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Open and Shut 

It sounds like a sporting event, but the Louisiana Open is an art show. Yet it is no less a game than any other, a competition marked by a mass of entrants ultimately reduced to a mere seven survivors. At least, that is how it worked this year after the former rules of the game were redrawn to allow for more work by fewer artists. The result is a more focused exhibition that is more polished yet far less populist in tone.

While the hodgepodge of miscellany seen at previous LA Opens could be maddening at times, the seemingly random range of work amounted to a kind of live feed of data from all over the state that may have given us a better feel for Louisiana's creative pulse. This show is slicker, offering a look at the efforts of some mostly local artists who mostly reflect America's postmodern art milieu. Some of it seems a tad generic -- but in the case of Michael Guidry, that might be what he intended.

Guidry's work is the simplest yet also the most contrived, reflecting a mix of Chelsea and Gretna sensibilities. A self-described product of suburbia, he focuses on geometric abstraction's transformation from its early radicalism to its later role as a suburban design accent. Like satiric knock-offs of the abstract masters from Josef Albers to Frank Stella and beyond, Guidry's paintings employ house paint straight from the can. Individually, they have as much presence as stage props, but this is really a conceptual installation about paintings as furnishings, a cleverly inane statement about not-so-clever inanities.

No less banal if more textured and layered are Tim Hailey's environmental installations. Inspired by the show title, Hailey's LA Open is a functional badminton court surrounded by beds and containers of sports drinks, so you can either play or lay around and watch. His Everybody Loved Anna Karenina Because of Her Hair Removal System features kitschy furniture littered with feminine beauty aids and a TV playing Greta Garbo's Anna Karenina dubbed with two women reading from the original Tolstoy. It all somehow works because of Hailey's flair for psychically charged details, what Proust called "this pleasure one gets from the sight of everyday scenes and inanimate objects."

The great 19th century landscape painter, Frederic Church, shunned the everyday, elaborating his own vision of the natural wonders of the Americas, using his sketches as a starting point. Robert Ruello, by contrast, starts with Church's images and uses his computer skills to design his own fantastic landscapes. While appropriation and digital design have, as art tactics, attained near-cliche status in record time, Ruello may have pushed those techniques into terra incognita in canvasses that snap, crackle and pop with an uncanny techno-romantic aura -- a kind of Brian Eno take on the landscape. Intriguing stuff.

No less electric are Michelle Elmore's photographs. Like hyper-dramatic dream scenes based on public personas and inner realities, Elmore's images are inspired by Mardi Gras and Henry Miller's book, The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. Essentially the same series of large scale photos that she exhibited at Jonathan Ferrara last year, they look just as fresh today as they did then. A bit less familiar if no less dramatic are Gerry Wubben's large charcoal drawings. As meticulously executed as the work of a photo-realist, Wubben's superb images are oddly romantic and psychological beneath their tersely poppish facade, with a degree of psychic elaboration reminiscent of Lucien Freud. A Lake Charles resident, Wubben is the sort of find that the LA Open was originally intended to highlight.

The two video artists, Courtney Egan and Francis James, are both great in different ways. Egan uses choppy edits and montages of models and pop-cult icons to explore the conflicting challenges of feminine identity, resulting in techno-surreal videos such as her luridly humorous Theresa in Ecstasy. James takes an opposite approach in his serenely somnambulistic Intending to Walk, which follows the footsteps of someone walking, simply and deliberately walking, as the flow of life unfolds around him. Meant as a visual meditation after a stint at a Thai Buddhist monastery, it's a piece that explores the meaning of deliberate contemplation, an approach that appears as an almost subliminal undercurrent in some of the better art works in this show. Though there is still a need for something as broad-based as the original concept, this year's revised Louisiana Open offers an in-depth look at some of the more intriguing -- if occasionally trendy -- new art being made in this state today.

click to enlarge Gerry Wubben's large charcoal drawing, Denny, reflects a passion for photo-realist precision mingled with the deep psychology and drama of expressionistic portraiture.
  • Gerry Wubben's large charcoal drawing, Denny, reflects a passion for photo-realist precision mingled with the deep psychology and drama of expressionistic portraiture.
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