Inside and out

For a guy who’s lived his life so large, it’s a bit of a surprise that his artwork comes so small. Victor Elmaleh graduated from UVA in architecture in 1942, but spent only a few years designing houses before moving into international business. Evidently his career did not soak up so much time that he couldn’t also moonlight as a painter, something he has done since the ‘60s. June’s show in the Campbell Hall Public Gallery is an exhibit of his work– more or less recent offerings from the ‘ 90s through last year.
Elmaleh’s paintings are small, delicate, abstract, and almost precious– like a pretty object you might find on the sidewalk and want to keep, even though you don’t know what it is. Almost without exception, Elmaleh works with a very small canvass. That his paintings often come bordered with large frames and extra white space only emphasizes the scale.
The paintings themselves betray Elmaleh’s architecture training in their near-obsessive exploration of layer and boundary. He begins by carefully layering blocks of watercolor, playing games with its unique properties. In one piece, for example, Elmaleh exploits the ability of watercolor to be sharp and bold or soft and cloudy. A strip that runs from the upper middle of the canvas down through the bottom edge appears to be in focus, as everything that falls outside this strip is blurry, faded color.
Elmaleh’s little paintings come loaded with color, in schemes ranging from fleshy pinks and reds to bright rainbow hues to moody browns and greens. And his wild, kinetic shapes seem like the perfect place for all this color. Still, it’s quite clear that this is an architect’s mind at work. As fanciful as each piece is, they are all bounded or self-contained in one way or another, whether Elmaleh places his designs in little boxes, connects them with diagonals, or locates them in the center of the canvas with well-established borders. Even in the deceptively organized designs themselves, Elmaleh seems most interested in what’s inside and what is not.

Victor Elmaleh’s “Works,” an exhibit of watercolors, runs through the end of August in UVA’s Campbell Hall Public Gallery, Second Floor. 982-2921 or derry@virginia.edu

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