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Virtues, Vices and Five Women 

To err is human, said the sage, but sometimes things get a little out of hand. Much of human history is marked by violence, crime and vice, and much of the world's religious history deals with sin, guilt and repentance. All of this is especially evident in Louisiana, where numerous Roman Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant churches dot the landscape even as many of our most prominent politicians end their careers in prison.

The fact that faith, crime and punishment all have major roles to play in Louisiana life is reflected in the work of Baton Rouge artist Charles Barbier, whose most recent paintings are on view at LeMieux. Although Barbier's work has long focused on humanistic and social issues, he sometimes seems almost haunted by two facets of his own personal experience: the Roman Catholic church and the Vietnam War. Much of this Virtues vs. Vices show harks directly or indirectly to those two sharply contrasting themes.

One of the more striking images is The Savior, a view of Christ wearing a crown of thorns while standing before a garbage dump filled with dead appliances and oozing barrels. Here the Man of Sorrows evokes a Catholic miracle as he holds a globe in one hand while making an apostolic gesture with the other. Behind him, the otherworldly spires and minarets of a chemical refinery bask in the eerie glow of a Cancer Alley sunset, while the Christ figure (who looks suspiciously like Barbier) appears to admonish us -- but to what? Was Jesus an environmentalist? Our born-again president obviously doesn't think so, yet Barbier's Jesus seems to suggest that environmental degradation is an abomination of Biblical proportions. Beyond all that, such juxtapositions of Roman Catholic imagery, garbage dumps and chemical refineries epitomize the south Louisiana landscape, making for a succinctly surreal composition.

The surreality continues in another classic Barbier tableau called Jesus in the House, an interior with a renaissance-looking Christ appearing between baseball trophies, an aging TV set and the faux-rustic paneling of a suburban den or rec room. He holds his nail-punctured hand upraised in the blessing pose and points to his Sacred Heart with the other, and presumably there is a message in this for us, but its meaning is open to interpretation, unique to the individual viewer. Or, perhaps unique to Barbier, an artist who sometimes seems to struggle with the tension between his formal training and his visionary instincts, between his highly individual outlook and his intense devotion to God and country. Based on the often-ambiguous images in this show, it would appear that those tensions remain unresolved, yet it may be that passionate ambiguity more than any moral or doctrinal certainty which accounts for his populist brio, his ability to reflect the pathos of others who try to maintain strong beliefs in a world of dauntingly uncertainties.

More passionate ambiguities appear in Women Without Walls at Barrister's Gallery. Even the title provokes intriguing speculation -- I initially wondered if it was a show of work by former inmates of a women's prison. But no, it's a show of work by five women from Charlottesville, Va., which happens to be a college town, not a prison compound. Their paintings and sculpture reflect a mixed bag of themes.

Perhaps the most feministic of the bunch is Ann Cheeks, whose stitched fabric tapestry Incited lives up to its name. Hanging like a banner, it features the figure of a rather flushed, yet tough-looking, female nude standing expectantly -- or demandingly -- with hands on hips. Radiating an intense reddish glow, she doesn't look like anyone you'd want to mess with. A box at her feet contains a jumble of personal articles -- women stuff, mostly -- and at this point an ancient instinct impels the male viewer to discreetly move on. (A nearby tapestry of a skull, titled The Skull, does nothing to mitigate this cautionary impulse.)

Most of the other artists' works are mellower, though not without an edge. Andrea Faith's colorfully morbid found-object sculpture, The Supplicant, is a figure cobbled from doll parts. It features a head with a barbed wire crown of thorns, and the body is also bound in barbed wire, resulting in an ambiguously Gothic icon of sorts: a female martyrdom fetish. Curiously, the look is very Louisiana, somehow. That barbed-wire crown of thorns is something a Charles Barbier might appreciate, and even the artist's name, Faith, has uncanny resonance here in the land of the Saints, a place where passionate ambiguity is the order of the day.


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