Deborah Oropallo’s “Tale Spin” at Gallery 16 in San Francisco is a big, bold show of female fairy-tale characters and other alluring archetypes—Snow White, Goldie Locks, the French maid and the Catholic schoolgirl, among others. Each of these collaged pieces amounts to an almost life-size full figure or portrait, comprising layered pieces of sheer material, each with a part of a figure printed on it. The figure is made up of about 10 sourced images, sourced from costume websites, which are assembled and mounted on paper to form a single woman. Gas masks and bondage accessories also appear-these are characters facing today’s world.
The 56-year-old, Berkeley-based Oropallo addresses each new body of work, as a series, distinctly different from previous work. “It’s not just searching for the new; it’s building on the old,” Oropallo told A.i.A. during a recent tour of her show. “As a painter you are painting on the shoulders of everyone who came before you, and all of the work you have seen and made in the past 30 years—that’s in every piece.”
In 2009, she made the “Wild Wild West.Show,” an exploration of cowgirl imagery. The 2008 “Guise” series, featured in a solo exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, comprised prints that melded 17th- and 18th-century male portraits with images of women modeling lingerie.
In this latest work, Oropallo deftly updates age-old tales, a theme Oropallo has treated previously. The “Guise” series demonstrates the similarities in poses between her subjects, begging questions about portrayal of power and how it differs between the sexes. Fortified (2011) shows an adult Rapunzel. With her braided hair tied like a rope-ladder down the front of her body and shiny black gloved arms encircling her head, this modern woman is going to protect and save herself.
Uniforms and costumes are deployed for their relationships to gender and power. The interest stems from Oropallo’s childhood, she explained, including memories of her uncle’s grand presence in full Navy garb, as well as her experience wearing the traditional blue-and-green uniform to Catholic school for years.
Oropallo grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, and started making art at a young age. But it wasn’t until she started the fine art graduate school program at UC Berkeley, where she earned her MFA, that she got her first formal art training, studying under esteemed Bay Area Figurative painter Elmer Bischoff. Shades of those early self-teaching, however, continue to be visible in her work today.
“I actually think of paint-by-numbers paintings as the original conceptual paintings… They have a prescribed beginning and end,” said Oropallo in an interview for her 2001 midcareer retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art. “This has been in my work since I was a kid. I copied things out of how-to books, always using this type of methodology.”
Oropallo’s work is structured according to a modular, graphic, Pop ethic. She used to often work with silk-screened images or patterns, all sourced from photographs. For the 2003 series “Replica,” she arranged repeating depictions of duck figurines for Spill, a toy suburban tract house for Free House. For Oropallo’s 2005 “Stretch” pieces, she digitally pushed, pulled, and stretched, images to the verge of being unrecognizable. What remained was their contemporaneity.