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Cajuns for All Occasions 

Once, ages ago, there was a group show at the New Orleans Museum of Art called something like Five From Louisiana. It was so long ago I no longer recall the exact title, but I remember the artists: Keith Sonnier, Tina Girouard, Dickie Landry, Lynda Benglis and Robert Rauschenberg -- a blue-chip list. Rauschenberg, the godfather of pop, was from Texas but had lived in Lafayette. The rest were natives who gained fame in the post-minimalist 1970s by evincing a certain improvisational flair. Post-minimalism used softer, more fluid materials -- anything from roofing felt to neon -- to counter minimalism's austerity. The show suggested it was these artists who gave the post-minimalist movement its signature baroque flourish, no big surprise since Cajuns were famous for being able to turn almost anything into an art form. Roofing felt? Hey, bring it on, chere.

Memories of that long ago NOMA show came back while viewing this new Cajun art expo at Ferrara. Similar improvisational flair abounds even if the results hark more to the Neo-Geo and Pattern & Decoration movements than to minimalism, post or otherwise. Still, there is that uniquely resourceful Cajun way of pulling things seemingly out of thin air and turning them into something new and unexpected. In Green Bean Stripe, Happy Harvest by Troy Dugas, what appears to be a densely textured abstraction becomes pop art on close viewing as those repeating geometric patterns turn out to be artfully sliced and diced green bean labels.

More abstract geometry appears in Brian Guidry's brightly colored paintings such as Blue Kindling. He says these prismatic fractals are actually recorded from nature, plein air -- in the field -- from the colors of reflections in water, or "September's exhausted foliage," or else interpolated from "the droning of summer cicadas," all reconfigured in the studio into "compressed lines of information." Whatever. Leave it to a Louisianian to come up with an organic rationale for a Neo-Geo canvas.

But the ghost of 1970s Pattern & Decoration turns up in the spectral baroque forms of Mary Beyt's paintings, elegantly cheesy floral and swan patterned images like rubberized fabric or softly psychedelic vintage linoleum. Very dreamy, they convey an oddball ethereality filtered through an old-time Magazine Street junk-store aesthetic. This vintage tendency is also seen in Ralph Bourque's ink-on-embossed-paper line drawings, like illustrations from 1950s nonfiction but with offbeat scenes (same sex couples) or hip-hop nomenclature (a drawing of a 1950s mom in her kitchen, with toddler in high chair, sports the title, Who's My Bitch?).

Bitches, or at least dogs, also appear in the conceptual soft sculpture of Lou Blackwell, in Surrender, in which the legs and underbelly of a spotted Dalmatian-like mutt appear like an animal trophy on the floor, leading to mixed feelings such as warm and fuzzy revulsion. And stuffed animal toys appear in a mirrorized photograph suggesting an old-time iron claw machine, conjuring up psychological associations of a sort we don't want to explore. But Shawne Major takes vintage junk art to formidable levels in hanging wall tapestries. Portal to Portal and Fermata suggest patchwork quilts transformed into found-object fetishes with kitschy encrustations of beads, doll parts, belt buckles, lace doilies, tiny silk flowers and miniature fruit, all part of "a bricoleur approach to create a magical and sacred space" that she associates with growing up in south Louisiana. In a parallel with Dickie Landry in the NOMA show, Stephanie Patton is a performance artist. But Landry was a minimalist, a saxophonist with Philip Glass, whereas Patton is more of a caricaturist who uses her country-western singer alter ego, Renella Rose Champagne, as a low-rent female Elvis counterpart. Her Renella Stage Set installation is part Graceland, part Storyville, with a mural-sized photo portrait of a reclining Renella (looking like a bayou country Cleopatra with big hair) gazing out over a kitschy alcove of fake flowers, sheer pink fabrics and celebrity photos. As with several of these artists, Patton proffers a visual gumbo, a combination of common elements transformed by a deft touch and a dash of sauce piquante into a novel take on pop culture. Despite some occasional, perhaps predictable, postmodern academic conceits, this show is a mostly satisfying and visually engaging exploration of latter-day Cajun country aesthetics.

click to enlarge Stephanie Patton's Renella Stage Set installation is one part Graceland and one part Storyville, one of Patton's many novel takes on pop culture.
  • Stephanie Patton's Renella Stage Set installation is one part Graceland and one part Storyville, one of Patton's many novel takes on pop culture.
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