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Paint Me Something, Mister 

There's something about growing up in Louisiana, where colorful, curious or even mystical impressions leave their mark on your earliest memories. For a lot of us, Carnival throws were among the earliest of those formative childhood epiphanies. Mardi Gras beads have, of course, evolved from the once ubiquitous iridescent glass variety to the plastic throws more common today, but if you're a young kid such distinctions are irrelevant. What mattered was that they flew wildly through the air, tossed by mysterious masked riders on fantastical floats illuminated by flickering flambeaux. It was unlike anything else, and something about those streaking flashes of color made an indelible impression that lingers for life, possibly even resurfacing later on in unexpected ways.

For related reasons, Kendall Shaw's paintings at the Ogden Museum may look a little more familiar to New Orleanians, perhaps, than they did when they first appeared in New York, where he has spent most of his long and quietly illustrious career. A New Orleans native who initially thought he would be a chemist, Shaw ended up getting a masters in fine art from Tulane, where he studied with George Rickey and was Ida Kohlmeyer's graduate assistant. There he fell under the influence of Abstract Expressionist avatar Mark Rothko during his brief tenure as a visiting artist, and it was Rothko who suggested that he move to New York, which he did in the early 1960s. This Let There Be Light show explores his journey from Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism to the "pattern and decoration" movement of the latter 1970s, a style he not only helped pioneer, but also transcended in certain unexpected ways.

You could almost see it coming. His early abstract expressionist canvases were imposing in their evocation of existential atavism and primordial subconscious ooze bubbling up in the form of thickly impastoed surfaces. The brushwork recalled Arshile Gorky and early Pollock, but the colors sometimes hinted at Blaine Kern. His ventures into Minimalism were also surprisingly buoyant, and were followed by his own unique synthesis of Minimalism and pop in hardedge silhouettes of sports figures. But he really went to town with his pattern and decoration canvases from the late 1970s on, with their geometric designs and elaborate multicolored surfaces. Unfortunately named -- any art movement with the word "decoration" in it is asking for trouble -- the pattern and decoration movement was a reaction against the austerity and perceived self-importance of Minimalism. But it soon became typecast as lacking in gravitas, hence its low profile today. (Could that also be why public dancing is illegal in most of Manhattan?)

Shaw was different, producing canvases more like geometric Islamic mosaics in subtly psychedelic colors, or luminous Italian tile work in madcap patterns or mystical schematics. My favorites are usually the more subtle ones such as Chancay, a largish 1982 canvas that suggests a broad pale X on a slightly darker field. From a distance it could pass for shimmering shades of lighter gray on darker gray, but up close it becomes more obviously a meticulous array of tiny colored squares of acrylic and vinyl ranging from pale tangerine and turquoise to pistachio and key lime, as well as variations of London fog and Berlin gray, all set off with tiny mirrors. Like a vast angular molecule, it becomes spacious and electric, not to mention eclectic, when you look into it.

Other works reprise the styles and themes of his earlier work within similar mosaics of applied color. Absalom Hangs His Head is similarly large and elaborately hued, but made up of canvases stacked in geometric layers. Flecked with multi-hued acrylics and crowned with a central panel that recalls a Mardi Gras World rendition of a swirling Jackson Pollock drip painting, it easily undermines decades of minimalist and abstract expressionist angst. Close your eyes for a second and there it is: the whiplash strands of beads flying by, bunches of them piling up in layers. Of course, Shaw never consciously thought that, but even so, a New York native could never have done it. As with Acadiana artist Shawne Major's splendiferous beadwork and trinket tapestries that hang elsewhere at the Ogden, such visual opulence can only come from a place where the gaudiest things in life are free.

click to enlarge The colorful surfaces of Absalom Hangs His Head by - longtime New York painter Kendall Shaw, reflect the - buoyant sensibilities of his native New Orleans.
  • The colorful surfaces of Absalom Hangs His Head by longtime New York painter Kendall Shaw, reflect the buoyant sensibilities of his native New Orleans.
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