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Outside and Inside 

One of the funny little conceits of modern abstraction was that it was somehow universal and above such parochial issues as region, place or nationality. Never mind that this point of view was so identified with a place, New York, that it was known as the "New York School." No such illusions attend the abstract painted assemblages of Jeff Jennings, who freely admits to being influenced by the New Orleans environment, especially its decaying old houses and commercial buildings. So much so that amid this series of painterly abstractions is a set of sculptures that any Orleanian would instantly recognize as shotgun houses.

Despite being painted in flat, opaque hues of red, yellow, green and blue, there is no mistaking these signature icons of local life, with their obvious chimneys and front porch overhangs. Yet their surfaces are more about paint than architecture, and in that sense they serve as intermediaries for the rest of the show. Most of the other works are abstract, rectangular concoctions that protrude a few inches from the wall, and these too are all about surface, with layers of weathered, abraded, splotched or distressed paints that somehow suggest both the history of modern abstraction and the kinds of finishes one sees on some of the more derelict structures about town. Even their bland flatness suggests years of exposure to annihilating sun and rain, like a palimpsest with eroded finishes yielding to previous layers of paint.

Random Note 11, a mustard-yellow panel shot through with abstract crackles of crimson and gray-green, is like an infrared image of the surface of Mars, or perhaps something left behind at a construction site. But Four Lines #1, a series of long narrow painted rectangles like abstract porch posts or modernist totems, is more explicitly suggestive of art. That is because the rectangles are painted in bright contrasting bands like coral snakes, although the usual weathered effects prevail here as well. But Four Lines #3 complexifies matters by confronting the viewer with a crosshatched, dull grayish painted facade, while the sides are a bebop symphony of syncopated colors distilled from swirl-pattern bowling balls, tequila sunrises or what have you. Oddly moving. While Jennings' often flat and sometimes bland colors take some getting used to, he seems to be embarking on a fairly promising direction.

Ted Potter's acrylics are much more about the inside, not in the sense of the inner person, but rather in the sense of the art insider's perspective, the inside story behind the official story. And, as a former director of the Contemporary Arts Center as well as the man who introduced Andres Serrano and Piss Christ to the world (in the 1980s, while director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he was subjected to a congressional investigation that almost led to the disbanding of the National Endowment for the Arts for having funded his Serrano show), Potter is a consummate insider. Today he directs the Virginia Commonwealth University Art Museum, but throughout it all he has also pursued his first love, painting, and this Inside the Ropes expo reflects a humorous, if a bit jaundiced, view of the art world he knows so well -- or at least certain aspects thereof.

Remember that old Simon and Garfunkel song "It's All Happening at the Zoo"? Well, here is the art zoo where Potter has recorded certain species as vivid acrylics on canvas, a project not unlike Audubon's bird studies, only these birds are culture vultures. And so we see Museum Director Bernard Grubbs at a soiree, embracing the withered shoulders of elderly widow Emma "Lotta" Bucks in a genteel hammerlock, as well as such familiar "types" as the New York Art Star (the one dressed all in black, natch), the blue-haired Performance Artist waving a teddy bear and handcuffs, the vivacious Gallery Dealer with her low-cut dress and mask-like face, and of course the Art Critic, Harvey "No Clue" Benson. It's a humorous look at the art world's usual suspects, but, true to Potter's rap sheet, it was too controversial for many museums and galleries. And so, for now, it hangs at the UNO art gallery where it appears as a kind of sociological bestiary for the edification of the next generation.

click to enlarge Jeff Jennings' version of modern abstraction is more New Orleans than New York, with works like Four Lines #1 (pictured) making totems seem modern yet weathered -- like New Orleans itself.
  • Jeff Jennings' version of modern abstraction is more New Orleans than New York, with works like Four Lines #1 (pictured) making totems seem modern yet weathered -- like New Orleans itself.
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