Deborah Phillips (Unresolved) 2005

Deborah Phillips, a longtime editor and reviewer of the visual arts, is currently based in San Francisco. 

Brazilian-born Silvia Poloto is an accomplished artist working in a range of visual disciplines. Based in San Francisco, she is known for her lively abstract canvases and mixed-media sculptures. While the Bay Area is her current home, Poloto continues to exhibit widely in the U.S., Europe, Brazil and Middle East ( Dubai and Jordan). 

Recognized for her dynamic compositions and color sensibility, Poloto exploits a vibrant visual vocabulary of boldness and subtlety. Her deftly handled juxtapositions unfold in rich, textured hues and expressive gesture. The result is a body of work characterized by equal amounts of surprise, playfulness and provocation. Her aesthetic choices engage the viewer on a visceral level.  

Increasingly, Poloto finds herself incorporating full-blown figurative imagery into the framework of her abstract compositions. Making the leap to representation, Poloto embraces form and symbolism, endowing her work with unexpected meaning and context. The spontaneous word play and flourishes of calligraphy in earlier paintings now give way to unfettered narrative opportunity and interpretation.  

The series, Unresolved, melds abstraction and image to surreal effect. Superimposing large-scale images of recognizable objects into the paintings provides fertile ground for storytelling. The work takes on intended and subconscious meanings, from the personal to the political. Each painting challenges and delights with their mix of emotion and humor.

It was three years ago in Brazil that Poloto had a middle-of-the-night revelation  that would ultimately change the way she works. It wasn’t until just this year, however, that she found a way to make the shift to imagery as defining characteristic of her work.

A tattered baby doll belonging to a friend, became the touchstone for change. At once vulnerable and repellent, the doll’s image took hold of the artist’s imagination. Incorporating painting, photography and digital technology, the first painting in the series opened up a gold mine of symbolic content. Thematic threads from one painting to another, creates a lively dialogue between the individual works.

A signal idea informs each painting. In Lies, Poloto pairs the doll with a Pinocchio puppet. In the finished work, Pinocchio appears as an encroaching shadow, looming toward the doll. Is her innocence in peril? Or, is she safe in his shadow? Benign and menacing overtones leave the viewer in suspense.

 In Unspoken for example,  a fish out of water finds himself silenced by means of a metal vise clamped onto his mouth. Centered in the stillness of the painting, the naturally silent creature is an ironic target for a free-speech crackdown. Held hostage, his gentle demeanor assumes the dimension of martyrdom.

 Worship refers to the famous Black Madonna — a powerful figure among South America’s faithful. As a child, Poloto found her grandmother ‘s fervor for the saint unnerving. Worship brings the uninitiated artist closer to the surrendering properties of faith. Enshrined in uncertain shadows of smoky grays and deep blacks, the Madonna shines forth as a magical presence imbued with life affirming accents of cerulean blue and bright red.

 An instrument of torture points the way to Penance in Poloto’s compressed composition. Density of form and color suggests dank dungeons and secret passageways. A spiked ball-and-chain of medieval manufacture still leaves plenty of room for the pain and the pleasure of self-flagellation and atonement.

 Two paintings address the ramifications of love in the 21st century. Plastic figurines blown up to represent a pair of brides and grooms in separate paintings titled Vows and Promises. Poloto’s nod to gay marriage contemplates larger themes of universal love and intimacy. Huddled together at their respective altars, these same-sex couples, with their backs to the viewer, seek legitimacy in an uncertain world.

 The over-scaled spool of thread and button in Couture is a fanciful response to high fashion. The artist cleverly ensconces these lowly tools of couture in a diptych that exalts the utility of these humble sewing necessities. 

 Cold hard cash comes up against deep, warm, crimson tones in the painting, Power. Squeezed into the red, this bankroll of U.S. currency wields its power for good and for ill. The life-blood of prosperity has its shadow life in the searing red tones of Poloto’s canvas. She reminds us that money may equal power, but at what price?

 In Seduction,  a photo-perfect tube of red lipstick stands front and center against a background of bright colors. The siren call of its treacherous allure cannot be ignored. Reminiscent of sixties-style Pop, Poloto’s lipstick comes with a steep price. It is seduction on a global level – from rampant greed to material obsolescence.

 A compilation of disparate abstract elements coalesces into an invincible barrier in Betrayal. Solid forms and fence-like elements are meant to repel the enemy, but they cannot ward off a large butcher blade that stabs the canvas, literally, in the back. Violence to the blood stained painting alludes to all manner of treachery.

 Conflict is a timely topic. Within a window-like frame, the artist has inserted a toy soldier to defend the painting’s internal landscape. In his tireless stance of preparedness, he stands ready to take on the enemy day after day without complaint or cynicism. The harsh reality of war need not impinge on his idealistic presence.

 Unlike the toy soldier in Conflict, the stolid silver spaceman of Quest journeys far beyond the realm of war-torn lands. Bygone heroes of early space exploration are remembered, but this space pioneer is on a spiritual quest for meaning in the universe. His journey transcends the personal in hopes of discovering cosmic truths.

 A large rimmed wheel with metal spokes symbolically points to destiny and fortune in the painting, Fate. Crystal gazing poses unseen consequences as Poloto’s wheel takes a spin into the future. Is it really fate or just wishful thinking?

 Exit, signified by a syringe that slashes diagonally across the painting’s red-hot interior, poses an uncomfortable dilemma: A syringe may save a life or take one away. It is associated with drug use and the deadly diseases of HIV and AIDS. One can make a clean exit or not. Poloto’s oversized syringe carries the weight of the world in its balancing act as the central image of a painting that considers the morbidity of no exit.

Deborah Phillips, a longtime editor and reviewer of the visual arts, is currently based in San Francisco.