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No Place Like Home 

The earliest art was the work of tribal shamans who tried to ensure the food supply by supplicating the spirits of place. Back then, places had spirits which could be helpful or hurtful, and to avert disaster you wanted them on your side. While the spirits of place ain't what they used to be in this globalized age of Wal-Mart and McDonald's, they are still occasionally celebrated by artists, writers and musicians. Two different approaches to place can be seen in a pair of painting exhibitions about town.

Soco Ocampo's Colombia, Tierra Querida (Colombia, Land That I Love) at the Waiting Room is colorful and expressionistic, as well as pointedly rather primitive in its execution. Ocampo, who was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up there and in New York, is unabashedly fond of "primitive" peoples and indigenous cultures, and appears determined to make up in raw vitality whatever may be lacking in the way of technique or finesse. The results are not especially consistent, but are always colorful.

Checkpoint at Bolivar, Cauca #1, is an energetic tangle of smeared burgundy, emerald, cobalt and salmon-toned acrylics, all sort of writhing like a burning jungle rendered in finger paints. Tall mountains rise in the background, but the lush greenery around them soon turns ominous as shades of blood and flame appear amid the foliage. In a handmade book that accompanies the show, Ocampo bemoans the ongoing violence of the revolucions and rapacious drug lords that plague her homeland. Checkpoint at Bolivar, Cauca #2 is another take on the same landscape, only more manic and panoramic in tone and scope. Here the pieces fall into place with a sophistication that recalls German expressionism in spite of -- or maybe partly because of -- the overall rawness.

Similar themes appear throughout. Shelter in a Church is a view of a jungle church where Ocampo says civilians took shelter as the rebels used gasoline bombs to wipe out a small town. The church itself looks like something an indigenous child might have painted -- a result of her routine use of stick figures and fingerpaint-like smears -- although Ocampo herself is an educated, middle-age woman. Some works such as In the Beginning, the Amazon River, feature compositions so loose as to seem almost flaccid or unstructured. On the other hand, the shamans in Chamanes at a Non-Violence Ritual seem to almost pop out at you as a result of a tighter composition and psychically charged color contrast. Some interesting found-object assemblages round out an exhibit that, if rather hit or miss, is never lacking in spirit or color.

It makes for a marked contrast to Alan Flattmann's French Quarter Impressions, in which Ocampo's approach is turned inside-out. For one thing, Flattmann is a master craftsman in the medium of pastels, one of several accomplished local realists produced by the old John McCrady Art School on Bourbon Street. Not only has he written books on pastels and been featured in magazine articles, his current show at the Bryant Gallery appears in conjunction with his new book of the same name. And Flattmann's French Quarter scenes really can be gorgeous -- perhaps too pretty at times, almost sanitized. His French Quarter streets are often seen after a rain, giving them a nice clean sheen, and the drift is that this is a labor of love and not just an appeal to mere turismo. Yet works with titles like Pat O'Brien's and St. Peter, a view of -- what else? -- a horse-drawn buggy shuffling past Pat O's as American flags flutter from the balconies, suggest otherwise.

More pungent is his Central Grocery Window, which captures that Italianate chaos of cheese, garlic and sausage with shop workers inside seen through jars of olives. But the scene that is -- or was -- the most realistic, is Vieux Carre Blues, in which an old street musician like a latter-day Babe Stovall is strumming his guitar, case open for donations, on a bench by St. Louis Cathedral. It was once an archetypal French Quarter scene, but of course anyone who dared do anything like that these days would be promptly arrested and hauled off to jail. Does that sounds draconian? Hey, if Disney World's French Quarter doesn't tolerate such imperfect specimens, why should we?

click to enlarge Chamanes at a Non-Violence Ritual cuts against the grain of the rest of Soco Ocampo's Colombia, Tierra Querida exhibition in its tight composition and psychically charged color contrast.
  • Chamanes at a Non-Violence Ritual cuts against the grain of the rest of Soco Ocampo's Colombia, Tierra Querida exhibition in its tight composition and psychically charged color contrast.
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