When postmodernist theory asserts that art serves power structures, there’s ample proof to be found in art history. When it disparages the idea that individual artists can oppose the status quo (individualism construed as an illusion), it goes too far: Turner, Goya, Delacroix, Daumier, Kollwitz and many others created compelling critiques of the abuses of power. The Bay Area’s Deborah Oropallo has merged painting with digital photographs appropriated from commercial and art- historical sources for years, often subverting traditional gender roles. Her most recent show, “Bell the Cat,” with its title borrowed from the folktale about mice trying to neutralize a feline threat—illustrated in Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs painting, by the way—has obvious relevance today for anxious rodent-Americans; as Dante says, “Here the veil of allegory thins and may be pierced by anyone who tries.”
Oropallo’s new mixed-media photomontages build on her earlier work’s style and approach, but achieve a heightened power and density, perhaps due to the weighty current events. While previous works combined great-man oil paintings from the past and photos from costume catalogues, and read as satires of gender roles, the new works are also mysterious and disturbing, with the shredded, tattered imagery, obscured here and there by paint, suggesting abandonment and collapse, like Romantic views of Roman ruins. .45 (all works 2016) features a George Washington figure in military uniform, but the face is cut out, and the torso we realize, is a woman’s, in a stars-and-stripes bathing suit. Snow Blind’s sexy Snow White, with her not-quite-Disney apparel, is out of focus, her face covered by painted black hair, with swatches of cloth and paint interposed between her and the viewer, at the front of the picture plane. Seeing Red similarly invokes impaired vision, with its Little Red Riding Hood an abstract bit of drapery submerged beneath black paint, scratches, stains and tears. American Puppet and Moral Fiber use a Pinocchio-like figure, trapped in black filaments, and sporting a long white telescoping proboscis that invokes both the puppet’s addiction to alternative facts and the obscene droog masks in A Clockwork Orange. Included in the show is a short related video, White as Snow, that comments ironically at our current preference for faith-based realities and magical thinking. Are we not hugely entertained?