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Street Life Revisited 

Some say visual art is an elitist undertaking, and, of course, that part of it exists. Yet it is silly to pigeonhole entire genres of expression. Art is sometimes elitist, sometimes not, and what may be popular entertainment at one time in history might be high art at another. Culture is always in flux, and to understand any art form you have to have some understanding of the context -- where it came from -- or it might just sound like so much precious nonsense.

Amazingly, a recent article in the daily paper managed to dismiss both minimalism and conceptual art in a muddled attack on a New York museum (for failing to be "contemporary," even though it doesn't claim to be), in a militantly middlebrow tirade which, by its prominent placement, made all concerned look ridiculous. So let's be clear: No -- of course you can't dismiss entire genres of art any more than you can dismiss opera, chocolate or China. One may in fact dislike those things, but that's not the same as suggesting that those who like them were duped, as the story insinuated.

Art isn't supposed to be liked by all, or even understood by all, and where you're coming from has everything to say about how you see it. Take the Framed show at The Big Top. There is no way that most people at the beginning of the last century would have found Suzanne Saunders's paintings accessible, yet today her surreal and expressionistic perspectives are reflections of our visual vocabulary, and while still edgy, her work basically goes down easy. Outsiderish, yes, but no more so than Tom Waits.

This time around she's into mortality, or maybe immortality. Hard to say for sure. Employing her usual cubo-Picassoid touches, P.M. Sort depicts a young woman with scraggly hair strolling down a French Quarter street. Although shapely enough in her tight jeans and halter top, she looks oddly bony, maybe because you can see her skeleton right through her curves and clothes. Apparently, she's one of those discarnate babes, a type often seen around Halloween.

The Burn is similar, but this time it's a dude with a great ball of fire flaring from his hand. He seems pretty cool about it -- perhaps he's a fire juggler preparing to dazzle a crowd -- but here again his bones are showing through his clothes and flesh, as if posed in front of an X-ray machine. In Iraq vs. U.S. groups of armed skeletons face off against each other on a cartoonish landscape not unlike the populist primitivism of Mike Frolich, the legendary Saturn Bar artist. While her imagery asks questions about what death and life really mean, Saunders says her goal is to paint until she drops dead -- and maybe then some.

More edgy populism appears in Shannon Brinkman's photographs on the adjacent walls, only in these images Brinkman focuses on the life force pushed to the limit in images ranging from local street scenes to the Burning Man festival, though it's not always obvious which is which. A professional show horse photographer when not chronicling the paroxysms of excitable humans caught up in peak moments of surging adrenaline rushes, Brinkman excels in her own edgy populist sort of expressionism.

Anyone who's ever gotten carried away in hedonistic frenzy knows the feeling, and her photos sometimes resemble scenes from a Satyricon remake featuring the Three Stooges -- or maybe 300 stooges. It's hard to know what's really going on in images like Lovely Cello, Burning Man, in which a female cellist with weirdly glowing eyes bows away like a lady Mephistopheles at bacchanal in Hades, or in Ronnie Numbers, Bingo Series, in which a homicidal-looking clown seems to be shrieking in mirth -- or agony -- amid a miasma of incendiary background clutter. All you know is that this is one of those moments that don't ordinarily register in memory because we didn't really believe we saw that. But here's the photographic evidence, proof that it wasn't a dream after all. Her portraits of Henry Butler and various Preservation Hall musicians are often more contemplative yet only slightly less exaggerated. A true populist, Brinkman takes the pulse of life on the streets, and if the pace ever needs a little quickening, shock therapy is never entirely out of the question.

click to enlarge Dead or alive? Suzanne Saunders' P.M. Sort - poses a young woman on a French Quarter street - who is at once shapely and cool but also looking - oddly skeletal.
  • Dead or alive? Suzanne Saunders' P.M. Sort poses a young woman on a French Quarter street who is at once shapely and cool but also looking oddly skeletal.
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