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.
After 2003, 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).
Zelazny does 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.
Cynthia J. Lee, 2.23.09