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The Lighter Side of Vice 

In the Taliban's Afghanistan, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue dispensed Koranic justice; adulterers could be stoned. To the Taliban, America was a Great Satan plotting to impose Hollywood morals on innocent Muslims. Yet recent polls indicate that most Americans, unlike others in the West, think a belief in God is necessary to being a moral person. Even large numbers of those with graduate degrees said they believed in the devil in some polls, a fact that makes many Americans' beliefs closer to the Taliban's than to those of their fellow Westerners.

I don't know of any such polls taken here in New Orleans, but it seems fair to say that Catholicism, and Catholic schools, have had some influence. Like Rio, or Havana in the old days, this place can be both very Catholic and yet very pagan, holding traditional views of sin while being unusually tolerant of sinners. It helps to be a native to fully appreciate this, and Julie Crozat, a graduate of local Catholic schools, puts a somewhat local spin on sin in her realistically rendered oil paintings. Gluttony depicts a fat lady in bed with dreams of ice cream, cookies -- even a box of McKenzie's doughnuts -- dancing in her head. She sleeps in the nude, and if this is her version of a wet dream, it's a distinctly gluttonous one.

Envy is also dreamlike, and the figure is also nude, but unlike the big lady, this babe is sleek and wide awake as she engages in a personal ritual of sorts, suggested by a swirl of tarot cards and voodoo dolls shimmering in the candlelight. She's a redhead with trouble blazing in her pale green eyes, and those voodoo dolls are a dead giveaway that she's unhappy with somebody. Greed is a more cinematic view of a sleekly attired babe who shares her bed with stacks of greenbacks. A pale-eyed blonde with a slim body and full lips, she has the pointedly blank look of a movie starlet, the sexy empty screen on which fantasies can be projected, and it hardly matters whether she's from Hollywood or Metairie.

Crozat's flair for luridly stylized spectacles is evidenced in her severed head scenes such as Anger, in which a prim woman holds the startled looking head of middle-aged man (Crozat's husband, artist Michael Wilmon), while clutching a bloody knife with her other hand. The Sins of Salome is loosely based on the Biblical tale of Salome's demand for John the Baptist's head on a platter, only this Salome is a '60s strumpet with candles, incense and Jimi Hendrix LPs, and the severed head (Wilmon again) shares a platter with a freshly rolled joint. The only virtue painting, Redemption, is of a distraught blonde with hands clasped in prayer. Rendered in shades of gray, it lacks the colorful flair of the others, perhaps revealing why Crozat focused on Vices in the first place. In true local fashion, her view is critical yet celebratory.

Although John Lawson is not a native (he's a Brit), and even though his work is much more abstract, local sensibilities prevail nonetheless. That is because Lawson is a bead artist -- as in Mardi Gras beads -- and if Avarice, his 3-by-5-foot melange of bunched and patterned beadwork, depicts nothing identifiable, its sheer tacky opulence is sure to induce "throw me somethin'" echoes in the skull of anyone who sees it. And that, of course, is what avarice is all about.

Others are more tangential. Pride features a mannequin sitting on the floor amid a jumble of multicolored beads, and it seems like a stretch to say that this represents Icarus, the mythic figure who fell to earth after flying too close to the sun, but here again the beads convey a sense of something once high-flying, now grounded. In fact, Lawson says his work is really all about decadence and its importance as a source of the life force. His "squiggle" drawings, multicolored crayon abstractions not unlike his bead sculptures, employ the wit and wisdom of Baudelaire, Patti Smith and Johnny Cash among others, and, like Crozat, Lawson sees decadence as part of the color spectrum of the broader pageant of life -- the rich black earth from which straight green shoots burst forth in the spring.

click to enlarge The spin on sin: Julie Crozat's oil paintings, - including Greed (pictured), show that sin - can be just as empty as it can be deadly.
  • The spin on sin: Julie Crozat's oil paintings, including Greed (pictured), show that sin can be just as empty as it can be deadly.
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