It is huge. Featuring more than 100 New Orleans artists, The Human Figure, curated by Don Marshall at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), is a smorgasbord of paintings along with a smattering of photography, sculpture and mixed-media pieces. But more than any medium, it is defined by tone and content in works ranging from predictable to eccentric to over the top. Beyond all that, it also is a remarkable mix of established artists and lesser-known talents whose unexpected accomplishments convey the sense of a parallel art universe hidden just beyond the usual gallery and museum scene. It can be a disorienting viewing experience because familiar imagery often appears juxtaposed with unusual or bizarre content. That's OK once you notice the pattern. Just relax and go with the flow.
Phil Sandusky's atmospheric self-portrait with his nude model in the background is typical of this accomplished local impressionist's work. Right next to it is Katrina Andry's Western Perception of the Other, a large color woodcut of a young woman with a wild Afro and clownish blackface makeup. Petting a large snake crawling up her legs as her stiletto heels frame a half-eaten apple on the ground, this near picaresque figure confronts cliches about African-American women with polemical visual satire.
Nearby is Mark Bercier's Tsana, a proper and eloquently painted teenage girl whose coy innocence hints at veiled mischief — a paradigm totally reversed in an adjacent painting of a young woman licking the toes of her reclining unseen partner in a work titled Feet, painted by an artist identified only as VonHaffacker, which seems more guided by impulse than polemics.
But even works by leading artists can be surprising. Auseklis Ozols' untitled reclining nude is gorgeously painted, but the model's expression is so zoned out it recalls old opium den scenes of yore. Around the corner is a similarly reclining nude by a somewhat less-known artist, Jane Talton-Ayrod. Here Manet's iconic Olympia is reborn as a reclining nude Barbie doll in Odalisque Plastique (pictured), Talton's zany update of the timeless lounging seductress theme. At the other extreme, religious painting takes a Creole turn in George Schmidt's locally themed Sacra Conversazione, in which a baby Jesus on Mary's lap points to a celestial map of New Orleans as cherubs play banjos and nuns clap to the beat. But Nique Le Transome's Deus Ex Machina self-portrait suggests a Vietnamese holy martyr with a long-stem carnation clenched between his teeth as blood from a barbed-wire crown of thorns trickles down his cheeks. Much could be said about Keith Perelli's paintings, Alex Podesta's or Evelyn Jordan's sculptures, or Craig Tracy's, Gus Bennett's or Josephine Sacabo's photos, but you get the picture. Marshall, the CAC's first director, has managed to present an entire art community in a refreshing, if sometimes slightly disorienting, new light. — D. Eric Bookhardt