Dominion and Frailty
Born in Panama in the early 1950s, Rodney Zelenka came to America to study at Cornell University. There he majored in international politics and took courses in fine arts. He returned to Panama, and after working in several fields, he became a full-time painter. This past exhibition at the Tenri Cultural Institute of New York gallery, “Dominion and Frailty" was co-curated by Thalia Vrachopoulos and Elga Wimmer, the exhibition featured recent paintings and drawings of the artist. In this body of work we see the strivings of people in general, drawn as they are to dominion even as they exhibit the very human trait of frailty. Zelenka, now a mature artist, addresses this contrast in allegorical works encompassing a figurative treatment of human experience. His search for meaning has resulted in the presentation of major contemporary spiritual figures such as Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama. Embracing such iconic figures, who represent social justice as well as spiritual practice, Zelenka expresses his wish for a harmony that still evades us. His works usually take on an allegorical character, in which he implies that the difficulty of living and the need for transcendence appear to be interwoven, requiring the vision of devotional wisdom.
In Zelenka’s moving treatment of the Dalai Lama, in the painting named Knowledge from the Mountaintop (2020), the religious personage stands at the lower right in a red robe, with his right hand raised in a mudra, or symbolic hand gesture. He looks toward heaven, backed by an abstract fog of white. To the left is a gray mountain, composed of light gray strokes on a darker gray ground, on which there are a series of dark blue blots, which descend to the Dalai Lama himself. At the topmost left, we see a tiger with a salmon in his paw; other salmon are climbing the rock, although there is no water to be seen. The meaning of the imagery, outside that of the Dalai Lama, is esoteric; if the composition does illustrate a Buddhist tale, it is not one well known. Whatever the origins of the composition, it is clear that Zelenka means to portray knowledge–perhaps in the form of the blue splotches–as coming down from above. The image would likely be recognized all over the world, given that the Dalai Lama has become internationally known as a spiritual leader.
The composition Martin Luther King’s Dream Come True (2021) is very similar in style to the Dalai Lama painting. It depicts King in an attitude of prayer, with his hands clasped and looking upward. He wears a smile of religious contentment. In this work, too, the background behind him must refer to purity, consisting of white strokes on white. To his right is the same gray hill, on top of which we find a cherry tree in blossom. Both paintings evoke an otherworldly dimension, as given by King’s beatific expression and the Dalai Lama’s calm gaze upward. Although the values of both the Christian minister and the Buddhist monk were first established long ago, Zelenka aims to portray their virtues as absolutely contemporary; indeed, the artist wishes to keep the memory of great religious principles alive, as embodied in the two figures he has rendered. Again, in the Martin Luther King painting, the flowering tree’s symbolic meaning seems to be private in nature–a personal understanding held by Zelenka. Yet there is nothing more beautiful than a cherry tree in bloom in spring. It looks like Zelenka is merging the attraction of art with a strong piety.
Because Zelenka was born in Central America, but educated in upstate New York, he must have knowledge of two very different outlooks. He has chosen to work in a figurative manner, which would stand in contrast to much current work being made in America, which is often highly abstract or conceptual. Yet working realistically enables Zelenka to communicate with a specificity about worldly ideas and the promise of culture. His art does participate in dominion, in that it looks at subjects of high import and is meant to offer wisdom from a point of emotional strength. Yet that strength, or master, must be contrasted with the wisdom he portrays, in his portraits of the two great religious leaders. It may be Zelenka is suggesting wisdom can be retained only when it is linked to frailty, underscored by the limits of life. We recognize that King lost his life in the struggle for racial equality, while the Dalai Lama lost his country to the Chinese. So the verbal pairing that occurs in the title of this show implies that strength, private and public, is linked to vulnerability. This is not only a contemporary set of relations; it is a set that belongs to human experience across time.
In Zelenka’s painting In Colors and Black and White (2021), yellow Panamanian hats and briefcases nearly overwhelm the composition; they are placed on tables covered with red cloth. But the people existing among the hats and portfolios are described in black and white. An older man with a white beard is found crouching in the lower right; standing on the left are four people; they stand in striped clothing, and look like they are indigent. The many objects in the painting may suggest affluence, just as the compositional images of the poor would indicate the contrast between the wealthy and the dispossessed. But it is hard to determine. The title has no suggestion of a social or economic contrast; the painting could simply be an exercise in the contrast between bright colors and black-an-white tones. One of the interesting things about Zelenka’s art is that the imagery can refuse to cohere into a plausible content. This puts some responsibility for their meaning on his audience, whose members must decide what the works intend. By refusing, sometimes, to clarify, Zelenka directs his attention to the position of ignorance we must acknowledge, at times, as holding sway.
As strong as Zelenka’s paintings are, they can be eclipsed by his drawings. Gold Diggers (2022) features a slope made of gold leaf on the right, while to the left, in the middle of a night sky, is a mass of objects, drawn in black outline against a white ground. The items include a hat, a briefcase, a couple of chairs, and a bed–these are household items placed in the middle of space in darkness. Several rods extend from the mass, each ending in a globe with spikes. This work, like much of Zelenka’s art, might be characterized as being a bit surrealist; there is an arbitrariness to his design that links it to the movement, which specializes in the irrational. The household things are drawn exactly, but they are grouped together that makes no true sense. It is an image driven by an obscure sense of direction. In Waterhole for a Migrant (2020), a black youth is seen bent over while he drinks from a pool of water; on his back of his head, he bears the material accouterments of a comfortable life: the ubiquitous hat and briefcase, shoes, and a couple of rugs, all given different hues. Next to the youth, on the right, are two shoes rising above the water, supported by thin sticks. The contrast is sharp: the suggested poverty of someone young bearing objects whose cost would be beyond his means. Zelenka here creates an allegory of need and acquisition; the realism is not only formally severe but thematically as well. The composition is distressingly accurate about the abyss separating the affluent from the impoverished. Although this is not the first time such a point has been made, Zelenka illustrates very well the gap between those who have and those who do not.
Zelenka appears determined to construct a world in which art not only presents but also ameliorates suffering. His paintings of Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama underscore the possibility of public and private change, respectively. As someone who has returned to his native Panama, his connection to New York City would not be as close as those artists working in the city. But his distance from an increasingly complex art milieu has allowed him to work out a genuine independence in art. Zelenka’s work is self-determined in the sense that he relies on his own imagination. Beyond allegory and slight surreal bent, it is hard to characterize his work in a formal sense. The content, sometimes clear and sometimes not, even within the same work of art, dominates his efforts. It is also true that Zelenka, by virtue of his birth and in consequence of his education, belongs to two worlds. The complexity of his position provides him with an outlook, regularly spiritual in nature, that enables him to work with a high creativity. His works share a common ground in their contrast between spirituality and materialism. It is evident that Zelenka’s explorations describe the inevitable conflicts that occur in their relations.
- Jonathan Goodman, January 6, 2023
Images courtesy of the artist