A satisfying heterotopia
Deborah Zlotsky’s paintings are like beautiful mutations of pure reason, zippy intellectual machines of rational spatial observation.
Zlotsky’s canvases are often large enough to annihilate the end, which might have inspired their concept. They are big, sometimes enormous. They contain an internal cohesion like a measure, a mold or a model, cleverly calculated. Yet they read like an unknown writing system like the indecipherable Voynich manuscript, like codices or ideograms with graphic geometries that seem to represent the idea of the concept. They might speak in an independent language free of words or phrases, with comprehensible conventions known only by Zlotsky. This lingo acts like words that morphs into words, classes of morphemes with endless possibilities, non sequiturs. They have an inherent endogamy yet dissimilar things begin to unite and merge. She commands and controls her language and creates new dialects as she deems fit. Zlotsky’s works sometimes remind us of high-end graffiti or rationalized typographically formalized tagging. Painted works also evoke an 80s neo-geo starkness, like Peter Halley’s Day-Glo geometric minimal works or Ellsworth Kelly’s hard-edged colour fields, or Barnett Newman’s existential studies in contingency, or Frank Stella’s post-painterly abstraction. But unlike these artists, Zlotsky seems to repair rather than over-write her precedents as she fills each canvas with an equally resonating but un-hollow spirit.
Her works speak the child language of comics, like Lichtensteins if only they were beautiful abstracts. We expect that there might be nothing quite as exhilarating for Zlotsky as finding an old box of worn-out DC comics. We see her positively inspired to the point of delirious, scrutinizing each copy excitedly, not just for their energy or color (everyone loves comics for these reasons), but in appreciation of their chemical degradation, their wear and tear, polymerization, years of handling. We see her venerating material changes from years of storage, their lovely yellowing and handsome folds, faded with discoloration, frequently tissuey and worn out. For her works evoke a similar wear, a history and a strange delicacy rarely seen in geometric abstracts. Her canvases, like her newfound old comics seem to come alive. An unplanned inner child is born. It lives precariously and it strays as it is being painted.
Sometimes Zlotsky’s paintings seem like Al Jaffee’s Mad Magazine inside-back-cover fold-ins. Or like kids’ board game like Ludo or Snakes and Ladders, though boards here are elaborated, more complex. Their unaccustomed lopsided paths entice us into colourful tactical information warfare, a game where we can wonder endlessly and hop from painting to painting. We play in the hedge maze of the Overlook Hotel or unravel the Hellraiser LeMarchand Box. She presents us with impossible puzzlers that link worlds we know and worlds we don’t.
Zlotsky’s paintings seem dizzy, alive and breathing, like cities. We are reminded of Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998) where buildings go completely mad as they mutate into one another to reform overnight. We see developing, hybridizing tunnels, mutating breathing plumbing, reproducing composite structure-beings, organs undergoing a transmigration into newer bodies, a metempsychosis or the reincarnation of forms. Zlotsky seems to tune into an altered reality, we blink several times to assess whether it’s our eyes or a perspectival demurral. The tunnels remind us of Paul McCarthy tunnels or crawl spaces from his Pinocchio performances, weird architectural appendages and meandering rectilinear ducts. We are reminded of inlet ductwork and HVAC systems from films like Alien or Die Hard or The Breakfast Club – cinematic crawl spaces responsible for the movie ventilation duct phenomenon; we imagine Ripley or John McClain or Bender somewhere crawling around the (duct)works. We might even see a sort of teratology, studies of deformity and abnormality and a secreted mythology of fantastic creatures and monsters. We feel traces of Max Ernst’s cynical mechanical boiler-monster, The Elephant Celebes (1921), originally drawn from scurrilous German schoolboy couplets, its tinny insides and horny head and visionless eyes and coiled neck suggesting a dream and Freudian free association. We often see other traces in Zlotsky of Dada, or of Ernst or de Chirico - in her paint, sometimes flat, sometimes in stark chiaroscuro, in her use of trompe l’oeil – a quirky bracket or some-or-other out-of-place element. Zlotsky makes abstract paintings, studies in color and geometry. They fall in line with a long line of others, the works of constructivists, color theorists and materialists, hands-on artist-educators who experimented with their medium and their message – Josef Albers, Pete Jennerjahn, John Urbain, Joseph Fiore, Mary Caroline Richards Leo Krikorian or Elaine De Kooning. These were the Modernists - committed to broadening education, opening the eyes of eager students at Black Mountain College or the Bauhaus, providing what they called “perceptual educations”. Zlotsky, also an artist-educator (presently at RISD) shares their commitment to collaborative education and learning through play. She believes in performative and experimental teaching methodologies that yield unexpected and startling results, something she calls the logical-illogics of decision-making and the power of accidents.
In tandem with her paintings, Zlotsky also produces tapestry works, which are like soft hanging synchronized versions of her paintings. Here, we see accumulated, collaged vintage scarves hung in unexpected graphic montages. They show surprising combinations with coincidences that embody the
same groovy pop and graphic topologies as her painted works. But they hang free, suspended, soft, unrestrained and exposed. Perhaps we are witnessing a childlike innocence in the message, one about dressing up and the mother daughter fashion hand-me-down. Or maybe there’s a hidden agenda, one about body concealment and subjugation. We could be hearing a tale about American freedoms, for the choice of the headscarf is steeped in sartorial stigma, whether intended or not. They could be speaking in an unapologetically apolitical narrative, one free of traumalgia. Or perhaps they are intensely political - flags for a new world order.
Zlotsky presents us with a satisfying heterotopia, a world within our world, other than the world we know. Her world is self-remedying, satisfying to the end, because it has already mapped out life’s nuances for us. We do not fear life’s accidents because they lay before us in wonderfully constructed harmonies of paint and color and form. Her world is puerile as we once were, and complex as we are now. It simplifies our inner states, repairs us, and presents us with a syllabic language simple enough to understand and to enjoy formally. It constructs relationships and settles our minds with its offset but positively-positive balance. Once we eventually find the entrance, we might just crawl in.