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Mental Wealth 

In popular culture, there's a longstanding view that artists are, for the most part, a bunch of unstable crackpots. It's a cliche that has been perpetuated in books and movies over the years, but it resonates less today as universities crank out artists who pursue their trade in ways not unlike other career-track professionals. But one place where the old myth of extreme eccentricity still rings true is Barrister's Gallery, where an exhibition of work by artists with mental illness is now on view.

Having a mental illness is never an advantage, but there is in the best of these works a streak of authenticity that is endearing, perhaps because authenticity is what is so often missing from contemporary art. Sally Mericle's pleasantly overwrought pastels, for instance, The House That Keeps Death Warm, sometimes evoke paranormal phenomena, but others are more prosaic. Contest is a crisp depiction of a wet T-shirt contest at a bar, and here what might just seem tacky attains a degree of macabre delirium as busty contestants pinch their nipples for dramatic effect while the patrons carry on like escapees from a George Grosz painting transported to suburban America. We've all found ourselves in hellish gatherings at one time or another, but this may be an ultimate expression of what that means to this particular artist.

Nothing quite so palpable exists in Mario Mesa's weirdly otherworldly paintings of levitating buildings and strangely leering people and cats. All the more unsettling for being so improbably loopy, they offer proof positive that a smile can be more jarring than a snarl. But Kenny Champagne's peculiar, chilling and oddly effective Alcoholics Anonymous is an all too realistic painting of a room where a dozen overly sober people are gathered around a folding table. The bleak meeting space is adorned only with a coffee maker and a "12 Steps" poster, and the attendees wear expressions so devoid of affect that you suspect alcoholism must be the least of their problems.

Other works by Justin Smith and Mike Burns, among others, suggest traditional visionary outsider art in which naive perspectives, roughly executed, comprise a kind of raw eloquence. To the untrained eye, the loopy tumult of Natalie Gaidry's canvases might appear similar, but look again and her deft arrangements of color and form suggest a uniquely personal approach to neo-expressionism. But Martha Ittenbach's Self Portrait returns us to a realm where strange, alarming forces are reflected in a kind of dynamic expression more at home in the shadows of the psyche than in most art history books. While the show, overall, is uneven, the good stuff is impressive, and even the lesser works convey an offbeat sincerity that can be refreshing in an all too calculated contemporary art world.

Douglas Brewster's paintings and collages in the adjacent Re-entry show are often so roughly executed that they might pass for folk art, but they're actually more like a mixture of old-time political protest and folksy satire mingled with hints of those postmodern text-based paintings that proliferated during the 1980s. The crudeness, while intentional, works best with the folksy, satirical pieces such as My Own Louisiana. Similar to those souvenir wall maps or place mats with little icons of plantations and tourist spots, Brewster's oversized version features icons of oil refineries, Klansmen and lynch mobs along with pigs, cows and occasional members of the Long political dynasty. But this is mild compared to his Mississippi map, with its missing civil rights workers, or Cuba, with its ghost of Che Guevera and haunting relics of the Bay of Pigs invasion. His collages sometimes recall the pages of old Vietnam-era underground newspapers such as our long-departed NOLA Express, though some pieces -- especially his Black, White and Missing Africa paintings -- reflect a more modulated sense of irony. This is Brewster's first show in many years, and while some will find if off-putting, there also is something almost nostalgic about his approach to the calumnies and outrages of the not so terribly distant past.

click to enlarge Martha Ittenbach's  Self Portrait  hints at the - untamed forces that often lie just below the surface of - civilization's orderly facade.
  • Martha Ittenbach's Self Portrait hints at the untamed forces that often lie just below the surface of civilization's orderly facade.
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