Sunday, June 30, 2013

Chalmatia at the Contemporary Arts Center

Where is Chalmatia? In the local geopsychic nomenclature, "Chalmatians" are residents of a certain city, Chalmette, in suburban St. Bernard Parish just east of New Orleans. It's a place that bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina and lost many residents, but in this CAC expo it's more like a state of mind. The work of Louisianian Daneeta Jackson and her Swedish expat partner Patrick Jackson, Chalmatia is a stream of consciousness, word and image narrative that depicts a fictionalized version of "a fractured landscape of broken strip malls, empty lots, and bare cement slabs that once supported a thriving community--a place largely defined by what’s no longer there." Like the Louisiana town in Walker Percy's dystopian novel Love in the Ruins, things have fallen apart here. People get by on nostalgia or make believe as their lives assume mythic qualities.

In a written account, a resident describes a girl with a luminous hula hoop, top, amid a row of ruined townhouses. "When I saw her on the slab I thought I was imagining things again... She only comes out at night." Nearby, Carmella is fixing up Mr. Ralph's old place. Mr. Ralph drowned in the storm while saving his three dogs, but Carmella "prayed his soul right up to heaven." And then there's  Destiny who, tired of playing in the ruins, went to work on Bourbon Street when she turned 18. Things are no longer dire in the real St. Bernard, and the Jacksons freely admit to poetic license. "Some of what you read in here is true," while other parts are "beautiful lies." But their stories, despite the local setting, have become more universal and it doesn't take much to read into Chalmatia the fate of places like Staten Island or other New York suburbs after hurricane Sandy, or El Reno, Oklahoma, in the wake of the big twister. Of late, climate change has become the new constant and we live in a land increasingly made up of survivors with their own tales to tell. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Chalmatia: A Fictional Place Down the Road: Mixed Media by Daneeta and Patrick Jackson, through Sept. 8, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Nina Schwanse at Good Children; Jerry Theriot, Christopher Deris and Claire Rau at The Front

For years pop psychologists have been telling us to get in touch with our inner child, our vulnerable, innocent, whimsical side that gets lost amid our adult preoccupations. Nola artist Nina Schwanse takes matters one step further by getting in touch with her inner serial killer in this Hold it Against Me show about the legacy of Veronica Compton, the aspiring young playwright who became infatuated with Kenneth Bianchi, aka the Hillside Strangler, as he was awaiting trial in 1980. Smitten, she even tried to strangle a woman in the Bianchi style in an attempt to exonerate her beloved by making it appear that the Hillside Strangler was actually still at large. But the victim got away and Compton, alas, got jail time. Here Schwanse, pictured, plays Compton in a series of lurid photos accompanied by smudged love letters, paintings of murdered women and some typed pages from Compton's play, The Mutilated Cutter. Like performance art props sans performance, Schwanse makes it work with her cheesy yet penetrating exploration of the mind of one seriously twisted chick. Compton may have been a mess, but here Schwanse adds a new dimension to her post-feminist, clown-with-a-concealed-weapon repertoire in this Roman Polanski-esque foray into the dark side of American culture.

Thrills and chills continue at The Front where Jerry Therio reinterprets the painted graffiti of another local artist, Jonathan Shaw, in neon sculptures like large doodles or hexograms dramatically rendered in colored light. These neatly complement Christopher Deris' surreal drawings, images that suggest the darkly psychological musings of a young man trying to decide whether to become an artist or a serial killer. Nearby, Claire Rau's plywood sculpture captures in its elaborate scrollwork both the contours of  home furnishings and the devouring serpentine flames of the forest fires now ravaging the Colorado Springs region where she currently resides. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

 Hold it Against Me: The Veronica Compton Archive: Mixed Media by Nina Schwanse,through July 7, Good Children Gallery, 4037 St. Claude Ave., 616-7427; Neon Graffiti by Jerry Therio; Drawings by Christopher Deris; Bonfire Installation by Claire Rau, Through July 7, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980   

Sunday, June 16, 2013

George Dureau at Arthur Roger

Of all the artists that this city has produced, there are probably none more representative of its iconic mix of flamboyant elegance and earthy eccentricity than George Dureau. Now 82, the legendary painter and photographer was a French Quarter fixture for decades until his recent move to an assisted living facility. Despite his deftly dexterous brushwork, most of his international reputation is based on a photographic oeuvre in which all aspects of formal technique are harnessed to his genius for conveying a striking humanistic presence. In this, he profoundly influenced one of his early studio assistants, a young man by the name of Robert Mapplethorpe, bottom, who went on to become a celebrated New York art star, yet  who could never, when all was said and done, match his mentor's depth, as even that city's art critics have noted in recent years. The work seen here is a classic Dureau sampler, and while it is easy to understand the popularity of his flamboyant paintings and drawings, it is his photographs that, while not for the feint of heart, will ensure his place in art history.

Perhaps ironically, Dureau was an established New Orleans painter when he began photographing his mostly male and often African-American models, a heterogeneous assortment street people and outsiders that included muscle boys and midgets, amputees and occasional bohemian women. In his paintings they turn up as fabled creatures ranging from angels to centaurs in scenes rendered like bawdy baroque interpretations of classical mythology where Dureau himself often turns up as a satyr. But in his photographs, for instance his portrait of B. J. Robinson, top, they appear as they really are yet as most of us would never see them, relaxed yet vulnerable, comfortable in the presence of someone who saw and appreciated their unique beauty and authenticity. It was Dureau's singular genius to be able to meld Charles Baudelaire's poetic otherworldliness with Walt Whitman's utopian American egalitarianism in singularly striking images that reflect something of the soul of his city.  ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Paintings, Drawings and Photographs: Mixed Media by George Dureau, Through July 13, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999; Left: Robert Mapplethorpe by George Dureau,  circa 1978.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Deborah Pelias' "Sanity" at Boyd Satellite Gallery and Paul Tarver's "Jaguar Empire" at Cole Pratt Gallery

There is still some truth to the old saw, "seeing is believing," but it is also true technology filters much of what we see and how we see it. Digital devices render images as pixels but pictures on a printed page employ the larger dots of the halftone process. Abstract painter Deborah Pelias just lets dots be dots in her new Sanity canvases, but not all dots are created equal. Pelias is all about her process as her canvases evolve from layers of paint that are applied and sanded as dots emerge, recede and change shapes in works like Prototype, where they assume ambiguously trippy patterns. Confronted with such dots, our eyes search for the images we have come to expect, yet they remain elusive, so sightings of saints, Elvis or Marilyn Monroe sometimes occur even if no such miraculous visitations were intended. Some ancient peoples including the Hindu and Mayan civilizations hypothesized that matter arose from the dance of shape shifting atoms, and Pelias revels in the analogous ambiguity of her emerging dot patterns. "This is where the magic happens..." as the painting begins to reveal "a voice of its own."

Can a leopard change its spots? Maybe not, but in ancient Mayan religion jaguars were divine beings who could assume almost any form. Paul Tarver's Jaguar Empire paintings are based on the rare wall paintings still extant in surviving Mayan temples, but the focus is on their overall aura rather than the minutia of their details, hence they are impressionistic tributes to a lost and, for its time, advanced civilization. Tarver employs mottled brushwork as "a subtle homage" to the jaguar's spotted fur, but it is his distillation of forms that reminds us of the Mayan influence on design ranging from art deco and high modernism to the postmodernism of 20th century architecture. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Sanity: Repeating the Same Process and Getting Different Results: New Paintings by Deborah Pelias, Through July 1, Boyd Satellite Gallery, 440 Julia St., 899-4218; Jaguar Empire: Oil and Wax paintings by Paul Tarver, Through June 29, Cole Pratt Gallery, 3800 Magazine St., 891-6789

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Eliza Zeitlin and Beyond Beasts at the CAC

Beyond Beasts at the Contemporary Arts Center is really two shows in one. For the many fans of Benh Zeitlin's internationally acclaimed film Beasts of the Southern Wild, it is an inside look at the homespun local movie that unexpectedly received four Oscar nominations. A floor to ceiling spectacle, it includes videos showing how Beasts was made by Zeitlin's Court 13 collective, various props and some of his earlier short films. But there is also a significant visual art story here because the "look" of Beasts is mostly the work of Zeitlin's sister, Eliza, whose art will be familiar to anyone who saw New Orleans Airlift's Music Box performances of musical shanties for which she built the first and biggest musical structure. Both projects featured some of the same artists and an organic localized aesthetic that is not only a St. Claude  undercurrent but also coincidentally echoes elements of Elizabeth Shannon's and Robert Tannen's early CAC exhibitions years ago.

Eliza Zeitlin's influence may have also inspired certain other aspects of the film. Some moviegoers professed shock at the way the characters in Beasts lived in shanties cobbled from found materials, yet when Benh Zeitlin was asked if he really knew "anyone who lives like that," he replied, "Yes, my sister." Like Hushpuppy in Beasts, Eliza Zeitlin prefers living in primitive spaces she shares with her menagerie of critters. That love of animals also explains her large and enigmatic stand alone sculpture, above, in the corner window gallery, a metal found object assemblage cobbled from auto parts and inspired by her beloved cat who was killed by a speeding motorist. Eloquently crafted into a fearsome feline protector deity, it looks ready to pounce on the cars whizzing by outside. In the Zeitlin sibling's worldview, all things appear animated by an intelligent inner spirit that we may not always understand but which their efforts bring to life in any number of, mostly unexpected yet brilliantly executed, ways.  ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Beyond Beasts: Eliza Zeitlin and the Art of Court 13, through June 16, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805