Sunday, October 7, 2018

Simon Gunning at Arthur Roger

Simon Gunning's paintings can be deceptive at first glance. His swamp scenes may recall the great 19th century tropical nature painters, but his vision is ultimately broader than mere pictorialism. In the past he faithfully recorded this region's gritty industrial complexes as well as its verdant natural habitat, and here we see how some modest human interventions can blend into the region's natural ecology. Anyone who has spent time around local wetlands has seen the remains of old boats rotting in shallow waters where they provide shelter for aquatic life, and these works suggest how man and nature can co-exist in a realm where birth and death, creation and decay, are all interwoven. For instance, The Haunted Wreck of Lady Pontchartrain, top, reveals a vintage, partially submerged fishing vessel with its wooden hull unraveling like a wicker basket as sea birds peer from the gaping holes in its cabin as if from box seats overlooking an aquatic opera in the murky gray waters below. An antique bridge arcs across the horizon like a rusty rainbow as storm clouds brew in the distance in a scene that reminds us why the once popular notion of “man's conquest of nature” never quite caught on here.

We live in a region where endless varieties of flora and fauna flourish in jungle-like profusion even as rot inevitably follows in close proximity. This can seem un-American but is distinctly picturesque. In Behind the Batture, a bedraggled old work boat has found a final resting place in the shallows as a blue heron stands sentry on its stern. Reeds and rush willows frame this moldering old industrial relic in a way that lends it an almost poetic dignity, while Baudelaire's Dream, above left, a kind of aquatic pauper's cemetery for the carcasses of moldering fishing boats, suggests a celebration of the beauty of decadence. This stands in marked contrast to overtly sublime works like Gunning's 11 feet wide magnum opus, The Majestic Swamp, a vision of moss-draped cypresses rising cathedral-like over rookeries of exotic birds in a timeless scene that suggests the birth of the world. This alternation between splendor and decadence paradoxically suggests how  unpredictability and impermanence can lend an unexpected sense of magic and meaning to life as it is lived. ~Bookhardt / Shipwrecks and the Atchafalaya: Paintings by Simon Gunning, Through Oct. 27, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.