Sunday, October 24, 2010

Birch at Arthur Roger, Ninas at LeMieux

Featuring work made between 1978 and 2003, Willie Birch’s LOOKING BACK expo provides a fairly comprehensive sense of what this 67 year-old African American artist has been doing for the past few decades. It’s a journey that took him from the Magnolia housing project of his youth to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art among other institutions, with awards like a Guggenheim fellowship along the way. And if that sounds like heady stuff, Birch has always remained true to his roots, using his art to celebrate the culture of our back streets and their Afro-Caribbean vibe. Even his New York-period work vibrates with local looking colors, building on his more abstract pieces of the 1970s, which often read like a lexicon of glyphs from African fabric patterns. He took a turn toward folk art in the 1980s in works like COMMEMORATING THE ANCESTRAL BURIAL GROUND, above, a painting that evokes the ancient undercurrents that subtly inform local inner city life, and where the folksy style fits neatly with his folksy subjects. More recently, he reduced his palate to black, white and gray in works like EVOKING THE ORISHAS, left, which conveys the incantatory rhythms of a voodoo ritual. In art as in life, Willie Birch is a populist who celebrates the transcendent spirit of even his most prosaic subjects.
     Afro-Caribbean culture also profoundly influenced Paul Ninas (1903--1964), a white guy who was one of the more influential New Orleans artists of the mid-20th century. A Midwesterner who spent his early adult years in the West Indies, he found a similar culture in the New Orleans area, where he spent the rest of his life. In these works on paper, his drawings of Caribbean folk flow seamlessly into his later paintings like BACK BAY BILOXI, where staccato forms convey the primal rhythms of places where nature is strong and the natives are necessarily tough and resilient. ~Bookhardt

Willie Birch: LOOKING BACK, 1978--2003
Through October
Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999;
Paul Ninas: PAPER TRAIL, Works on Paper
Through October
LeMieux Galleries, 332 Julia St., 522-5988;