"Powerless" by Deborah Oropallo

The show of new work by Deborah Oropallo at Gallery 16 in San Francisco (through April 30) expands her exploration of gender power, the symbolism of the uniform and the role of iconic imagery in shaping female identity. One to continually push conventions of image-making and composition, Oropallo again exceeds herself.

In her work over the past several years, Oropallo had delved into juxtaposing famous portrait poses of 17th- and 18th-century portrait paintings of powerful men with modern-day lingerie modeling (its startling how similar the poses are). Following that, in 2009, it was collaged, strong, sexy rodeo cowgirl imagery, again juxtaposing a strong male archetype with a strong, sexy female-type.

A fitting next step, this new series takes on the rich topic of female fairy-tale figures and vulnerable/sex-kitteny female Pop imagery: Little Bo Peep, Rapunzel, Wonder Woman, French maid, Snow White, the Catholic school girl, and Alice in Wonderland all make an appearance here.

But though the references are pretty obvious, they are altered with the inclusion of bondage or S&M references, gas masks, ski masks, and other less cute imagery. These works have greater edge than previous pieces. Oropallo is growing increasingly bold, and the results are viciously engaging. They are funny, creepy, strange, whimsical, and powerful, without falling into easy traps of feminist bitterness or clichéd comparisons. Taken one way, they are comparisons of equal opposites—sweet and innocent versus aggressive and violent—bringing to question which really holds the power and the reality of either, or both, of the fantasies (and whose fantasies are they, anyway?); taken another, they are a collapsing together, all at once, of the potential numerous identities that comprise any single human being. These are well thought out pieces that pose intriguing open questions.

From a visual standpoint, the work is drop dead striking. Most are large, measuring 60-by-44 inches. And they have an incredible sense of depth — the imagery is layered and collaged—almost to the point of appearing three-dimensional. The structure of the images gives them movement and life; Oropallo is a master of composition. And in that, she’s become a great manipulator of the manipulators, using the language of visual messaging to bring those very messages into question.

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