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Under the Radar 

Let's face it; over the course of the 1980s and '90s, big-time American art has become an increasingly corporate affair, based more and more on big money and marketing buzz. Take Jeff Koons, a commodities broker turned neo-pop art star. Koons is an example of how a clever and trendy artist can also be an avaricious, money-obsessed creep without having to worry about seeming uncool, something that would have been unthinkable in the '50s and '60s. It's almost enough to make local Blue Dog magnate George Rodrigue seem innocent as a new-born puppy. Well, almost.

But in New Orleans at least some art exists as an expression of community, often below the radar of the mainstream art world. And while it might sound limited, the All Amzie All the Time show at Insley is a case in point. For those who don't know him, Amzie Adams is a longtime French Quarter character who arrived during the hippie influx of 1968-69, participating in such classic '60s institutions as the NOLA Express (underground newspaper) and the Bodhi Sala (psychedelic Buddhist group). He has been here ever since, and looks much the same, only thirtysomething years older. He's also an artist himself, but let's start with those other folks' portraits.

Top Hat, by David Halliday, is a masterpiece, a classic 19th century-style photograph of Amzie looking as if he might be Walt Whitman's long-lost brother, a portrait comparable to Alvin Langdon Coburn's best. Works by George Dureau and Herman Leonard are less formal yet reflective of those maestros' respective deftness. But in this show, it is often work by the less-known artists that can be among the biggest surprises. Amzie Magic Cosmos Man by Le Garage antique shop proprietor Marcus Frazer is a visionary painting of Amzie's elfin form in a swirl of cosmic debris like a figure from an obscure myth. Frazer is also an erstwhile French Quarter bohemian, one of many seen here, including Earl Hebert, Charles Foster, Joshua Walsh, Luke Fontana and Glenn Miller (a holdover from the hippie '60s, now an Ocean Springs, Miss., resident when not hanging out at the Red Cat). Much of this stuff is accessible if uneven. More esoteric and spookier are mixed-media portraits such as Spirit Walker by Louis Martinez and Mishlen Linden, and a ghostly experimental triptych by Thomas Drymon. But the biggest surprise may be an assortment of photographs by Larry Graham of Amzie in medieval attire, portraying various saints as they might have appeared in paintings by some northern renaissance maestro, an elegant and effective series.

Amzie's own work is of the visionary variety, but his best architectural studies such as Old Custom House and Marie Laveau House of Voodoo are not unlike James Michalopoulos in their wavy-gravy panache. His portraits suggest spontaneous outbursts of creative mania, and these may be closer to the real, inner Amzie. All in all, it's an intriguing show that illuminates not just a colorful persona, but an entire community of colorful characters.

Perhaps a little less well known, but a community pillar nonetheless, is Pati D'Amico, who with partner William Warren runs the Waiting Room Gallery in Bywater. Ordinarily a showcase for the alternative artists of Bywater and beyond, it currently features D'Amico's own recent efforts, a series of black-light paintings and hand-made artist books. Both depart from her usual approach. The black-light paintings suggest some sort of surreal dadaism in poster or graffiti-like compositions. Works such as Strange and Foreboding Beauty, a depiction of a woman in black mask and tiara, with dislocated hands and displaced eyeballs, suggests the kind of art you might see at some Paris-in-the-1930s version of the Saturn Bar. Most peculiar, but with a refreshing boldness. The handmade books are related in tone, more intimate if a bit less iconic. While the graffiti-like presence of the paintings lends their enigmatic content the impact of a gesture, here the intimacy of the book accentuates that sense of enigma into a kind of conundrum. Both series are experiments, in a gallery -- and a community -- where experiments are welcome.

click to enlarge David Halliday'sTop Hat photograph of Amzie - Adams looking like Walt Whitman's long lost brother is - comparable to the best 19th century portraits.
  • David Halliday'sTop Hat photograph of Amzie Adams looking like Walt Whitman's long lost brother is comparable to the best 19th century portraits.
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