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NOLA NOW at the Contemporary Arts Center 

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After meandering through the Prospect.2 exhibits on the first and second floors of the Contemporary Arts Center, ascend to the rarely open third floor and you enter another world. There the raw wood columns, brick walls and rough wooden floors reveal what the CAC looked like prior to its elegant renovation in the late 1980s. Some think that with all the polish it may have lost some of its soul, and this NOLA NOW show, and the raw space it occupies, strongly hints at that less complicated if perhaps more vital time. In fact, Christopher Saucedo's weird pagan temple atop an oyster shell mound titled New Orleans 2011 (pictured) with Sally Heller's polyvinyl mesh fantasy forest in the background looks like a flashback to the CAC's early years — and in a good way. Much experimental and emerging art that used to appear at the CAC now more often appears on St. Claude Avenue, and this show draws heavily from the emerging artist community that migrated to the city in large numbers after Hurricane Katrina, mingled with a variety of veteran artists. The resulting exhibition reflects what curator Amy Mackie calls "a new creative class" whose work expresses a desire for "an environment less scathed," or "a stronger sense of purpose in a world where things fall apart over and over again." Here 19th century optimism is echoed in James Taylor Bonds' ironic paintings of 21st century ruins inhabited by figures reminiscent of a more rustic past, just as the ruins of the Six Flags theme park in eastern New Orleans look bizarrely buoyant in Andy Cook's colorful photographs. Similarly, Luba Zygarewicz's tersely minimal Petrified Time dryer lint totems, and Robin Levy's Threshold installation of an empty utility room with its echoes of abandoned housing, are balanced by Monica Zeringue's and Grace Mikell's intriguing magic realist investigations of the female psyche. All in all, NOLA NOW provides an insightful cross section of some of the most recent trends in local contemporary art. — D. Eric Bookhardt

Through Jan. 29

NOLA NOW, Part I: Swagger for a Lost Magnificence

Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528-3805; www.cacno.org

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