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Earthly Passions 

It's as predictable as swallows returning to Capistrano. Whenever the exhibition space at 400A Julia Street goes empty, another gallery soon moves in and fills the void. When Sylvia Schmidt decided not to renew her gallery's lease in the weeks just after Katrina, the Jenkins Connelly Gallery, originally rooted in Baton Rouge, took over. Then when Penelope Jenkins decided to move to a building she was renovating around the corner, it wasn't long before Jonathan Ferrara Gallery -- who had relocated his gallery upstairs from his former space on Carondelet Street after the storm -- moved in. As the I-Ching so sagely puts it, "continuity in the midst of change is the secret of the universe," and indeed, the universal order is in no danger here.

It doesn't hurt that the inaugural expo of ceramic sculpture and mixed-media paintings by Sidonie Villere, her first solo, is surprisingly cogent. Not all artists' first solo shows are. In fact, I don't recall having seen much of the New Orleans native's work prior to this, so it's kind of nice to walk in and see a little self-contained universe where all the pieces seem to fit together with no obvious loose ends. That much said, the work on view is not without diversity, ranging from serial ceramic sculptures that suggest an austere if sensual sort of post-minimalism, to mixed-media paintings that evoke unusually decorous assemblage art, or even the sort of abstract expressionism that was prevalent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, for instance, early Ida Kohlmeyer or the LP record album jackets of the modern jazz greats. If occasionally tentative, nothing ever seems especially derivative. Villere makes everything fit into her trademark earth tones, pale clay and fibrous, exaggerated textures, yielding sleekly tactile creations that fall somewhere between Alan Kaprow and Martha Stewart. And I mean that in a good way, in the sense that the edgiest stuff goes down fairly easily, while the smoothest stuff has just enough of an edge to be at least a little challenging.

Divided, a grid of 20 ceramic "split cubes" looks deadpan to a degree almost reminiscent of classical Donald Judd minimalism at first, but a second glance reveals how different each element is, mostly because what would have been stark, iconic cubes ˆ la Judd had apparently been whacked across the middle while still damp. Much of Villere's work involves a whack or a gash or rupture of some sort, and here the effect of the split inflicted on the smooth cubes of clay comes across as sensual yet intense. Their silky surfaces seem oddly personal, rather humanly fleshly and curiously female (and at this point we should probably end this allusion before we get into trouble), as inert clay ends up looking surprisingly and vulnerably sentient.

There's a word that art theorists used to use to describe art strategies such as "appropriation" -- copying other artists' imagery -- that were once thought to be daringly aggressive, and that word is "transgressive." Eventually someone noticed that artists, like journalists, have always copied each other, so appropriation is no longer considered transgressive, but the word itself remains useful for its innuendo of sharply abrasive, or at least impolite, behavior. Part of the interest that attends Villere's work has to do with the tension between the tame and the transgressive, for instance, the purposefully torn, ripped or abraded surfaces of her mixed-media paintings. Partially plastered with pale, smooth clay, their muddy umber tones root them to the earth, but then subtle or blatant gold highlights reestablish a connection with the sun.

We never had a gold rush in Louisiana, but wealthy planters once gold leafed spider webs as decorations for outdoor parties, and the way Villere uses gold can be no less improbably decorous. Analysis Paralysis is a kind of metal pyramid with a ruptured top like a volcano crafted from air conditioning ducts. The metal surface is hard and black but the ruptured gash that crowns it contains a kind of ossified gold lava that is strangely and inexplicably sensual, like an artifact of geologic passion. It is perhaps such dichotomies that give these works their drama, their implied parallels between the earth and the body and their ultimately interwoven passions.

click to enlarge Sidonie Villere's ceramic installation  Divided  invests - deadpan minimalism with a surprising aura of sensuality.
  • Sidonie Villere's ceramic installation Divided invests deadpan minimalism with a surprising aura of sensuality.
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