“Vivarium”: Mary Lou Zelazny

at Carl Hammer Gallery

by Bruce Thorn


“Vivarium” is Mary Lou Zelazny’s fifth solo exhibition at the Carl Hammer Gallery. Zelazny has always possessed a unique style, an engaging combination of painting and collage that, while supported by recognizable objects and figures, veers deftly towards abstraction, now more than ever. The new work marks noticeable changes in subject matter and methods.

Earlier presentations have focused on floating thoughts and associations that help form personal identity and the interior worlds of the mind. Those works had much in common with surrealism and cubism, slicing and dicing figures, objects and vanishing points while embracing minutiae, intensity and anxiety.


Mary Lou Zelazny, Motes, 2017, acrylic, oil and collage on canvas 44x59”. Image courtesy of the artist and Carl Hammer Gallery


By contrast, “Vivarium” offers uncluttered landscapes and floral still lifes in pared-down compositions, where the fun and energy also happen in negative space, belonging to the surrounding air as much as to the trees and flowers on display.

With fewer narrative elements involved than in past works, Zelazny offers idyllic botanical stages where figure and ground attempt to melt into one flux of energy.

Flowers and trees are composed as if they are subjects for portraiture. Their use as protagonists serves as a basic design device or matrix upon which Zelazny celebrates color, movement and an unbridled enthusiasm for life.

Such a practice evokes many recent works by Richard Hull, which have involved the basic design of a horse’s tail as a point of departure for painterly exploration, or Don Baum’s simple house constructions, which served as starting points for his fluid reveries.

Zelazny works through an eclectic plethora of art historical influences with a confidence devoid of second-guessing. Comparing her to other Chicago artists is on point; it’s the city where she was born, raised, educated and has spent most of her life.


Mary Lou Zelazny, The Eyed Tree #7, 2017, acrylic, oil and collage on canvas 62x46”. Image courtesy of the artist and Carl Hammer Gallery


The semi-abstract combination of collage with painting reminds one of Ray Yoshida, the iconic professor who taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1959 to 2005. Zelazny’s dense layering of content brings to mind Paul Lamantia’s compulsive over-painting and crowding. As with many Chicago artists, one might also trace Zelazny’s fondness for getting lost in labor-intensive details back to Ivan Albright.

The landscapes in “Vivarium” are all inspired by walks along the Des Plaines River on the Northwest Side of Chicago, where Zelazny has long enjoyed the practice of plein air landscape painting, producing straightforward, small scenes on location. This interest has until now kept a safe distance from the more complex works shown at her exhibitions. “Vivarium” attempts to bring this disparate love into her mix of major ambitions.

Zelazny’s method of collage successfully fits the content of the new work. In the past, she cut and rearranged found printed matter. Many of those components were not archival and have faded or changed coloration over the years. By 2011’s “The Cake Lady Returns,” she was reprinting found images with more archival Epson inks. This time around, most of the collage elements are handmade with acrylic paints using a loose, gestural, abstract monotype process similar to Max Ernst’s frottage and decalcomania. These dancing brushstrokes are the only occasion where Zelazny shows no fear of complete, non-representational abstraction.

One particular work follows the artist’s previous direction, and that is Motes (2017), a claustrophobic exploration that includes a female figure lying on her back underneath a tree and stereoscopically rising up towards an aqueous blue sky that is somehow bathed in daylight, while contemplating little specks that float through the air, captured, like spider threads, in sunbeams.

Figures, branches, butterflies, birds, bees and dandelion puffballs all look as if they inhabit a sea world’s existential vortex. Even in a complex picture like Motes, movement and gesture lead to focal points and bring unity to the deconstructive nature inherent with collage, resulting in a détente somewhere between frenzy and calm.

 As a colorist, Zelazny also achieves détente between a desire to shout and an inclination for silence. The pale, demure blues and greens that bathe The Eyed Tree #7 seem to ward off more flamboyant possibilities insinuated by the presence of cadmium reds and greens through the specks of rose, violet, turquoise and alizarin lurking in the monotype foliage. An almost paint-by-number attention is given to reflections in the flaccid pond ripples. Distance in the landscape is indicated simply as warm yellow-green.

Two floral still lifes are also noteworthy: Beaded Echo and The Burlington Bequest (both 2016) each present a vase of flowers and play with the dichotomy between modern and academic painting. The flowers in both are mostly abstractions and monotype segments, but in The Burlington Bequest, one flower out of the large bouquet, perhaps a Maximilian sunflower, is painted in a naturalistic style. It blends right in with hardly a notice. Heavy flowers droop down to the table, and the weightiness of the bouquet seems to be the real subject. Beaded Echo contrasts a naturalistically-rendered vase and tablecloth with a happily slap-dashed rendering of flowers.


Mary Lou Zelazny, The Blackeyed Tree #2, 2017, acrylic,

oil and collage on canvas 48x56”. Image courtesy of

the artist and Carl Hammer Gallery


Blackeyed Tree #2 gets as close to non-representational abstraction as possible without losing the subject altogether. A nocturnal tree is illuminated by distant stars. Branches bow low to the ground, where darkness devours shadows. That one solitary tree peeking out of the night becomes a conversation, a display of pyrotechnics that both speaks and listens.


Bruce Thorn is a Chicago based painter and musician. He has degrees in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a Contributing Editor to the New Art Examiner.


Mary Lou Zelazny, Beaded Echo, 2016, acrylic, oil and collage on canvas 46x36”. Image courtesy of the artist and Carl Hammer Gallery



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