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Sense of Place 

There is something unutterable in this bright Gulf air that compels awe. ... All, all is blue in the calm, save the low land under your feet, which you almost forget since it seems only as a tiny green flake amid the liquid eternity of the day. Then slowly the witchery of the infinite grows upon you: out of Time and Space you begin to dream with open eyes. Over the rim of the sea a white cloud gently pushes up. Others rise with it, all brilliantly white like loose new cotton in an enormous line that rises high above the Gulf, rolling and wreathing into an arch that expands from horizon to horizon."

That was how Lafcadio Hearn, the great 19th century journalist and impresario of exotic places, described the Gulf Coast islands in his novel, Chita. Even if it sounds almost like a passage from Confessions of an Opium Eater, and even if the setting was Isle Derniere off the Louisiana coast, his words might just as easily apply to the islands off the Mississippi and Florida coasts that inspired Billy Solitario's oil paintings at LeMieux. And if Hearn was a literary impressionist whose colorful descriptions sometimes betray that he was also a translator of Baudelaire's poetry, his obsessive fascination with the pastel blue infinity of the Gulf sky is shared by Solitario, whose traditional approach yields no less gauzy results simply because local nature tends to be inherently impressionistic. Anyone who knows the Gulf Coast can relate to that sensation of dreaming "with open eyes."

Unlike Walter Anderson, who used Van Gogh-like exaggeration to probe the area's underlying energy patterns, Solitario seems content to let the outer surfaces speak for themselves, so what you see is what you get; leave the tripping out to Anderson and Hearn. For instance, Shrubs on a Dune Slope is exactly that, a view of a clump of shrubs clinging tenaciously to the slope of a sandy dune, and you know it's an exposed patch of beach because of the way the sand is sculpted as much by wind as by gravity. Throw in erosion, and you have a multi-dimensional chess game of natural forces, a touch of drama in an otherwise straight-up vista.

Maybe it's my imagination, but Solitario's shadows seem a tad more involved these days, filled with delicate gradations of cool, pale ultramarine tinged with violet, a subculture of shade just beyond the blazing white sands and glowing tufts of green. Graceful Scrub Oak is a different dune with a similar drift, but Sun Beaming Through Purple Clouds harks back to Hearn in a diptych depicting massive dark clouds billowing up impossibly into the stratosphere as other, cottony white clouds glow with the sun's pale fire.

Clouds, of course, exist everywhere, but the clouds over the Gulf Coast are utterly unlike the clouds over New Mexico, Hawaii or France for that matter, so here even the sky serves as an icon of a locale and its attendant sense of place. Most of the paintings in the show offer variations of these themes of sky, sand and shore, but not all. A few local city scenes provide a stark contrast where natural light is still a major factor but very different in effect as it reveals gritty urban streetscapes.

In Downtown New Orleans, cars, buildings, billboards and a stark, solitary tree are silhouetted against the glow of a dusty sky. Beyond this man-made valley of shadows, some Canal Street stores glow in the tepid light. Some listlessly flapping flags lend an air of pomp and circumstance to a hotel facade even as a tiered scaffolding of billboards atop the building across the street effectively undermines any misguided impression that this might be the Champs Elysee. Starker yet is Highway Overpass, an almost abstract view of a silhouetted interstate ramp snaking darkly over a New Orleans neighborhood near downtown, a concrete crescent sharing the shadows with a patch of tree and a pair of glowing red traffic lights in the distance. It may sound bleak, but the look is mysterious -- the city as a place of shadows teeming with life -- a sensibility oddly reminiscent of the Ashcan School of New York in the good old days, and a grand contrast to the unrelenting prettiness of his balmy Gulf islands.

click to enlarge Billy Solitario's Downtown New Orleans offers a man-made valley of shadows, with Canal Street stores glowing in the tepid light.
  • Billy Solitario's Downtown New Orleans offers a man-made valley of shadows, with Canal Street stores glowing in the tepid light.
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Speaking of Through July, Billy Solitario: New Paintings


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