Dominion and Frailty
Tenri Cultural Institute
New York, NY, USA
Curated by Elga Wimmer and Dr. Thalia Vrachopoulos
November 17 through December 22, 2022
By MARK BLOCH, December 2022
This is an exhibition that depicts most of its figures dressed in grey striped uniforms reminiscent of concentration camps, yet it feels all too contemporary, even futuristic. It looks the way life can feel these days: alienating, perplexing and disturbing in ways hauntingly familiar—with none of us quite sure what to make of what we see.
The work of the artist, Rodney Zelenka from Panama, a self-described observer of human behavior and student of the human soul, is well-crafted and powerfully expressed. But are his post-abstractionist washes in fields of grey on grey with white dabs, brushstrokes and big chunks of paint over them helpful for what ails us? Thick, lush, painterly light grey backgrounds hug the edges of the content in the foreground, creating sensuous edges from the layers underneath but that emerge out of the background to grab our eye. It is that helpful content where Zelenka’s true palette hits us. His selections come from a toolkit of everyday subject matter in which people symbolize ideas while objects are proxies for people.
Zelenka suggested himself that as his work has evolved, cheery objects have become blatant stand-ins for downcast people. Nazi lampshades and piles of shoes and eyeglasses from the camps inspired the way his current canvasses grapple with unspeakable sadness and frustration: with force evoked not only by precipitation, trees, horizons, hills, bodies of water, and boats, but also discarded tires, green bottles, blue trunks, rolled up red yoga mats, brown chairs, yellow hats and orange, red and brown footwear. Almost cartoonish suitcases, duffel bags and even beds elicit feelings of involuntary motion, departures, arrivals, i.e. displacement.
Cranes and turkeys, fishes--with skin on and off--and threatening spiders further punctuate Zelenka’s repository of personal hieroglyphs, a mysterious language of unresolved pain. In three of the works his colorful objects cheerfully painted in a ball of primary colors menacingly dominate metaphysical landscapes. In “Waiting Has a Price,” featuring a diverse line of international immigrants with bar codes on the chests of their drab uniforms, and in “Black Vultures and Red Snapper,” where a pair of Third World males wade toward an overpacked boat with tattered, frayed black flags, a bulbous pile of the vibrant objects are piled as ridiculously as was the back of the truck of the Beverly Hillbillies. In “Migration Ball” suffocating a body underneath, they pack the showy punch of a Covid-19 molecule. Finally in “Web Masters,” one of the standouts of this exhibition, the objects do not form a sphere but a T-shape, perhaps standing for a tornado, that attempts to touch down between two of the awkwardly painted familiar characters smiling and enjoying each others company—Queen Elizabeth, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Barak Obama. Despite their striped suits and the late Queen’s variegated pinstriped dress, it is not clear if these comic book characters are victims or villains.
Indeed, the artist’s most powerful subjects are famous and curiously ambiguous. Martin Luther King giddily confronts his dream— a sideways tree of pleasant pink blossoms while elsewhere, the Pope ritually motions to a bear about to pounce on some unsuspecting fish. Whether young or old, male or female, with faces that are anonymous or famous and with their skin tones painted in, or left black and white, these personages, European, Asian, Middle Eastern or African, seem as placeless and timeless as they do estranged from anything affirmatively good. A sense of numbness overshadows the radiant hues of the eye-catching objects.
These are works about what happens when we treat each other inhumanely. As they did during World War II, power relations, inequality, damaged prospects, and socioeconomic pressures that manifest as wealth, poverty, and unevenly spread gaps between them, threaten our social order. Humankind’s value of the individual must be preserved by any means necessary. Perhaps this is more than what can be achieved by an art exhibition, but asking the right questions can help. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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