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Nostalgia is one of the least understood and most underestimated sources of creative inspiration — at least so far as contemporary art is concerned. Novelists and poets have for ages plumbed the depths of their pasts with a mixture of dread and fond remembrance. But in contemporary art, the kind of postmodernism that came to prominence in the 1980s mandated that artists be impersonal media critics, a phase that has somehow survived over the past quarter-century, mainly because so much of the New York art establishment still seems stuck in the 1980s. Fortunately, the rest of the world is not, and now that Wall Street has imploded, maybe the '80s are finally over.

Nostalgia takes many forms, and the link between nostalgia and identity might be the subliminal frisson that gives the otherwise marginalized sensibility its unexpected punch. Berkeley-based painter Juan Carlos Quintana is Cuban, an identity expressed in his paintings in the way that Cuban art almost always looks like Cuban art. But he was born to Cuban parents in Louisiana, grew up in New Orleans, and the Cuba of his longing is a land he has only briefly visited. His new Denizens of Happylandia paintings meld tart commentaries on American materialism with a stylistically Cuban sensibility in otherworldly scenes peopled with cartoonish characters. Cultural boundaries are blurred in Miser's Last Wish, in which a bewildered figure leaning against a tree rubs his head, as if from a migraine, as a demonic fairy announces: "You're down to your last one; make it fast."

In Ideologically Confused Bailout Plan, a battered banker and a jaded parrot view a muddled landscape from a hot-air balloon. Here, as in other works, there is a touch of Cuba's long tradition of caricaturing the powerful, only now there is a sense that the differences between ordinary Americans and the victims of colonial oppression in the Caribbean may not be so great as we once thought. Strange, lush and surreal, these are provocative works by an artist who straddles both worlds.

In the case of Tony Fitzpatrick, the nostalgia is for the lyrical essence of the place where he grew up as well as for another place that he has come to love. The former is the Chicago of his youth, a vision gleaned as a child accompanying his father on drives to sell burial plots and embalming fluid, and later during his adventures as a car thief for a chop shop. The latter is New Orleans, his home away from home. His affection for both is evident in his gorgeous collages and prints. One series of collages crafted in his poetically precise tattoo style is dedicated to Mardi Gras, both as a local institution and as a pervasive culture that colors the city and state.

A more general series features words embellished with charged imagery. Razor Men features the words "blood," "star," "razor," "men" and "prayer" in a bold vertical sequence embellished with dice, flowers, music notes and butterfly wings. Fitzpatrick says it refers to "men of a certain age" who carry straight razors for protection and who, if stopped by the police, 'tell them they are barbers." This is a universal image applicable to New Orleans and Chicago, and is done in a style more typical of his work in Prospect.1 (on display at Gaskin-Southall Mortuary, 1225 N. Rampart St.).

Works with more local flavor include The Kingfish, which looks like a Mardi Gras masker, a crowned harlequin fish surrounded by flowers, skulls and a vintage Shell Oil sign, and is, ironically, all about Huey Long, whose "Every Man a King" motto flanks his feet.

Marigny Girl is his tribute to the faubourg, and the cat-woman figure is an archetypical bohemian. "I love this neighborhood because there is no one kind of resident," Fitzpatrick says. "It is a place with an imperishable imagination full of what is possible in this world."

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