San Jose Museum of Art

photo: John Hazeltine

San Jose, CA


How-To: The Paintings of Deborah Oropallo

October 13, 2001 - February 10, 2002

Considering your most recent body of work and the shift to digital tools, how has your technique changed, if at all?
It becomes a little more systematic. I actually think of paint-by-numbers paintings as the original conceptual paintings, where you paint one number at a time. They have a prescribed beginning and end. This has been in my work since I was a kid, I copied things out of how-to books, always using this type of methodology. It's even apparent in the new digital work. Once the images are blown up, the colors are broken apart; if you look very closely, this is also a numeric approach. This is once again a how-to method, a collection of numbers stored in a computer memory, copied and elaborated, transported electronically and then translated into a printed image. This is the new paint-by-numbers. It's like laying bricks or working step by step.
-- Excerpted from an interview with Deborah Oropallo, conducted by Merrill Falkenberg, SJMA Associate Curator


"How-To: The Paintings of Deborah Oropallo," premiering October 13, 2001 at the San Jose Museum of Art before embarking on a West coast tour, is a mid-career survey of approximately 50 paintings that highlights the work of one of the Bay Area's most influential painters. Oropallo has achieved national renown for her remarkable ability to transform mundane objects into striking images of poetic resonance. In the past 20 years, her work has evolved from richly saturated paintings of image and text to larger, somewhat abstract silk-screened canvases of untraditional subject matter such as rope, doormats, tickets, and toy train tracks. By literally examining commonly overlooked objects, Oropallo's technique encourages recognition of the extraordinary in the everyday. She transforms bobbie pins, wire hangers, iron marks, pennies, tires, clocks, and other objects into subject matter for aesthetic contemplation. Referencing a quote by Flannery O'Connor, Oropallo states, "the more you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it." (left: Steel Bridge, 1990, oil, mixed media on canvas, 80 x 80 inches)

Typical of Oropallo's work is a painting titled "Escape Artist" (1993) where thin white lines are drawn across a canvas painted a pale gray. The lines mask a series of repeated images of handcuffs above which are images of hands seen in various poses that seem to beckon the viewer to move closer in order to examine the painting. Randomly scattered with text, and absent a centralized image, the painting compels the viewer to search the yellowed corners and edges of the painting for its meaning. About Oropallo's work, Falkenberg states, "With its emphasis on the visual trick and sleight-of-hand, Escape Artist seems an appropriate painting with which to begin a consideration of Oropallo's work, where nothing is what it might at first appear to be. Oropallo's paintings have developed remarkably over the past 20 years as she continually manages to surprise, engaging in a kind of alchemical process of transformation by representing objects in a striking new light."

This exhibition comes at a crucial moment of transition in Oropallo's career. In her most recent work, she utilizes a strong palette of color and incorporates digital imagery to create monumental canvases of large industrial containers, stacks of cinder blocks, buckets, pipes, and other construction materials that we customarily ignore. In Oropallo's hands, these images are recreated into objects of luminous beauty. Although the painter's technique has never been the primary focus of her work, these most recent paintings demonstrate her unique ability to virtually "paint with a computer," as Jeff Kelly explains in his insightful exhibition catalogue essay. While these most recent images seem far removed from the sensuous paintings of Oropallo's early career, all of her paintings refer to the visual trick, and the process of transformation through which the viewer simultaneously recognizes and yet no longer sees the everyday objects that are her subject matter.

Oropallo, who lives and works in Berkeley, California, is originally from Hackensack, New Jersey. She received her B.F.A. from Alfred University in New York State and her M.A. and M.F.A. from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Eureka Fellowship Award from the Fleishhacker Foundation; a NEA grant award; and an Engelhard Award from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. SJMA has exhibited Oropallo's work twice before: In 1993 she was represented in the Eureka Fellowship Awards exhibition, Twelve Bay Area Painters, and in 1994 her work was shown in a solo exhibition titled Deborah Oropallo: Selections from the Anderson Collection. Since the mid-1980s, Oropallo has exhibited her work nationally at various museums and art institutions, including several important group exhibitions: American Kaleidoscope: Themes and Perspectives in Recent Art at the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; the 43rd Corcoran Biennial, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the 1989 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her work is in the holdings of numerous private and public collections. (left: Industrial Strength, 2001, iris print, oil on canvas, 100 x 118 inches)

Curated by Merrill Falkenberg, SIMA associate curator, How-To: The Paintings of Deborah Oropollo is accompanied by a 120-page, four-color catalogue with an introduction and interview with the artist by Falkenberg, and an essay by Jeff Kelley, professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Kelley has been widely published in nearly 20 exhibition catalogues and numerous periodicals, including Artforum and Art in America.


Exhibition Tour Itinerary

Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art, Tacoma, WA (Nov. 10 - Feb. 2, 2003); Palm Springs Desert Museum (April 2 - June 29, 2003)

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