Exacting, minute configurations have a logical place in today's world of electronic grids, but this repetitive ordering makes dreams all the more necessary.
Rodney Zelenka manages to touch on both these areas — compelling patterns and haunting fantasy - narrative - in his high-impact paintings that call attention to both technique and effect. Hybrids, really, they blend styles freely and also blend experiences of the real world with those of the imagination. Some elements are rational, while others are uneasy. Some are calm, while others are disturbing.
At times the urgency one feels seems to come from the power generated by the assertive patterns that have a major role in each work, but at other times the dominant sense of urgency comes from the human drama suggested by troubling, occasionally enigmatic scenarios. A homeless man may be depicted dreaming of a time when he was young and had a place to live, for example, or a deranged person may be shown telling his story to butterflies.
Most Zelenka canvases present tense situations. This may be overt, as it is when prisoners scream out from a crowded jail cell, or it may be more subjective, which is the mood of a seaside balcony scene depicting two female nudes, a cat and a mouse, each in their own isolation. To Zelenka, the games symbolized by cat-and-mouse play have parallels in the situation of women waiting for a prince charming. In another example of Zelenka's psychological symbolism, a two-headed figure expresses duality and the simultaneous pull of the mind in several directions. There is a special visual force in the way the artist places all these figures in their own tightly contained, almost cagelike or boxlike space. The way frustration becomes part of each theme has direct correspondences to life,
But open spaces are also important to some of Zelenka's conceptions, and contrasting the two approaches points to his fondness for reversals, or the unexpected. In the flat, expansive, all-over compositions there are usually creatures, such as fish, who use the large web configuration as their uninterrupted habitat. They are sudden players in an extraordinary, suspended time.
When fish are shown freely weaving their way through a bold, rigorously handled surface pattern the image fuels speculations about broader meanings or these complex, repetitive rhythms. There is the suggestion that such paintings symbolize a seamless, vast universe in which all creatures are in harmony. Implied, too, is the idea that the world is being observed through the experience of other beings. At times one also senses that fish forms are accentuating the dynamic movement inherent in the patterns. Feelings of velocity and churning are, oddly enough, in tune with the emotional content that Zelenka seems to be seeking through his art.
Those strict, flat, circular schemes that reinforce the psychological pressures in a Zelenka painting, offering no exit and no relief, are composed of tiny facets that are reminders of ancient mosaics. The multiunit designs have art-historical roots in the deep past, yet the way they insist on establishing order in the midst of chaos reflects a faith in the systemics that look forward to the 21st century. They also have an abstract quality that helps to make the settings nonspecific and thus gives them a broader scope.
Imposing scale heightens effects and allows the assertive rhythms to seem visually compelling. Often scale becomes a factor, too, in the relationship between figure and pattern, with the figure appearing to be dwarfed by the surroundings.
What could be regarded as askew is actually a universe that does not have to conform to conventional ideas.
Some of the most intriguing departures in art have been motivated by fantasy, and this certainly is the realm in which to place the Zelenka paintings.
Phyllis Braff She is an art critic for the New York Times. She is a former museum curator and has taught at several universities. Currently she serves as Vice-president for the International Association of Art Critics.
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