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FOLK HEROINE
by N.F. Karlins
 
"Malcah Zeldis: Retrospective," Feb. 10-Mar. 22, 2008, at Andrew Edlin Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.

Explosive color ignites each painting by the celebrated American folk artist Malcah Zeldis (b. 1931), whether her subject is her family and neighborhood life or Biblical stories and fantasies like Charlie Chaplin and Me and the drama and torment of The Holocaust.

Using flat patterns in a comic-book-like style, Zeldis celebrates her obsessions in compositions crammed with finely drawn details and buzzing with riotous patterning. How can you not love an artist who paints a major cityscape that features a billboard announcing "The Home of the Broasted Chicken?"

That work, City Hall (1988), does show a city hall building but most of the large oil is devoted to traffic-filled streets, crowded sidewalks and areas signage. Zeldis’ carefully calculated view, though distorted and charmingly cockeyed, organizes all the energy of the city into a vivid work so thick with incident that it cries out to be carefully "read" like a Renaissance painting.

In her retrospective at the Andrew Edlin Gallery in Chelsea, two dozen oils span Zeldis’ career from the 1970s to today. Malcah Zeldis was born in the Bronx, but raised in Detroit. Self-taught, she started to paint only in her 40s when she was living on a kibbutz for several years. She has made her home in New York since 1958.

I’ve known the artist and her work for many years and am glad to see so many of her oils. She’s noted for her gouaches, too, many of which have been used to illustrate children’s books. Here’s hoping that another show will explore that part of her oeuvre, but her oils -- exuberant, funny and poignant -- aren’t to be missed.

Zeldis wears her heart on her sleeve as she paints her own heroes repeatedly, though each iteration is unique. Among them are Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Martin Luther King, Jr., Anne Frank, Louis Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol. Her Anne Frank and the Annex (1982) and her close-up of Anne (2003) offer differing perspectives on one of her muses. 

Anne Frank also appears in one of Zeldis’ fantasy pieces, Peaceable Kingdom (1999). Visitors can also find Harpo Marx, Gandhi and Mother Teresa among the throng. The artist herself is sitting under a tree with a bouquet for them all.

Zeldis’ interior scenes are as filled as those of any traditional memory painter. Her Seder Table (2005) features members of her family. Rather than depicting an actual event, the artist has summoned all her kin spiritually and arranged them to her liking.

Malcah Zeldis has her own ideas of fairness. When she thought Marilyn Monroe should have an Oscar, she had Andy Warhol present her with one in a painting from 1975.

Passionate about social justice, her Holocaust (1981) is a searing statement, bursting with indignation, ratcheting up to hysteria.

Zeldis is also passionate about other things, like baseball. Her moral concerns meet the all-American game in Jackie Robinson (2006), a painting that is in this show, and in a series devoted to Hank Greenberg, which is not.

I could never understand how Zeldis manages the wild color combinations that she comes up with, but once you see them, their magic stays with you. This retrospective is an excellent chance to experience the eye-popping work of one of the country’s most popular artists.

While some self-taught artists, like Bill Taylor, Henry Darger and Martin Ramirez, have been absorbed by the art market, there are many more, like Zeldis, producing stunningly original and deeply humanistic work that have yet to be fully integrated into American art.

Let the discovery begin!


N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.



 



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