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Striking a Chord 

Snap, crackle, pop! There's art, and then there's the art of what's hot -- the sizzle. What's hot in art is whatever strikes a chord with the public, whether or not critics and museums take it seriously. Trickier still, art can be hot in some places and not elsewhere. Latter-day postmodern drivel is the rule in New York City, but in New Orleans or Chicago most folks could care less.

Painter B.F. "Bill" Jonas came to New Orleans from Chicago in 1988 and, after a couple of stints with galleries in the early 1990s, he became something of a local institution on his own. That's saying something considering his expressionistic paintings of weirdly hued figures with pouty, insinuating expressions and fleshy, sausage-like limbs can seem as freaky as a race of human Weimaraners. In this Bruno Gallery retrospective you can trace their development, like the evolution of a mutant species.

Clearly, German expressionism, along with Chicago imagism, was a major influence. His klieg-lit Jerry Lee Lewis, in which the Killer belts a number into a sea of bilious white folks, suggests a mass rally of blue-eyed soul fanatics in 1930s Nuremberg. Since the early '90s, Jonas has focused largely on scenes of nightlife and riders. The riders appear in paintings such as Equestrians, in which big, fleshy guys ride red horses that hark to German expressionist Franz Marc, whose ruddy stallions may have been role models. But in Zebra Riders, a bunch of cafe society types look like they just woke up to find themselves astride wild zebras in a scene that could have given Freud fits of insomnia.

Jonas' nightlife canvases hint at literary roots. In fact, the dapper, effete figures around the pianist in Mozambique Lounge, or the chanteuse in Club Vial, not to mention the leggy chorus girls with chartreuse skin in Grand Finale at Club Mozambique, all recall Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories (best known to Americans through the Broadway musical Cabaret), set in that city during Hitler's rise to power. The parallels have more to do with tone than content. His Lebensborn painting of 32 views of the same Jonas-like visage takes its title from a Nazi project to propagate the Aryan race. Curiously, most of Jonas' work is a Lebensborn in reverse: Almost every face in almost every painting is a variant of his own, but here it is surreal decadence, not Aryan purity, that is propagated. And he seems to have struck a chord; it takes an unusual artist to make such work, and it takes an unusual city to embrace it as New Orleans apparently has.

For very different reasons, many Californians relate to the imagery of Luc Leestemaker, a Netherlands native based in Los Angeles. His large-scale paintings at first recall abstract expressionism, but on close inspection clearly evoke landscapes, seascapes or skyscapes. And if abstract expressionism was all about color and form configured on a flat surface, Leestemaker's canvases have an eerie depth, an atmospheric quality you look into. (This macro sense of space makes for a vivid contrast with Bradley Sabin's precisely poetic clay sculpture in the adjacent gallery, dreamy floral tableaux with a micro approach to detail.)

All that caught me by surprise, and in an "ah-ha" moment, I said, "Ah so -- Highway 1!" after the asphalt tracery that runs along the California coast, flirting with the Pacific. And sure enough, there's that big sky where it meets the sea in tones of azure, sand, midnight and sea fog, or the desert in shades of mesquite, solar flares and sandstone, none of which is rendered in detail but suggested as painterly veils of allusion, as spaciously empty yet richly hued mirages that become almost illusory the more you look into them. Illusory because, as soon as you thought you'd got it, the Leestemaker kaleidoscope shifts again as California Dreamin' gives way to the chamber music, the misty North Atlantic seacoasts of Old Europe. Imagine the skies of a Dutch baroque landscape, or even a Turner seascape, distilled into an abstract patch of atmosphere. It's optical allusionism, depth without perspective, and Leestemaker is an abstract luminist who knows that the essence of vastness is emptiness.

click to enlarge Bill Jonas' work was heavily influenced by German expressionism and the imagism of his hometown Chicago, which is evident in works such as the klieg-lit Jerry Lee Lewis.
  • Bill Jonas' work was heavily influenced by German expressionism and the imagism of his hometown Chicago, which is evident in works such as the klieg-lit Jerry Lee Lewis.
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