Searching for the Pattern: Mary Lou Zelazny’s collages defy explanation

"Stardust," collage and oil on canvas by Mary Lou Zelazny; courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center
A bottle of Uncle-Sam-brand cola, a pair of six-shooters, the face of a professional wrestler dripping with the voided contents of a fake blood packet, and ample scenes of America at war–in short, the visual detritus of America’s media machine–mingles to form a gnome-like Martian silhouetted against a desert landscape. Mary Lou Zelazny’s paintings probably look a lot like James Rosenquist’s dreams. The Chicago artist, who has been working in a private idiom that balances painting and collage since the mid-’80s and now teaches at the School of the Art Institute, is the subject of a large retrospective at the Hyde Park Art Center through April 12.

Taught by Ray Yoshida and Karl Wirsum, Zelazny is in many ways a successor to the Chicago Imagist school, the loose group of artists who exhibited at HPAC in the 1960s with a more perverse, Surrealistic version of the pop art which was then dominating the New York art scene. Her paintings share her predecessors’ affinity for hallucinatory humanoid creatures that emerge spontaneously and insistently from heaps of collaged images from magazine and newspaper clippings. Zelazny, who is currently represented by the Carl Hammer Gallery, also recalls the outsider artists originally associated with the gallery in her compulsive discovery of the same motifs–boats, dancing figures, anthropomorphic trash piles on dates–in any given assemblage of collaged images.

Zelazny alludes to the importance of improvisation to her work, and, in the interaction of elements drawn from magazine advertisements and the painted images from her own imagination, the thought process behind the completed image is suggested. Her boat paintings, for example, make this progress of inspiration and improvisation tangible. In “Girls of the Gun” (2006), a ramshackle hull made out of the spine of “Moby Dick” and miscellaneous abstract clippings bears a treasure horde of cultural depictions of women, ancient and modern, from East and West, which includes porcelain dolls, a Hollywood Mata Hari, and an old ethnographic photograph of a mother and child. Reflected in the sea below is a painterly counterpart to this bricolaged barge–above, we see a sort of reality in the form of montaged photographs, while below we see the artist’s interpretation of the composite of these images. Set side by side, fantasy and reality result in the kind of ambiguity and intrigue that is consistent across Zelazny’s oeuvre.

While the content of a painting like “Girls of the Gun” might suggest psychoanalytic, feminist, or political interpretations, Zelazny’s images are so flooded with information that it would be difficult to provide an allegorical explanation for any of her paintings. They seem to operate in a fluid landscape of shifting meanings, where the collaged objects suggest interpretations and then fail to live up to them, ending up serving as condensed indexes of the artist’s stream of consciousness as she worked through the painting. “I’m not in the business of constructing a rebus for the viewer to ‘figure out,’” she says, and the oppressive number of potential signifiers in her paintings seems to taunt this kind of reading. In her own words, “some of the collage images may have some literal content or message; others may have a purely structural or graphic function that participate in the composition to make it whole.” This tantalizing duality leaves one always chasing after patterns in the surfaces of her paintings.

In her more recent work, Zelazny has abandoned the glut of recognizable media images that form the building blocks of her older pieces, but collage still plays a central role in her work. Instead of newspaper clippings, she now pastes abstract monoprints onto her canvases, working them into the surface of her canvases so that one often has to struggle to even recognize their presence. “The proliferation and accessibility of images and their manipulation via the computer and internet stimulated me to leave my earlier techniques behind,” she says, but her new work continues to highlight her talent for improvisation and irony and her eye for the correspondences and contradictions between fantasy and reality. “As in life, the serious and the ridiculous sit side by side,” as Zelazny says, “with all of the bloody-minded perversity of that moment that makes you want to laugh during a funeral.”

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through April 12. Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. (773)324-5520.

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