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Rodney Zelenka: Dominion and Frailty at Tenri Cultural Institute

Rodney Zelenka, Black Vultures and Red Snapper, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

Rodney Zelenka: Dominion and Frailty

Tenri Cultural Institute

November 17 through December 22, 2022

By MARY HRBACEK, November 2022

Tenri Cultural Institute presents a series of eleven recent acrylic on canvas paintings by European born Panamanian artist Rodney Zelenka; the exhibition is curated by Elga Wimmer and Dr. Thalia Vrachopoulos. It is an unexpected inclusive display of works that probe world power structures while they confront the recurring theme of poverty and suffering amidst migrant populations in the context of both spiritual and historical references. Zelenka is all but unique as a contemporary artist in his daring sensitive research into the painful cyclical challenges that confront humanity in its continual quest for survival, justice and spiritual growth.  He explores the traumas of individuals and groups, the aged, children and all displaced peoples who are in search of lives that foster dignity, caring, community and peace. The works of Francesco Goya come to mind. Zelenka intimates the common needs and desire for unity and fellowship that characterizes humanity everywhere. 

Formally Zelenka succeeds extraordinarily by merging realism with abstract non-descriptive pictorial space in a convincing and intriguing combination, in which he employs multiple gray brushstrokes to establish the symbolic essence of the mind. Gray is linked to moral ambiguity and impartiality; it is an unemotional color that suggests neutrality, indifference and conformity. His creative thoughts dwell on the quandaries faced by displaced peoples in the present day, that mirror history’s recurrent legends of wandering peoples; he focuses on more recent stories of populations that risk their lives to develop a better life in another country free of turmoil and armed combat. The symbolism of piles of red, yellow and blue baggage and belongings shapes the epitome of the universal wanderer. Their colors contrast with the gray environment, stressing the poignancy of their owners’ displacement.  Zelenka’s use of the primary colors in the context of black, white and gray hues emphasizes an eerie juxtaposition of contrasts.  Red is associated with blood and fire, with war, anger and aggression.  In Roman Catholic liturgy it is related to Christ’s passion, to love, blood, sacrifice and flames. Yellow symbolizes the sun, life, fire and heat. It can also denote cowardice or caution.  In China, the creator goddess Nii Gua is said to have fashioned the first humans from yellow clay.  Aborigines associate yellow ochre with the dead.  Blue is the sky color, which stands for divinity and purity. In India the meditational shape which is blue symbolizes air. Black recalls night and darkness. Gray it is a complex color that suggests relativity, that can moderate bright colors and unify a composition. 

Rodney Zelenka, Web Masters, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

Zelenka’s detailed realistic approach to the figures and their facial features accentuates the anguish their life experiences have etched into their faces. The gray striped lines in their clothing make reference to the Holocaust of WWII.  The watchful wary male face peering out of a manhole in the painting of the same name may signify the only place he could find to survive. In “Black Vultures and Red Snapper” the people and birds heading towards a ship packed with human belongings suggests a “Noah’s Ark” in which only some of the endangered are saved.  In “Waiting has a Price” the line of refugees who may have survived the Holocaust observe what awaits them, with reserved but hopeful expressions.  The piece represents all humanity who have endured terrible traumas, but have persevered in hopes of a resettlement.  The “Migration Ball” painting seems to depict a bundle of belongings that references the Myth of Sisyphus, who pushed a rock uphill only to have it fall down in perpetuity. All notions of genuine hope seem questioned.  In the mesmerizing piece “Celestial Power,” a “hand of destiny” interacts with a line of Rorschach ink spots, whose meaning is subjective and uncertain; the hand seems to oppose the pale spider, said to be linked to the moon goddess, who controls fate. In the Old Testament, spider webs indicated easily destroyed entities and signaled hypocrisy and evil intentions. The presence of spiders in some of these works calls attention to their characteristic activity, which is weaving their webs.  Weaving is viewed as a somewhat magical practice linked to the “creation of life.”  It is associated with the notion of fate, in which the web of life or thread of life is spun. The painting suggests life’s uncertainty amidst the destructive, devious influences that often intrude on our thoughts and decisions.  

The artist looks at the terrible human impulses and compulsions that forge the drive for power and fuel the quest for universal control. In the “Web Masters,” Zelenka employs a mind-bubble of massed belongings to ascribe responsibility for the migration and its attendant immigration on world leaders, including Queen Elizabeth, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. Zelenka explores the consequences and repercussions for those who endure and combat racial prejudice.  The ironic piece “Martin Luther’s Dream Come True” displays a happy looking figure of Martin Luther King as he faces a cherry tree growing horizontally off a mountainside. The short-lived cherry blossoms symbolize fallen warriors, who died young as did MLK.  In Japan, the cherry blossom is one of the “Three Beauties of Nature,” which represent life’s transience.  The swarm of butterflies, associated with the soul, is linked to sleep and death. 

Rodney Zelenka, Colors and Black and White, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

Zelenka’s use of the Rorschach ink blot implies that we assign to life what we project onto it, as the neutral ink blot has no set meaning. It is a highly personal way to interpret events of history that may have little ultimate or absolute significance. The baggage and belongings loom over the heads of the world leaders, whose smiling faces belie the harsh realities of the world they control.  Their lack of effective action is indicative of the very weight and impossibility of solving the problem of humanity in flux, in search of a country at peace to accept them. There seems to be a surge in the number of countries pulled apart by strife and violence, at a terrible price for their non-combatant populace.  

Ironically, the very forces of hatred and violence that incite a diaspora are again provoked in new lands by the incursion of new inhabitants. The contradictions and challenges faced by humanity seem to never end; the places and peoples change but the human dynamic remains the same, and often unresolved. Zelenka has created a series that convincingly explores these fraught human issues with intelligence and empathy. His compassionate images highlight the frailty of the human predicament and leave us wondering about the next chapter he will initiate in his art. WM

Mary Hrbacek

Mary Hrbacek is an artist who has been writing about art in New York City since the late 1990s. She has had more than one hundred reviews published in The M Magazine/The New York Art World, and has written in print and on-line NY Artbeat.com, Artes Magazine, d’Art InternationalCulture Catch.com and Whitehot Magazine. Her commentary spans a broad spectrum, from the contemporary cutting-edge to the Old Masters. 

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