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Different Environments 

It is said that "all politics is local," but the same may hold true for the creative arts, as well. Creativity often begins on the home turf, as most creative types start out drawing, painting or writing about what they know or see around them. Later they may explore new worlds so that they too become intimately familiar, but environment always plays a big role, in any event.

When Vidho Lorville was a student growing up in Carrefour, Haiti, a suburb of Port-au-Prince known for its art community, he painted impressionistic landscapes. His student days ended with the death of his parents, and he moved into a seedy downtown hotel, where he eked out a living as an artist. When his environment changed from the lush hills of his youth to the cracked plaster of his distressed, but colorful, new home, his painting also changed. Now he lives in New Orleans, in Bywater, where his work may be changing again, but maybe not that much -- the parallels between Bywater and Haiti can be uncanny.

A former activist in Haiti's democracy movement, Lorville paints with an eye for social concerns, often realistically, if symbolically. Yet, true to Haiti's often mystical aesthetic, his work can also be dreamlike, utilizing a sort of social surrealism. Man Was Created to Survive reflects the former modus, though the subject may not seem to mesh with the title at first glance. It is, in fact, a realistic rendition of a used tire shop.

With its cracked stucco walls and stacks of bald tires, it recalls its local equivalents on St. Claude Avenue. A sign above the tires repeats the painting's title in Creole: "Lom fet pou viv" in an ironic commentary on Haiti's history of political groups "necklaceing" their opponents with burning tires. The luminously iridescent colors imbue an otherwise shabby scene with unlikely beauty -- which becomes even more unlikely as we recall the cruel symbolism of old tires in Haiti. Also realistically rendered, but far less ominous in tone is Anxieté, a view of couple of young and beautiful Haitian women holding each other sadly, sweetly, in a somewhat more than sisterly embrace. Nothing lewd, mind you, just touchy-feely in a literally romantic sense. Jerry Falwell would not approve; rarely has lesbian romance looked so sweet. No diesel fumes here, these Bambi-eyed babes embracing in an enchanted glade might as well be characters in a Disney fairytale flick, it is so, well ... almost saccharine.

Fortunately, most of the others have more of an edge. Carnival is a dreamlike political satire starring a Mardi Gras melange of characters. Here an archbishop embraces a Bible under one arm and a busty, wide-eyed queen with diamond tiara in the other. A weird supporting cast including George Washington, black Nazis and voodoo spooks lurk in the background, and it is all very Carnival, very Haiti and no doubt very symbolic. But Lorville is at his most surreal in The Vanished, a visual allegory of a woman whose young children disappeared. In this image her head seems to float amid otherworldly foliage as the two children resemble spectral spirits out of some Carlos Castaneda extravaganza. Spooky, but effective. Lorville's curiously familiar vision from across the Caribbean synchs neatly with such local legends such as Noel Rockmore, John McCrady and other kindred spirits of America's Creole city.

Doyle Gertjejansen's new paintings at Stern reflect another kind of environment entirely. Fascinated by abstraction, maps and art history, his paintings are reflections of an inner landscape where form and formlessness collide. But form flexes its muscle in his new work, especially in Gesture Painting, in which, ironically, the only genuinely gestural gestures are some vaguely cloud-like smears in the background that almost recall finger painting, but are far too precise for that.

Here a central structure like a 3-D cutaway of a Mayan temple dares the viewer to enter, as deeply hued colors and banded cloud and water patterns give it the appearance of a Tibetan thanka, or mandala painting, designed by M.C. Escher. What makes it seductive is its tastefully psychedelic illusionism, a legacy of the local pop-psyche imagism epitomized by the late Bob Gordy. Some of the others meld such elements into his ongoing continental drift, as map-like shapes fend off chaotic smears in works such as Other Possible Shapes for the Continents. It is Gertjejansen's most accessible show to date, and Gesture is a breakthrough of sorts, a lush new landscape on the horizon.

click to enlarge No stranger to mixing things up, Vidho Lorville is at his most surreal with The Vanquished, a symbolic take of a woman whose young children have disappeared.
  • No stranger to mixing things up, Vidho Lorville is at his most surreal with The Vanquished, a symbolic take of a woman whose young children have disappeared.
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