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Academic Pusuits 

The word "academic" can be treacherous when applied to art. In fact, academic art owes much of its problematic reputation to the Academy des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a fabled institution that held much of the art world in a death grip for centuries. Ranging from the lush neoclassicism of Ingres to the later 19th century romanticism of Delacroix and Bouguereau, academic artists stressed realistic technique, the more spectacular the better. Many also played to the crowd with bourgeois sentimentalism, which in the hands of a skilled yet sappy painter such as Bouguereau, resulted in a monumental sort of kitsch more sickening than a supertanker of saccharine.

In America, the academic epicenter was the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a Philadelphia institution associated with such durable 19th century realists as Thomas Eakins and William Merritt Chase, painters whose cool circumspection astutely avoided most kitschy excess. It was, in fact, the Pennsylvania Academy that inspired painter Auseklis Ozols to found the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art in 1978. Since then, his NOAFA has reliably turned out accomplished artists, the best of whom transcend the pitfalls of the genre. Academic realism is challenging not just because it requires a high level of craft, but also because a related tendency to sometime overwork surfaces yields a technical polish that can seem lifeless or inert. Or as Cab Calloway so famously put it, "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

Two distinct approaches that avoid such pitfalls appear in the work of two artists who teach at the Academy but are showing elsewhere this month. Of late, Saskia Ozols has emerged as a painter skilled in academic techniques yet unafraid to take chances, as we see in her Poesis expo at Sören Christensen, where her treatment of the female form is sometimes more monumental than one might expect. Her Icon for Identity is a very polished, 6-foot-tall canvas of a female nude emerging from dark shadows. A red rectangle covers her eyes as if they were redacted CIA data, a touch of Orwell in an otherwise Olympian image. Her more traditional figures such as Contrapposto for Memory and Mimesis, a rear-view reclining nude, are smaller and more intimate, contrasting sharply with yet another series of large and loosely rendered canvases.

Climbing Caryatid is a roughly 5-by-5-foot painting of a figure so loosely rendered that it's hard to know what's what. While caryatids -- those humanoid support pillars on ancient temples -- were traditionally female, all we see here are svelte limbs attached to a torso that dissolves into a sepia mist of manic brush strokes and an inky earth-tone wash. Unlike traditional academic nudes, this leaves almost everything to the imagination, yet it sort of works as a hybrid of classicism and neo-expressionism in a limbo where Thomas Eakins meets Susan Rothenberg. Similar tactics appear in Fight or Flight, a large painting of a horse that recalls Eakins' animal locomotion studies set in a romantic charcoal fog -- one of the most successful pieces in this promising if still somewhat experimental series.

Meanwhile at Cole Pratt, Phil Sandusky's impressionistic streetscapes hold sway. Although Impressionism posed one of the first modernist challenges to academic art in the 19th century, both genres are often lumped together as conservative today. Sandusky is known for his plein-air paintings and can often be seen on location about town with his academy students. For years, I thought his canvases were, if often charming, a tad static or sweet. They captured the city's dense, humid air and polymorphous charms, but could be almost soporific. Then came Katrina, an expressionistic harpy of a storm, all fury and chaos, so now when Sandusky paints his impressionistic streetscapes they might have an expressionistic edge, a hint of lurking suspense or even danger. Ah, balance.

And now there's a book, Painting Katrina (Pelican Publishing, 2007) that surveys Sandusky's pre- and post-Katrina work, including some of his amazing views of the Lower Ninth Ward painted in the storm's immediate aftermath. It's a welcome addition to what will likely comprise an entire field of scholarship -- Katrina Studies -- an elegant window into Sandusky's profoundly atmospheric worldview.

click to enlarge Saskia Ozols' large oil painting, Fight or Flight recalls - Thomas Eakins' animal locomotion studies in a darkly - atmospheric setting.
  • Saskia Ozols' large oil painting, Fight or Flight recalls Thomas Eakins' animal locomotion studies in a darkly atmospheric setting.
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