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Ashes and Origins 

The photographs are a vivid presence on the stark, white walls of the gallery. Big, bold and audacious, most depict either a man or a woman, often nude, with faces and bodies painted in mysterious signs. Their appearance is striking, but who are they and what are they doing? It helps to know that Carlos Betancourt, the artist, was born in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents, and is based in Miami. His work is very Latin and Caribbean.

I am reminded of certain experimental filmmakers such as Maya Deren and especially the great Alexandro Jodorovsky and his surreal metaphysical masterpiece, El Topo. The figures seen here appear to be engaged in similarly mystical rituals, yet the poses and body paint would not be out of place during Mardi Gras, and it's all a tad theatrical. It also helps to know that he is a performance artist. A critic once called a Betancourt performance 'sexy, narcissistic and voyeuristic at the same time it comments on Santeria in contemporary culture.' Santeria is very old, based on Christianity and Native American and African spirituality, hence the 'Archaic' in the title.

In one image, The Worshipping of My Ancestors, Betancourt is seen, bare from the waist up, examining some dark substance in his hand. His torso is painted red and his face is pale blue, and both are covered with graffiti glyphs, perhaps Indian symbols, sometimes in iridescent glitter. The dark substance also appears in other images -- is it the ashes of an ancestor, or goofer dust? In another view he is conked out on a bed of weeds. (That dark substance must be some potent stuff.) In The Mockingbird, it's a woman who appears dazed and bare. Covered with cryptic glyphs, she is surrounded by glowing plastic Christmas carolers with faces like Disney characters. The head of one is cracked open like an egg. The woman looks quizzical. Think Ahead, Love Eye is emblematic. Here, Betancourt's own illuminated head hangs upside down, tongue distended, green eyes glaring like a demon's. At more than 5 feet tall and 4 feet across, it's a mysterious presence, as theatrical as it is enigmatic. It makes a statement, but what? Betancourt uses the body as a canvas with the palette of a psychedelic fauvist. Whatever depth or content his images may or may not possess is overshadowed by their dramatic presence.

For Donna, at Barrister's, is no less enigmatic. There's a true story here. Curated by Deborah Luster, it was originally intended to showcase female artists from all over the state. Sadly, as was the case with Roy Ferdinand in an earlier show, one of Barrister's artists once again suddenly died before the show was to open. Donna Service was well known and widely respected in the Shreveport area for her work in children's arts education. Far less known was her work as a maker of the sorts of surreal and erotic fabric sculpture seen here.

Several of these headless female mystery species with shocking pink or black satin skin, exaggerated curves and fang-encrusted orifices, seem to float like transgenic succubae at the front of the gallery, perhaps mocking the new Puritanism afoot in the land, as evangelical rightists assert themselves politically. The rest of the show is no less surreal. Dove Hunt by Katherine Amman Vellard is an oil pastel and graphite drawing of what looks initially like a tornado, yet up close suggests pubic hair. More sleight of hand appears in Laura Noland-Harter's The Wall, a large cut-out painted and shaped like a man's head, hair slicked back like Dick Tracy, and it takes a minute to realize it's made from that old-time pressed-tin stuff stamped to resemble stone blocks, giving it a surreal, Rene Magritte sensibility. In Process is an installation, actually leftovers from a performance, with a pair of headless female figures like full-size body casts hanging out in a desolation of cracked egg shells and plaster dust. Like the rest of the show it's all surreal, dreamlike, a formalized funk, and this is the point where Donna and Betancourt share space in the void, somewhere in a deep, dark performance-art Valhalla.

click to enlarge Carlos Betancourt's The Worshipping of My - Ancestors makes a mysterious statement based on - the symbols and lore of his Caribbean ancestry.
  • Carlos Betancourt's The Worshipping of My Ancestors makes a mysterious statement based on the symbols and lore of his Caribbean ancestry.


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