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Stronger Than Will, 2004
Acrylic on canvas
© Zsofia Otvos 2004

Zsofia Otvos: Instincts and Expressions

May 12 - June 2, 2006

Parts Unknown Gallery
645 W. 18th St.
Chicago, IL 60616
tel.: 312-492-9058
hours: Sat 12p-5p

The twenty-three paintings in Zsofia Otvos: Instincts and Expressions are an expressive, affectionate look at character in its many guises, the many lineaments of form and personality the human creature takes on. From the explosive laugh of an old woman in the marketplace to the subtle relaxation of the body suggestive of a moment of utter comfort, the artist reveals an enchanting, instinctive perception of the way posture, gesture, and facial expression all combine to reflect a state of mind. These works spring from a deep delight in character, one can see that in the sympathy of the lineaments she gives them; and they come as well from an observant eye. Gentle and genuine, often humorous, this is an affectionate look at humanity in its many moods, from exuberant excess to moments of solitary reflection.

There is a telling compassion in all these works, a vision which encompasses broadly-drawn characters and subtle states of mind with equal ease. Her characters, the artist noted at the gallery, are imagined; only one painting here was done as a portrait, and even this was an inspiration rather than a strict likeness. A trio of works were drawn from imaginary individuals the artist imagined would inhabit a farmer's market she knew from her native Hungary. Big Mouth Woman (acrylic on canvas: 2005), Incredible Outburst (acrylic on canvas: 2005), I Just Don't Get It (acrylic on canvas: 2005) are three individuals of tremendous character. Together the figures form a vignette in three separate portraits. The hefty female in Big Mouth Woman with eager eyes and open mouth grabs attention to tell her story: gossip, perhaps, about someone she saw at the marketplace, some deal she was able to haggle, or simply a particularly savory anecdote bursting to be told. Her crony in Incredible Outburst responds with a cackling, uncouth burst of laughter, entire body reacting with uncontrollable mirth. A third elderly companion in I Just Don't Get It shrugs with hands to the sky, completely mystified. Their broadly-drawn reactions are exaggerated to intensify the effect, but do so without tipping over into caricature, for caricature wields an element of mockery, and Otvos's works are sympathetic to human experience. In them there is an idealism of soul, the feeling that despite life's contradictions, all will work out. Accompanying this is a realism of figure. Breasts sag and droop, the body grows either gaunt or shapeless with age, hair has whitened and gone frizzy -- and it is all rejoiced in as part of living, and lovingly observed.

The artist's mannered elongation of the figure is a peaceable distortion which allows her to amplify gestures and enhance the statement. Long arms, often bare, are as expressive as the eloquent hands with their knobbed knuckles, and in fact the artist well captures how the entire articulation of the body participates in expressing the mood of the subject. Her portrayals show attention to the ways in which the body's twist or the minute turn of a hand reveal a state of mind. The mental agitation of Anxiety (acrylic on canvas: 2004) is as much as part of the tautness implied in the twist of the figure's body as the tense expression, while in Quietly Breathing (acrylic on canvas: 2004) the evocation of a moment of blissful comfort expresses itself in the looseness of the hands as well as in the tilt of the shoulders, like a cat cuddling itself into a blanket.

Loosely-placed strokes model these figures against backgrounds of shimmering color, itself a component of creating the mood of each piece, and most subtle in Visitors (acrylic on canvas: 2004) with its muted palette of black and white enlivened with touches of ochre and green. In Visitors the female subject stands facing a light-filled window in a dim empty room. Color is balanced between lights and darks; a restrained economy of detail in the background and the black garment focuses attention on the face and hands. The hands themselves all but stand alone as a gesture. Her right hand just barely caresses the wood of the window sill, as if she were balanced on the tips of her fingers in one breathless, ethereal touch, and might float up like thistledown; the position of both hands in relation to one another is open, but not fully, giving a sense of indecision. The straining of the head focuses attention up and out on whatever might be seen through the window. Visitors infuses its silence with a sense of breathless expectation. The predominance of black is no accident: the artist noted that she was working on the theme of death. This is her statement, one redolent with wonder, its silence infused with a sense of breathless expectation.

At times, Otvos's expressiveness calls to mind the more sympathetic renderings of Daumier in observing his human fellow-creatures. What gives these paintings their sweetness is a gentle and profound affection for humanity's characters. From broadly-drawn characters to the tiniest of gestures, the artist reveals the ability to model human experience. This is the vision of a keen observer of the way the body reflects the personality within, and, as well, the insights of an individual herself possessed of boundless delight in human nature, with all its physiques and foibles.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

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