Tomorrow (2003), Drive Forever (2005),
and Harvey (2007).
use images from mass media in some of her recent, smaller paintings
but these are rarer and more playful. Increasingly, she applies
painted papers to enhance texture in skin and clothing (High Desert
and 3 Lapping Waves, both 2007), and landscapes (Oval Pond and Wine
or Water, both 2008). Her naturalism and use of collage convey a
sense that figure and landscape co-exist peacefully, each helping
to complete the other.
It is refreshing
to view a large body of work by a woman artist who is unafraid of
social commentary and who uses collage so effectively towards this
end. Over time, the subjects and style of Zelazny’s art shift
from passionate and often jarring social protests to a softer, more
personal reflection. This arc mirrors the journey of an entire generation,
and is well worth seeing.