Sunday, January 26, 2014

Da Parish: Photographs by Fridgeir Helgason

What is it about St. Bernard Parish, anyway? Anyone growing up in Nola knew it as the funky but lovable setting for Rocky & Carlo's Restaurant and Bar. A salt of the earth suburb, it was once home to rustic communities of trappers and fishermen before the tracts of boxy brick houses, sugar and oil refineries that proliferated after World War II caused it to invite comparisons with the Jersey Turnpike. Hurricane Katrina nearly obliterated it, but the residents who returned to rebuild set a standard for pluck and  determination that garnered well deserved national acclaim. Even so, it is unclear why it has attracted Scandinavian photographers in recent years. First, Daneeta and Patrick Jackson, natives of Louisiana and Sweden, respectively, exhibited their haunting Chalmatia series at the Contemporary Arts Center last year. Now Icelandic lensman Fridgeir Helgason's Da Parish images are on view at the Scott Edwards Gallery.

The product of a three year sojourn in St. Bernard, Helgason's images are reminders of how a once verdant place teeming with wildlife was transformed into something very different over time. In Christmas 2011, top, a modest suburban ranch style home festooned with holiday decorations appears almost lost in a setting dominated by a vast, hulking refinery complex. Similarly, a view of opposing rows of stately old oaks, below, conjures up expectations of a regal antebellum estate, but no, that romantic vista only leads to another refinery. But a view of the blandly inviting facade of Rocky and Carlo's, above, instantly humanizes a series that some might find archly ironic or austere. In fact, Da Parish is a visual meditation on the ordinary. Predating the advent of the artist enclaves now popping up in Old Arabi, it is what it is: an unvarnished depiction of a place in transition during a pivotal period of time. Its epiphanies are of the starkly existential variety. Seen through Helgason's eyes, it is almost possible to imagine the ghost of Kierkegaard haunting the hubub at Rocky and Carlo's. ~D. E. Bookhardt

Da Parish: Photographs of St. Bernard Parish by Fridgeir Helgason, through April 5, Scott Edwards Gallery, 2109 Decatur St., 610-0581. Left: Oak Lane.