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Little Men and Others 

Bit by bit, it all gets done. Big cities, tall buildings and superpower nation-states all grew from small, simple things -- a wide spot in the road, a set of blueprints, or even a tea party. From tiny acorns grow mighty oaks, which in turn give us lots of shade and beauty along with a lot of tree pollen, cracked sidewalks and invasions of buckmoth caterpillars. Not only does nothing stay simple for very long but, according to painter Jeffrey Pitt, we can only know something by understanding its opposite -- an idea that in itself portends no end of complications, if you think about it.

Appropriately enough, Pitt's show is titled Complexities, and indeed most of his stark black-and-white abstractions are somewhat busy. Yet, like so many complex things, they seem to be comprised of simpler components. A one-time anthropology student, Pitt says that "indefinite signs, symbols or designs" were supposed to "represent things beyond the control or understanding of man," and that his goal is to create images that have no specific meaning other than to "indulge the viewer in the possible interpretations available." In other words, it is what it is and the rest is up to you. Not content with mere complexity, Pitt serves up healthy portions of ambiguity as well.

His canvasses are impressive in ways that are hard to pin down. The first painting in the series, aptly titled 1, is a black-on-white expanse of vaguely topographical forms, like a satellite map of the lagoons of Borneo -- or maybe the lacy traceries of Louisiana's coastline with accompanying salt-water erosion marked out in sinister, dark shading. At about 6-feet square, it looks like something that might grace the walls of the EPA or Greenpeace. Look a little closer and it goes hallucinatory on you, as funny little signs, shapes and symbols seem to dance a funky fandango on canvas. Abstract, like tribal African or American Indian designs, their forms suggest primal or primitive symbols ranging from lightning bolts and animals to little men, or maybe little animal-men.

In some canvasses, they are clustered into more geometric overall patterns like Maltese crosses or the abstract tile work of Moorish mosques, but even those break down into weird hieroglyphics up close. Beyond the iconography of tribal cultures, some of the more suggestive shapes recall the graffiti-like forms of 1980s neo-expressionists such as A.R. Penk in Germany or Keith Haring in America, or even nature's own graffiti in the form of fossils from past eons. Yet it's all fresh and unexpected, with something of Jackson Pollock's unpredictable electricity and precision. It makes for an unusually accomplished debut show that marks Pitt as someone to watch in the New Orleans art scene.

Equally unheralded here, though better known back home in Vienna, Austria, is Gerhard Muller, whose Works on Paper are on view at Oestreicher. Muller's mixed-media (ink, paint, conte crayon) concoctions also employ primitive, tribal and child-like designs, but where Pitt's emphasis is on overall patterning, Muller goes for the gut with elegantly visceral images that evoke the visual musings of wayward children or the mentally impaired. In other words, this is elegantly Teutonic and twisted stuff beneath the unassuming outer facade. Not merely untitled, they are not even numbered, so we can only generalize and note that his weird botanical forms alternate with roughly rendered birds and fish, trucks and locomotives, men and beasts, and a lot of colorful scrawls that might be secret writing or merely incoherent markings.

Actually, those weird botanical forms seemed oddly familiar, and I soon realized that they have much in common with the work of our own local outsider art patriarch, Willie White. But if White's otherworldly yet innocent ink paintings united time, space and the cosmos with his Central City environs, Muller's more enshadowed images leave us with the unresolved ambiguities of sophisticated childishness and a sometimes sinister innocence in what amounts to a visual invocation of unreason. Though graphically rather simple, their implications are far more complicated if not unfathomable.

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