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by N. F. Karlins
|"Malcah Zeldis, Folk Artist: A Retrospective," May 7-Aug. 31 at the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, 55 Fifth Avenue (at 12th Street), New York, N.Y. 10011.
Think explosive colors and people, people, people. There is wildness in the painting retrospective of self-taught artist Malcah Zeldis, organized by the Yeshiva University Museum on 16th Street (a new location) and actually on view at the gallery of the Cardozo School of Law a few blocks south. Zeldis' vigorous works claim in paint each part of her life -- her family, Jewish faith, fantasies, and the very real happenings in the world that disturb or exhilarate her.
I first met Malcah Zeldis more than 20 years ago when she was selling her paintings at an outdoor fair in Brooklyn. Since then, her art has been celebrated in about a hundred group and solo gallery and museum shows, but the current "Malcah Zeldis, Folk Artist: A Retrospective" is the largest exhibition to date devoted to her oils.
Zeldis is feisty enough to tackle serious topics like the Holocaust, the Mai Lai Massacre, the life of Lincoln, her life as a wife and the pain of divorce. She is fun-loving enough to paint all her favorite movie stars (her Marilyn and Andy and Liz and Burton are especially wonderful) and mad enough to include herself in pictures of her idols, who range from Anne Frank to Charlie Chaplin.
She fills each painting to the brim, often incorporating personal details when not appearing herself. In Zeldis's Gas Station, the Bright Window Cleaning truck is a tribute to her father, who owned a cleaning business in Detroit, where she grew up in near-poverty. Her flattened shapes fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and always make me think of Stuart Davis.
Zeldis can capture the hubbub of a Brooklyn street scene, like in Gas Station, or the sweep of a baseball game, as in her portrait of Roberto Clemente in action. She is equally adept at lively multi-patterned interiors with her parents, children and pets. And how can you not admire someone who takes the tired theme of the Peaceable Kingdom and uses it to bring together Moses, Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Harpo Marx and a huge cast of supporting characters, including the artist with her palette sitting under a tree?
While there are several paintings of Anne Frank, Lincoln and many on Biblical and Jewish themes in the show, Zeldis has also done drawings in goauche on other topics. Many have been used to illustrate award-winning children's books. These and her perky nudes (oils and drawings) are not in the exhibition. Yet this survey covers plenty of territory in the career of this distinctive American talent.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.