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Review: Mary Lou Zelazny/Carl Hammer Gallery

Painting, River North Add comments

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Parents often show love by giving us too many things, so even after we’ve grown older, nothing can be quite so comforting as the clutter of useless junk. And unlike everything that’s always changing, clutter can be permanent and reliable. Which may explain Mary Lou Zelazny’s pictorial world, where, as the “Cake Lady” herself, she offers up an armful of comfort food. We all know that the manufactured pastry, whose garish advertising images she has cut and pasted, is not very healthy, so one might conclude that she is also offering up a pointed critique of modern American life. But if eating chocolate cake makes you feel good about yourself, why stop? And feeling good about yourself seems to be this artist’s mission, especially in this exhibit of recent paintings that focus so often on the female face and body, not so much how it looks on the outside, but how it feels from within.

Rather than self-portraits, Zelazny presents images of “me.” Some of them are fantasies, like the party boat full of showoff pinup girls, or the ballroom full of coy, attractive women who are more interested in themselves than their sometime Neanderthal partners. And some of them, like the split-face personalities, seem all too real. But most impressive is the strong, confident woman, “Made of Iron,” who, dressed only in her bra and panties, faces off against the urban techno-jungle that has been depicted so effectively by a seamless collage technique.

Zelazny’s amazing ability to compose a maddening pastiche of details brings to mind the masterpieces of Brueghel, even if her details have been cut and pasted instead of painted outright. She also pastes in fragments of her own decorative brushwork, building up a surface that is too gorgeous and intense to escape. The world outside her paintings is so dull and ordinary by comparison. She offers the giddy, intense, but somewhat limited world of a happy American teenage girl. Why would anyone want to grow out of it?

That stubborn insistence on living in your own happy world is probably why Zelazny can be found in a gallery that primarily shows outsider artists, even if her work is so indebted to twentieth-century surrealism. She may borrow some of its pictorial elements, but she is not primarily concerned with our deeply flawed, irrational world. She’d much rather live in her own. (Chris Miller)

Through October 22 at Carl Hammer Gallery, 740 North Wells

2 Responses to “Review: Mary Lou Zelazny/Carl Hammer Gallery”

  1. Tony Phillips Says:

    In his otherwise thoughtful review, Chris Miller suggests that Mary Lou Zelazny’s paintings are happily solipsistic. He states that hers is a “somewhat limited world of a happy American teenage girl. Why would anyone want to grow out of it?”- that “she is not primarily concerned with our deeply flawed, irrational world. She’d much rather live in her own.” How can one see “our deeply flawed, irrational world” except through one’s own eyes, and then to share the view, along with one’s sense of it, except through one’s voice, one’s images. In her picture, illustrated here, “Made of Iron”, the maid so ironically almost naked – vulnerable to spite her forthright stance, does indeed share with us a view of a rather deeply flawed, irrational looking world – quite literally. The gleeful properties of so many of these paintings are nonetheless fraught with a quite scary sense of a not-at-all rational and rather flawed world, albeit presented with disarming wit.

  2. mountshang Says:

    It’s fun to compare “Made of Iron” with James Valerio’s 2002 Self portrait. In both paintings, a large central figure faces away to a panoramic cityscape in the background.

    Contrast the half-dressed, assertive posture of Zelazny’s young woman, with the sports wear, relaxed posture of Valerio’s middle-aged fellow. And contrast the urban visions behind them. The “Made of Iron” confronts the city as a giant factory while Valerio is gazing at the residential trees and porches that lead back to Chicago’s dramatic skyline.

    But both of the protagonists feel healthy, sane, and content, and neither of their urban environments feel especially flawed or irrational. Perhaps all of the techno-appliance structures in Zelazny’s scene cannot be identified, but still, they appear to be in clean, working order, don’t they?

    We still have several, more traditional local painters, like Kryczka and Santana, who do a great job of showing us a city worthy of love and admiration. But Zelazny and Valerio also show us themselves as they are looking at it, as if they’re a bit self conscious about enjoying their urban lives, after 60 years of Chicago painters showing us a threatening or confusing place populated by the monstrous, goofy, or deranged. .

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