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Personal Chemistry 

We've all heard the stories. The storm changed everything. It brought out the best in some while bringing out the demons in others. Such is the nature of stress. And with so much of the area's infrastructure still wrecked, it's important to accentuate the positive and help heal the wounds that are still in evidence all around us. Among the various groups that played an important role in that process, the volunteers who came from far and wide have been truly indispensable.

Shannon Bowley is a Seattle artist who spent the past five months living in a tent while volunteering at the Emergency Communities free kitchen in St. Bernard Parish, which by now has served over 100,000 hot meals. Surrounded by the wreckage of the community and immersed in the harrowing narratives of its residents, she must have found it depressing at times. How to cope? Beyond the immediate satisfaction of taking direct action through her volunteer work, Bowley also translated her St. Bernard Parish experience into a series of colorful paintings. Largely abstract but with recognizable elements, her vibrant compositions reflect a healing process of transforming external chaos into a colorful kind of internal order.

Abstract art traditionally reflects the unconscious mind filtered through an artist's craft, but these paintings also convey echoes of wrecked homes and boats as well as the cryptic crosses left by rescue teams, amid vivid abstract swatches of color. For instance, Boats #2 is a freeform composition in which three skiffs appear adrift in a sea of crimson punctuated by patches of jungle green and shocking mauve with oozing drips in a liquid forest topped off by the barest hint of a faded flag. Another composition, I'm Still Here, is emblematic, a patchwork of symbolic house and boat forms amid a wilderness of color. Here Bowley's strategic black voids cause her neon hues to pop out at you, suggesting something like a psychedelic Paul Klee. Not all are quite so effective, but the best are intriguing, employing intense colors in a kind of healing alchemy. Ever dedicated, Bowley is donating a portion of the sale proceeds to Emergency Communities.

More abstract symbolism appears across the street at Cole Pratt. Marie Bukowski is a Ruston, Louisiana, painter and print maker whose work has found an enthusiastic following in Europe, especially in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, where she has had numerous gallery and museum exhibitions. Her paintings and prints on paper are often deceptively simple, with linear, near-universal forms such as circles, crosses, ellipses and vessels as well as some that suggest contortionist coat hangers posing as hieroglyphics. Arranged in sequences like the syntax of a secret language, or the poetic notations of an autistic architect, they appear amid vaporous mists of color. Cage #6 is a diptych. In the first panel, crosses, circles and ellipses are arranged strategically near a mysterious form like an inverted wine glass with an impossibly thin stem. The next panel features beaker and tumbler forms amid more crosses and ellipses, and together they comprise something like a dream, or maybe the schematic of a dream. In these works, seemingly random forms are actually engaged in a dialog with each other, and also, perhaps, with the viewer. Their placement is conversational, and here the multilingual Bukowski suggests that the language of dreams may be her true native tongue.

In the adjacent work of Robert Berguson, another Ruston artist on the faculty of Louisiana Tech, calligraphy is a main course rather than a side order. Like manuscripts in some cryptic, alien tongue, Berguson's ink drawings are personal yet enigmatic. Scribe #298 is an arrangement of straight lines connecting red circles into triangles that suggest a vintage engineering plan for art deco teepees. Scribe #268 evokes a cross-section of a wave crashing amid a whitewater of calligraphic arabesques, and Scribe #311 might pass for Einstein's last notes on the size and shape of infinity. In these works, Berguson employs an art form that, for most of us, started out as exercises in penmanship, and takes it into terra incognita, an unknown zone of endlessly suggestive connotations that only the imagination can decipher.

click to enlarge In the work of Marie Bukowski, mixed-media paintings such - as Cage #6 suggest symbolic dreams transformed - into schematic diagrams.
  • In the work of Marie Bukowski, mixed-media paintings such as Cage #6 suggest symbolic dreams transformed into schematic diagrams.
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