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Paper Trail 

You still hear a bit about what President George H. W. Bush once dubbed, in his loopy rhetorical shorthand: "the vision thing." Like "the sex thing," the elder Bush put "vision" in a mental stash box of problematic imponderables that eluded him, but which he knew meant trouble if not handled with care. In art, vision is a given, so Tulane's Tom Strider's comment on WWNO radio, that he "didn't have a vision" of what this Drawn From New Orleans expo at the Newcomb Gallery was going to look like, was refreshing. He said that is why he billed himself as the show's "organizer," not curator.

He's being overly modest. He did in fact have a vision. It was just very broad. He said he wanted to find which works on paper were "out there" in local collections, and to exhibit a representative cross section of them. He discovered there was more "out there" than he thought and had to stop at 150 pieces. First impressions can be overwhelming and underwhelming -- the former because there's so much work from so many different traditions, the latter because so much is delicate, meticulous and monochromatic, so it all can start to blend together at even a modest distance. But look closely and there are epiphanies and revelations to be had simply because of the great depth and variety. The net effect is a smorgasbord of styles and traditions, of worlds within worlds all gathered together in one place. The contrasts can be startling and eccentricities are rife.

For instance, you won't often see a sleek Robert Motherwell abstract expressionist composition adjacent a visionary mystical concoction by Ninth Ward folk-art prophet, Sister Gertrude Morgan, yet here it is. Strider makes it work by emphasizing formal and tonal affinities while employing unusually folksy Franz Kline abstractions as intermediaries. The inclusion of more folk art -- a Sam Doyle painting of Jesus from St. Helena Island, S.C. -- underscores the overlooked, if striking, parallels between expressionism and visionary outsider art. This is an ongoing leitmotif. Early on we see a pair of spooky Bill Traylor folk art paintings from Alabama, economical compositions that suggest German Neo-expressionism, near some no less spooky and economical compositions by Hans Hofmann, an actual German Expressionist who was also the godfather of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Hofmann is a pervasive presence here, especially when his local students such as Fritz Bultman and Ida Kohlmeyer are also factored into the show. Beyond the expatriate Bavarian's adopted hometown of New York, New Orleans had to have been one of the places where his influence was most widely, if often subtly, felt.

Influence and community are common themes here. William and Ellsworth Woodward, the founders of the Newcomb school -- both the facility and the style -- were local art patriarchs of boundless influence, as we see here, extended over the course of several generations. But it helps to know the history in order to make those connections. In modern times, other influences were as overarching as the oaks outside, a confluence of influences ranging from Robert Gordy and Peter Halley to David Hockney and beyond. Knowingly, a small acrylic of a female head by the late Robert Gordy is placed near the late George Febres' graphite drawing of his own head, long locks clasped in a hippie headband. Both were emblematic local artists; Febres was also the godfather of Louisiana' homegrown Visionary Imagist movement.

Some things are far afield, for instance, a drawing by Duncan Grant -- a name that won't mean much unless you follow the Bloomsbury group of London eccentrics that included Virginia Woolf. (It was Woolf who wonderfully described Grant as "like a white owl perched on a branch and blinking at the light, shuffling his soft furry feet in the snow -- a wonderful creature you must admit, though how he ever gets through life --Êbut as a matter of fact he gets through it better than any of us ...") Although Britain and Europe are presences of sorts, New Orleans and New York are the real centers of gravity here, and their connection is sometimes incestuous, making this show at times like a family reunion where everyone is somehow related, no matter how oddly or improbably.

click to enlarge Robert Gordy's small, stylized acrylic of a woman's head is - representative of a certain unique strain of postmodern - Louisiana art.
  • Robert Gordy's small, stylized acrylic of a woman's head is representative of a certain unique strain of postmodern Louisiana art.
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Speaking of Through June, DRAWN FROM NEW ORLEANS: 20th Century Works From Private Collections

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