Same Old Art

Colliding Forms: Deborah Zlotsky

I am sure that you occasionally catch yourself wondering: why does this artist not get more attention? They seem to be doing everything right and still it does not seem to be enough.

At least that was my thought when I saw Deborah Zlotsky’s paintings. I am mainly referring to the paintings that were part of her solo exhibition “Adjacent Possibilities" at Markel Fine Arts a little over a year ago.

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Deborah Zlotsky, Waiting Room, 48” x 60”, oil on canvas, 2011   

There are several remarkable aspects about her paintings. Zlotsky pays attention to color, line and shape, but more importantly to depth. We can clearly identify geometric shapes, but their outlines take surprising turns that suggest receding and advancing   forms. Usually this sensation is fortified when a lighter shape is contrasted by a darker value of the same color (e.g. a light pink with a darker pink, a light green with a darker green, a light grey with a darker grey, etc.). As a result, the painted shapes take on a third dimension: they point beyond their placement within the frame and they point back to what lies behind them. In case of Waiting Room it is a glimpse of what could be seen as a light blue background in the lower and upper corners of the painting. In some instances the light blue cuts through the amassed forms causing a flow of air and making the composition seem lighter and less congested. Whatever it is we are looking at, it breathes. 

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Deborah Zlotsky, Withrum, powdered graphite on mylar, 14” x 11”, 2009 

That brings me back to her previous drawings of membrane-like surfaces, folds and light rendered to look as if we were inside a porous and pulsating organism. There is more order in her paintings, more linear and predictable structure, and a greater variety of color too.  Despite these differences between the paintings and drawings, they both share an interest in objects that are somehow animated and enlivened.  It is the way these two bodies of work look that speaks of Zlotsky’s ability to take an interest in a particular idea and not do the obvious. Another artist might have stuck with the same drawings and eventually turned these into paintings without changing much of their appearance (and appeal). 

It is rare to see an artist produce such separate and yet closely related bodies of work. Let’s take Paul Klee as an example.

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Paul Klee, Crystalline Landscape, 1929

One of the subjects that were of great interest to Paul Klee were the early German Romantics and their understanding of nature as a productive force. Instead of looking at nature as a subject to be copied, Klee turned to nature as a principle of infinite creation.  To study from nature involved recognizing art as an extension of nature’s productivity; to be an artist meant to be ever-evolving and to remain open to contingency (something so desperately needed in contemporary painting where painters usually assume the role of a specialist who tends to a particular style or subject for as long as critics and supporters allow it).

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Paul Klee, Growth of the Night Plants, oil on cardboard, 1922

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Deborah Zlotsky, Warbride, 36” x 36”, oil on canvas, 2012

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Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, oil on canvas, 1824

It is the mix of conscious decisions, restraint and then the willingness to take a risk, to let the paint and the materials at hand dictate your moves on the surface that make Deborah Zlotsky an ambitious and ever-surprising artist.   

If you were to ask who invented the idea of “accident” in art, I would be tempted to say it was the German Romantics. In Hamburg at the Kunsthalle where Friedrich’s painting is on permanent display, I found myself sitting down and looking at his “Sea of Ice” for a long while. I think that memory made me slow down in front of Zlotsky’s “Warbride:” the colliding elements, call them shapes if you like, the chaos and simultaneous order, the whites and yellows, the pressure and weight of each part pressing on another. And then the details: a barely visible shipwreck off the center to the right in Friedrich’s painting; a sling of sorts wrapped around a linear piece in the lower right corner of Zlotsky’s painting. These are the moments in a painting that trace the artist’s intention without revealing what that intention is. It is the closest you can get to a sigh just by looking at a painting. 


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