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Parallel Realities 

=Quick -- name a famous Albanian. Hmmm, gotcha stumped? It's not easy because the most famous ones didn't live there, so there's practically no way to know that John Belushi and Mother Teresa were ethnic Albanians. Albania itself keeps such a low profile that it might as well be a secret society. Remote by geography as well as by choice, it is the only European nation in modern times to try to outlaw automobiles, an astounding gesture for a country that is mostly rural and mountainous. (They failed.) It is also the only overwhelmingly Islamic nation in Europe. In other words, it's very peculiar, so naturally there must be a New Orleans connection.

At the moment, Palma Gallery's exhibition of recent work by Albanian painter Genti Korini is the most visible expression of that connection, which actually dates back centuries to a time when Albanians settled in a part of Sicily called Contessa Entellina. New Orleans is home to more proud Albanian-Italians than anyplace outside of Italy, but that is another story. Korini's paintings are stylishly abstract and expressionistic in ways that don't look overly alien to the naked eye, so you might never know they came from such an obscure place. A closer look reveals traces of a certain wry ambience amid the rather juicy colors and brushwork, something akin to a visual dash of bitters, a gestural phraseology not unlike Andrei Codrescu's accent. This may be a result of being from a place where gypsies are a palpable presence and Slavic irony is a pervasive way of life.

But most of Korini's paintings are noteworthy for their sensuality -- even pure abstractions such as Paris, a composition of kinetic brush strokes in earth tones set off by patches of burnt cranberry and undulations of slate gray slathered onward and upward into whiter shades of pale. It's all oddly personal, like stepping off the Metro and dashing into the streets amid the vertiginous blur of barely suppressed hysteria that is Paris at rush hour. Even paintings with impersonal-sounding titles can seem somehow personal in effect. For instance, Circles Divided by Squares features a briskly painted white square hanging by a thread amid a maelstrom of dark yellow and black swirls floating in an amniotic sea of menstrual pomegranate and cryptic alpha-numeric notations. It's all rather veiled yet pregnant with implicit portent. Like a message scrawled in lipstick on a mirror in some obscure foreign tongue, it fairly crackles with intrigue even as its meaning remains elusive. Consequently, the most abstract paintings are not far removed from the more figurative compositions.

For instance, several images that share the title, Fragments of Her, may require a second look to reveal their figurative qualities. In one of them, two abstract forms resemble outcroppings of limestone at first glance, and only by standing back a bit does it all become more obviously a profile of a woman's torso. But another is clearly a view of a woman's, um, lower torso and thighs, outlined in bold, juicy strokes of cobalt, bruised eggplant and sea mist. Others are more classically Neanderthal in their carefully calibrated imprecision, redolent of the vagueness of Susan Rothenberg's old neo-expressionist figure studies.

Returning again to the more purely abstract canvases, it is possible to see hints of either an uncanny prescience on the part of the artist or evidence that we may be indelibly marked by the cataclysm in ways that shape our view of things totally unrelated. For instance, one of several paintings that share the title Landscape actually looks more like a seascape painted in slashing strokes of cobalt, fog and sea foam, and the whole thing is so ominous at some atavistic level that it can only serve to remind us that high seas are no longer simply picturesque as far as local folk are concerned. And No Trespassing, a bold composition of rusty crimson broken by a cryptic pale "X" amid ominous patches of black and gray, recalls those National Guard voodoo crosses that still adorn the fronts of many buildings about town. Like suggestive inkblot tests, Korini's paintings blur the boundaries between the personal and the impersonal. What is seen may to some extent reflect what we are already predisposed to see.

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