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Deborah Oropallo @ Catharine Clark

Ample, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 94"
In Milk Made Deborah Oropallo uses her now-familiar method of photo-based digital painting to penetrate the reality of food production – witnessed from the vantage point of a dairy farm she and her husband, Michael Goldin, operate in Novato.  For an artist who once transformed 50-gallon drums of toxic chemicals into things of beauty, the distance travelled couldn’t be greater.  In another sense, Milk Made stands a kind of homecoming, since during her childhood in New Jersey, Oropallo’s father and uncle operated a poultry farm.  
Cattle Class, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 60"

The exhibit consists of mostly large-scale canvases and paper collages depicting cows, pigs and chickens. Given the artist’s explorations of gender identity and female power roles in pop culture, one might be tempted, at a distance, to see this show as critique of meat eating or mechanized agriculture.  It is neither.  Rather, it demonstrates, without preaching, that the food on your plate was once meat-on-the-hoof.  To drive home that point, she and Goldin staged a dinner party in the gallery where attendees ate meat produced on their farm surrounded by pictures of the activities that enabled it.

What makes Milk Made notably different is that the works are more painterly than any Oropallo has done in years.  They evince the rich tonality of 17th century Dutch and Flemish pastoral painting while asserting their origins in two recent series, Heroine (2012) and Wild, Wild West (2009), in which the artist transfigured female bodies with a vaporous, shot-through quality that carries over into this series.  They also echo Guise (2007), the series in which Oropallo grafted female features and clothing onto portraits of 17th century aristocrats, creating a convincing view of androgyny. 
Against that history, farm animals might seem like an odd choice.  But it feels right.  There’s an almost mimetic relationship between Oropallo’s work process and the act of butchering animals for food.  Like their immediate predecessors, those in Milk Made begin with digital photographs.  These she slices apart in Photoshop and reassembles by selectively printing “layers” onto canvas, which she paints with a brush and a spray gun, adding or withholding visual information as she sees fit. The integration of the two activities – analog painting and digital printing — is tighter than ever, and the disjunctions, where they appear, are intentional; they signal

Milk Men, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 94"

to viewers that these are no ordinary pastoral scenes. Evidence lies in bursts of shredded pixels that litter the canvases, looking like bits of scrambled video streams.  They keep us rooted, however uneasily, in the hybrid nature of Oropallo’s practice, which, in its mix of messiness and calculation, brushwork and spray-painting, has close connections to Albert Ohlen whose abstract works also contain farm animals. 

In Milk Men, for example, the artist grafts a butcher-shop diagram onto a cow’s haunch, revealing the exposed flesh as cuts of beef destined for segmentation, valuation and consumption.  The scene is staged against a backdrop that looks as if it were made of cowhide, splotchy and mottled, like a Holstein’s.  Cattle Class shows a cow beside a milking machine.  The animal explodes volcanically into two streams, one blood, the other milk; they merge into a dark sky that may remind you of El Greco.  Others, like Ample, in which a cow and calf are portrayed as a semi-transparent objects, lend the picture an apparitional quality, connecting this body of work to the above-mentioned series.  Such digital sleights of hand put viewers in a limbo state: an apt analog for the virtual experience, and a longstanding feature of a practice in which means and message intertwine.   
Milk Made depicts, with remarkable clarity and equanimity, the romantic and visceral aspects of farming.  The collages drive us into the details via close-up views: of udders, eggs, lemons, feathers, bovine faces, and only occasionally, headless birds.  Printed on swatches of paper and affixed dichotomously to paper backings, they hang unframed, curling out, from the walls in marked contrast to weight and stature of the paintings.  They stand as elegant visual diaries of an artist who is literally up to her elbows in blood, milk, and manure.  Oropallo, now a milkmaid, is painting what she knows.  The main difference now is that she’s doing it as much as with paint as with pixels: a move that further cements her stature as one of the Bay Area’s most stimulating and provocative artists. 
Deborah Oropallo: “Milk Made” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through May 31, 2014. 

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