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Eyes of the Storm 

Here we are, suddenly in the middle of summer. Meteorologically speaking, we are, of course, navigating the unpredictable tides of tropical weather even as summer in the art world is typically a time for lazy vacations and the annual return of that curious phenomenon known as the "gallery artists summer group show." Although most are too nebulous for coherent review coverage, LeMieux puts a timely spin on this one with its Hurricane Season exhibit, focusing on what is by now an all too familiar topic. Even so, it's a surprisingly, um, breezy expo.

While these LeMieux artists appear willing to give a devil named Katrina her due, it's also true that New Orleans' traditional, vaguely pagan way of responding to cataclysm seems to be slowly reemerging in imagery that sometimes appears almost ritualistic. For instance, Luz Maria Lopez' Katrina is a mixed-media painting that melds Mayan-style glyphs with skulls, hearts and flowers in a pastiche suggestive of Mesoamerican myths and parables, perhaps the revenge of the serpent gods. Yet there's also no dearth of humor, even if it's of a rather grim sort. How else to characterize Dick Johnson's Twin Towers painting of a pair of refrigerators bound in duct tape rising from a pile of rubble like a monument to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with the World Trade Center towers portrayed by appliances. Hmmm.

But Evelyn Menge's bas-reliefs, based on those blue and white tile street names found on old New Orleans sidewalks, are a little closer to home. Unlike those traditional tiles, Menge's mixed-media pieces spell out Hope and Swim respectively, reflecting the intersection of mixed emotions that local folk are experiencing these days. If that sounds whimsical, other artists prefer their cataclysms straight up. Charles Barbier's Flight is a social realist view of an African-American mother clutching her babies as she plies the flooded streets while choppers hover overhead. But such CNN-style images are few and far between.

Billy Solitario's all too realistic Washed Ashore is a precisely painted landscape featuring a fishing boat resting forlornly in a field under a massive cloud bank. While it reflects a tragedy, Solitario makes sure we also see the rusting blue hull's beauty in its setting of massive gray thunderheads fringed with cottony white cumulus. Nancie Warner's Lamentation (From Giotto) is emblematic of such contrasts. Here some yatty-looking angels hover over flooded houses with holes cut in their roofs in a near-folk art rendition of an Italian renaissance landscape. The result is an entertaining if uneasy alchemy of opposites, a characterization that might apply to Hurricane Season as a whole.

Nothing quite so representational appears in Evert Witte's new paintings at Cole Pratt. Or does it? While the mid-career New Orleans artist and Netherlands native pursues his ongoing exploration of pure abstraction in muted canvases that suggest an update of fellow Dutchman Mondrian's early work, some of his forms may seem a tad more pointed than in the past. Have recent events affected his vision, or is it our perception that has been altered? Like Mondrian, Witte is fond of grids, but the parallels end there. Red Service #3 is fairly typical, a square mauve canvas with a background defined by loose brush strokes. A scaffoldlike grid rendered in loose smears of lipstick red rises out of nowhere, and although it's very consistent with his earlier work, things look different in a post-K environment where those spindly vertical and horizontal lines suggest nothing so much as a house gutted to the studs.

In fact, Witte and his wife, photographer Sandra Russell Clark, lost their home in Bay St. Louis, but these paintings are undated, so it's impossible to tell when any of them were created. Yet, his characteristic forms that seemed almost childlike in the past now have an eerie gravitas about them. His other canvases are similar, with grids, ellipses and crosses seemingly floating in foggy nimbuses of earth tones. Most are inscrutable, yet suggestive of structure. Witte once described his paintings as "places to wander around in, places just for the eye ... The painting's identity changes as one's perception changes." But, of course, not all changes were anticipated.

click to enlarge Billy Solitario's oil painting, Washed Ashore, - reflects an intermingling of beauty and tragedy.
  • Billy Solitario's oil painting, Washed Ashore, reflects an intermingling of beauty and tragedy.


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