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History's Mysteries 

As you may recall, or not, March is Women's History Month. And I must confess I had to be reminded, first by the Femme show at NOMA, and then by all the galleries featuring women artists this month. While Marie Laveau may not be the first name that comes to mind when we think of seminal feminist forebears, her spirit was present last Saturday as voodoo priestess Sallie Ann Glassman staged a ceremony to bless the opening of Barrister's Gallery's new St. Claude Avenue incarnation, as well as to protect everyone in the surrounding area from harm. The featured voodoo spirit was Ogun, the lord of iron and a skilled conflict resolutionist, a favorite of Ms. Laveau and Ms. Glassman. But the featured artist is Myrtle Von Damitz III, whose own eerie figures in ink and paint on paper are formidable spirits in their own right.

Ostensibly a painter of landscapes and tableaux, Von Damitz is really a conjurer of creatures and locales from a parallel universe, and it is a testimony to their authenticity that her images are so hard to describe. A blogger from out of state once came close: "I don't know if she's a native, but she nails that (decadent local) feeling -- her work is surreal, creepy, subversive. There is an element of nostalgia as well, as if somehow these twisted little worlds are simply a turned-corner away and all you have to do is look. But no one looks anymore ..." Indeed, her work recalls bohemia's ghosts -- as if all the freewheeling and fantasizing freaks that ever stumbled, bumbled, strummed and juggled their way through this town since Bienville were still around, but only she can see them.

They turn up en masse in The Last Line, a raucous assembly of spooks gathered at the Press Street tracks, as if for a discarnate marathon. A multitude such as only a Bosch or Von Damitz might divine, they wait for an official like a drum major with bike-wheel feet to give the "go" signal, but it's unknown where they're racing to or how they might get there. Like creatures composed of dust, shadows and dense, congealed light, her figures suggest phantoms in a Creole casbah, or in a forest of pale, shivering trees, or -- as we see in Listing Ardor -- afloat on unearthly seas. Here a discarnate mermaid with a bird nest for hair reclines like Cleopatra in a sailing dinghy with palm trees for sails. She calls to spectral sea serpents in the sunset, and even opium smokers like Poe or Coleridge would be impressed. But what makes Von Damitz's work strong is her uncanny ability to make such figures as familiar as a dŽjˆ vu no matter how strange or alien. As grizzled as a chorus of spooks in a Tom Waits beggar's opera, they are silent and invisible. We don't perceive them, but then along comes Von Damitz to remind us, with virtuosity and wit, of their existence.

More discarnate women appear in Veronica Leandrez's Subjectivity show at Stewart and O'Reagan, an all-new gallery on the far reaches of Julia Street. It also has a built-in yoga studio, an exotic touch that goes well with Leandrez's no less exotic penchant for painting goddesses, muses, fates and other evanescent femmes. Nuit, her goddess of the night sky, appears sensually outstretched as if afloat in the starry darkness, while The Furies Avenging the Evils of Mankind lives up to its martial nomenclature. If some are high concept in their thematic enthusiasm, others are more philosophical and ambiguous. Crowded Identities, a smaller painting on slate, depicts so many faces like Mardi Gras masks emerging from a mist, in a meditation on all the identities that can make up a single persona, while Ocular Hypertension recalls Francis Bacon in its mutation of body parts. If Leandrez's paintings are often loosely effusive, her enthusiasm can be infectious. So, as emerging artists go, she's someone to watch. Put it all together with shows such as Facets of the Feminine Mind at the Big Top, and you have a whole new take on women's history in the making.

click to enlarge In works such as Listing Ardor, Myrtle Von Damitz III - displays her improbable ability to make her unearthly - figures accessible if not sympathetic.
  • In works such as Listing Ardor, Myrtle Von Damitz III displays her improbable ability to make her unearthly figures accessible if not sympathetic.
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