In disIntegration, Michele Zalopany’s realistic pastel paintings, some in color, some black and white, chronicle the birth and death of the American Dream—in parallel Black and White varieties--in her home town of Detroit, from it’s inception in the boom years of World War II, to it’s last gasp in the deadly riots of 1967. It was a dream that was dogged from the very beginning by racial strife, and bookended by two incidents of racial violence, each with its own particular character reflective of its time.
We hadn’t originally meant to attend the opening, or, actually we had, but it had slipped our minds. Debbie and I were on way out of the Chelsea to get some dinner, when we ran into a couple from the hotel. They said they were going to Michele’s show, and they had their car there, so we caught a ride over with them. We figured we could munch on some cheese and crackers and thus stave off hunger for the half-hour or so it took to see the show. (Opening night photos courtesy of Linda Troeller, L to R - Ed Hamilton, Debbie Martin, David Remfry, Lothar Troeller)
But once we got there, predictably enough, we ran into a lot of our friends from the hotel, and so we ended up talking to them for quite some time. I kept looking around for the cheese and crackers, or grapes, apple slices, hell, anything, the lettuce plate-liner that you’re not supposed to eat, but apparently the spread was in a different room.
The gallery was crowded, and I was about ready to pass out from hunger, so I didn’t get a real good look at the art. When I finally got a chance to talk to Michele, I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say at the time. But I wanted to say something positive, so I complimented a nearby painting.
“Oh thank you,” Michele said graciously.
“That one’s from an earlier show!”
So I really put my foot in my mouth there. I decided it was best not to say anything more. All I could think about was getting something to eat. Where were those damn cheese and crackers? I think I would have even guzzled some wine at that point--though I stopped drinking a while back—but I couldn’t find any of that either.
We went back on the weekend, when we could get a better look at the paintings. The first thing you see on entering the gallery is a larger than life black and white painting of a police line-up. Three Black men and three Black women stand staring into the camera, their faces animated by looks ranging from surprise, to resignation, to fear. But the most salient feature of the painting is the people’s clothes, for these people clearly aren’t bums or underworld figures, but seem instead to be solid working class citizens, dressed up for church. It’s quite striking when you realize this—something that you may not have immediately noticed. In fact, you may have already formed an impression of the people, perhaps based on their race, and the new realization forces you to confront the sources of that impression (which may be a deep-seated prejudice) within yourself.
The painting, entitled Line Up, is based on a photograph from 1943, the year of the Belle Isle Bridge riot, in which groups of Blacks, angered by lack of decent housing, squared off against equally murderous bands of Whites who feared that the newly arrived southern Blacks were taking away their jobs on the assembly line. In fighting across the city, 34 were killed and nearly 700 injured.
On the opposite wall, a smaller though equally remarkable painting of a black hand protruding from the rear window of a police car, serves, coupled with the larger painting, to bracket the exhibit. Police Car, in color to underscore the more recent time period, is an image drawn from the 12th Street riot of 1967. This riot, even more deadly than the 1943 troubles, with 43 dead and 467 injured, had been exacerbated by white flight to the suburbs and the subsequent overcrowding and redlining of the inner city slums. What I find most striking in this image is that the black hand is actually one of the lighter things in the painting, and its lightness serves to underscore the truly ominous blackness of the police car and the policemen who sit in the front seat, shrouded in deepest shadow. While we may be inclined to relegate the black and white Line Up to the distance past of our collective memory, the realistic colors of Police Car draw up back toward the present, imparting to the image a greater urgency and immediacy.
Many of Michele’s paintings exhibit this same subtle poetry: at first glance you take in the scene, and then, upon more reflective viewing, you’re suddenly hit with a small, striking detail that throws the whole painting into relief, imparting to it a deeper meaning and significance. You see a painting of a cozy suburban house, Michele’s childhood home, it turns out—and then you see the bars on the windows. Or there is a painting of a woman—Michele’s mother--her face smiling, her arms raised in celebration of the fulfillment of the American Dream—yet she’s standing in some sort of industrial structure that looks like a large drain pipe. Similarly, a black and white painting of the Belle Isle Bridge, scene of the 1943 riots, presents even through the gray, overcast pall a charmingly pastoral scene—and then in the background, scarcely noticeable at first, a smokestack rises menacingly, hinting at the dawning conflict. Michelle’s paintings are rather like haiku, where the scene is set in the first two lines, and then in the third there is movement, complication, challenge, the emergence of meaning. In perhaps my favorite image, Marvin Gaye, in slick, black vinyl raincoat against a rain-damp background, is shown smiling, and you think, well, he represents one of the few black people who “made it” in America—but then you notice that he’s looking slightly bemused, as if he sees clearly what’s goin’ on, but can’t quite believe it, it’s just too absurd.
Michele came of age against the backdrop of these two violent episodes: the first, years before her time, nonetheless coloring and informing the world of her childhood; the second, ocurring just as she arrived on the cusp of adolescence, shattering the fragile order that had been cobbled together in the ensuing years. It’s clear that she has thought about these issues deeply, and come to a point in her life where she is now able to marshal the quiet power of her art to make a definitive statement on racism and the hollowness of an American Dream that does not extend to all equally. Her method reveals what realism can do, that it’s not just a competitor of photography. There’s an emphasis that she is able to achieve through a tight disciplined control of her method: by focusing so painstakingly on the real, she seems to have arrived at a meditative state that enables her to reveal what’s beneath the surface veneer of an image, valorizing the source of a hidden significance that was hitherto diffuse and nebulous in the original photographs from which she worked, tricking out the emotional content that lay dormant in the bare earth of her source material. For perhaps, as Wittgenstein said, “The world is all that is the case,” but, oh, when you look at it really, really closely, maybe that’s not quite true, or not at all. The devil, as they say, is in the details. (Ed Hamilton)
[Michele’s show, disIntegration, runs through October 7 at Esso Gallery on 26th St. in West Chelsea]