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Public Imagists 

In 1962, when Roger Brown was a 21-year-old lad in Opelika, Ala., he moved north to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the process, he helped set in motion one of America's more influential art movements by emerging as a ringleader of a precedent-shattering group called the Chicago Imagists. The Imagists were precedent-shattering because they not only resuscitated the anarchic spirit of surrealism and expressionism in an era dominated by abstraction, giving new life to figurative and landscape painting in the process, but they also did this independent of New York. In other words, they were bad boys and girls, especially as far as Gotham was concerned. Chicago Imagism was bold and new, and its influence spread to the rest of the Midwest and even to California, where surrealism and expressionism remained strong despite the dominance of New York School abstraction at the time. Imagism also moved to the South in the 1960s, most notably to Louisiana, where it was almost a semi-official style, propagated by art departments at Louisiana State University and elsewhere " or so one might conclude from a cursory reading of this state's art history. Look again, though, and it becomes clear that our own homegrown imagism had already been in place since the 1930s and 1940s, as should be obvious to anyone who saw the Caroline Durieux retrospective at the Newcomb Gallery. California and Chicago Imagism reinforced what was already an established Louisiana sensibility.

However it came to pass, the small exhibition of New Orleans Imagists now on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (running concurrently with the Roger Brown retrospective) is a gem. Included are several classic, exotically patterned figurative works by Robert Gordy, as well as some of Robert Warrens' zany domestic scenes and wavy-gravy landscapes like I Cried a River Over You, a cascading eruption of waves, fishes' tails and strangely twisted violations of most of the accepted laws of physics. The show also features a pair of interesting Fred Trenchard paintings from his enfant terrible period in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as some very surreal Jacqueline Bishop and Douglas Bourgeois landscapes from the 1980s and early 1990s. Despite the dates of the works, many of these artists continue their imagist evolution today, as do prominent Louisiana painters such as Keith Perelli and Francis Pavy, among others. It's an evolving approach with an obvious ongoing resonance.

The transition from New Orleans Imagists to Roger Brown: Southern Exposure is fluid and nearly seamless, yet there are differences. While much of the New Orleans work has a rather tropical feel, just as many Chicago Imagists' works had notable Central European overtones, much of Brown's own output is noteworthy for its sense of Americana, perhaps owing to his small-town Alabama roots. You see it in works like Gothic Stadium, a depiction of his old Opelika high school and stadium, with a frenzied ball game bathed in the radioactive glow of klieg lights; and in Honky Tonk Man, a silkscreen print of Alabama native Hank Williams looking true to his country music roots. In both, the essentials of the composition are reduced to bold forms and a kind of quilted patterning, a technique often employed by Durieux as well. Dr. Imperial's Tree of Knowledge, a depiction of a 1950s-modern Garden of Eden with the title in glowing neon over a stylized tree, suggests a suburban Elmer Gantry approach to a Sunday school teaching aid.

Older watercolors and drawings dating to Brown's childhood reveal not only his precocious talent, but also a consistent sense of style that served as a foundation for much of his later work. In that sense, he was clearly an artist from the start, someone whose education was not so much a career track as a process of revelation " of refining who, and what, he already was.

click to enlarge I Cried a River Over You, by Robert Warrens, illustrates the New Orleans artist's flair for using paint to violate most of the laws of physics.
  • I Cried a River Over You, by Robert Warrens, illustrates the New Orleans artist's flair for using paint to violate most of the laws of physics.
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