Herb Roe, “Courir de Mardi Gras – Valse du Vacher”, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″, 2012, photograph courtesy of the artist
Herb Roe, “Courir de Mardi Gras – McGee’s Medley”, oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″, 2013, photograph courtesy of the artist
Herb Roe, “Tee Courir – Number 27″, oil on canvas, 5″ x 7”, 2013, photograph courtesy of the artist
Herb Roe, “Tee Courir – Number 29″, oil on canvas, 7” x 5″‘, 2013, photograph courtesy of the artist
Herb Roe, “Danse a’ Cheval II”, graphite on paper, 18″ x 24″, 2012, photograph courtesy of the artist
Herb Roe, “Cajun Fiddler I”, hand-painted lino block print, 10″ x 12″, 2012, photograph courtesy of the artist
Herb Roe, “Cajun Fiddler II”, hand-painted lino block print, 10″ x 12″, 2012, photograph courtesy of the artist
by Reggie Rodrigue
It’s late April, and Mardi Gras is just a memory in our collective rearview mirror in Louisiana. However, the bon temps keep rolling! Festival International de Louisiane is about to kick off this Wednesday, April 24, 2013 in Lafayette, LA. This 5-day world music festival juggernaut,”featuring six music stages, food court areas, street musicians and animators, arts and crafts boutiques, art galleries, beverage stands, cultural workshops, international cooking demonstrations and a world music store,” (www.festivalinternational.com) will take over Downtown Lafayette for another year.
In the midst of all of the international frivolity will be Lafayette artist Herb Roe. For this year’s installment of Festival International de Louisiane, Roe has decided to open an exhibition of his “Courir de Mardi Gras” paintings, drawings and prints in the Garage, located at 205B West Vermillion St., Lafayette, LA, which is – surprise, surprise – a former garage. The location itself will be ideal for viewing Roe’s work as the Garage will be right beside the Vermilion St. Open Market once Festival begins.
To anyone from outside South Louisiana, Roe’s “Courir de Mardi Gras” works may seem like something out of a Surrealist phantasmagoria, with their grotesque depictions of otherworldly protagonists running amok in a bucolic setting. However, Roe is a died-in-the-wool realist painter, and his “Courir de Mardi Gras” works faithfully depict what the celebration of Mardi Gras in rural South Louisiana actually looks like in real life – minus the occasional post-apocalyptically red sky (You can’t keep it real all the time – as any Dave Chappelle fan knows). In Roe’s work, one comes face-to-face with the bizarre yet rich tradition of the rural Mardi Gras.
Participants in the celebration make their own costumes, replete with homemade mesh masks and conical dunce caps. They ride on horseback through the small towns of Acadiana, creating mischief, teasing young children, performing feats of daring and chasing chickens donated by locals for the communal gumbo pot to be shared at the end of the day. In rural Acadiana, Mardi Gras is a day when the natural order of things is overturned and mayhem and merriment rule before the Catholic fasting season of Lent begins.
What’s especially engaging about Roe’s work is the perspective he has on this Louisiana tradition – for Roe isn’t originally from Louisiana. He was born in Ohio, and spent his childhood and adolescence between that state and Kentucky. Roe’s work with Lafayette, LA muralist Robert Dafford lead him to the Hub City and the subject of his current work. Certainly, he has spent a great deal of time living and working in Louisiana – enough to be considered a local by our standards. Yet, in his paintings of the Courir de Mardi Gras, one begins to understand his unique perspective of being an outsider on the inside track to one of Louisiana’s most mysterious and mystifying cultural experiences. Roe’s application of paint is almost clinical and diagnostic in it’s realism, and points toward his status as an observer outside of the scenarios which he is depicting. However, the scenarios are so removed from the daily currents of normal life that Roe’s realism is swallowed up in the tidal flow of color, pattern and pageantry that he is depicting. In this way, the wall between observer and participant breaks down in much the same way that the Mardi Gras celebration breaks down societal inhibitions and hierarchies. When viewing Roe’s “Courir de Mardi Gras” works, one succumbs to the ecstatic, drunkenness of the images in all of their obsessively detailed, hyperrealistic, stranger-than-fiction glory. They are a profound visual treat for anyone, whether you’re from Mamou, LA, Moscow or Madagascar, and the perfect visual accompaniment for the joyous celebration that is Festival International de Louisiane.
Herb Roe’s “Courir de Mardi Gras” exhibition at the Garage (205B West Vermillion St., Lafayette, LA) will be open during Festival International’s officially scheduled hours. For further information on Festival times and other Festival related information, visit its website, http://festivalinternational.com/site.php.
To visit Herb Roe’s artist website, follow this link: http://www.chromesun.com/
All photographs by Kerry Griechen, courtesy of the artist and My Eye Photography
by Reggie Rodrigue
Having a wandering eye is typically not something of which to be proud – unless one is a photographer. In that case, having a wandering eye is essential. Curiosity about the physical world around oneself and the intense obsession with capturing an image of it either objectively or subjectively (and who can really tell the difference between the two anymore) is the basis for all of photography. Mature photographers typically focus on one or two particular corners of reality; however, every serious photographer I know started his career with an indomitable drive to document his life and travels in light, photographing everything that his insatiable eye could consume until he found a subject or a process that truly spoke to him.
Lafayette, LA‘s Kerry Griechen is a photographer of many things. However, his eloquence comes to the fore when he is focusing on the natural wonders, urban landscape, and people of South Louisiana. Griechen’s body of work offers viewers a dazzling and beautiful mosaic of life in the region from a mother roseate spoonbill feeding her fledgling in the wild or the time-worn pastiche of a decrepit warehouse facade to a New Orleanian starting his day by hosing-off a French Quarter sidewalk.
In truth, none of these subjects may be particularly new or novel to South Louisiana’s native population. They may not even be new or novel to people outside of the state. There isn’t much in the way of disquieting or provocative imagery in Griechen’s photographs. He isn’t exploring some esoteric or conceptual process in his photography, either; although, he does dabble in Photoshop techniques every once in a while to highly mixed results that veer toward the dismissible. Therefore, some avant guardists may wonder about the artistic merit of such work. One can hear their groans: “Beauty for beauty’s sake? Bah! Humbug! Bring me an MFA grad who eats glass, takes photographs of his excrement and subjects said photographs to a complex chemical process that renders them illegible! Now that’s art!” That may very well be art in the right hands, but a straight-forward, beautiful image of the world can be art as well – in the right hands. Griechen proves this over and over.
In his most arresting photographs, Griechen focuses his sharp eye for composition, pattern, texture and color on mostly solitary figures and quiet moments devoid of any human presence. Through his simple process, he manages to mine some complex and layered images of Southern Louisiana that are both mundane, serene and, simultaneously, breath-taking in their attention to detail. When other people may walk past a dirty, brick wall festooned with an electrical meter, water pipes and graffiti, Griechen sees an opportunity to zoom-in tightly on the particulars and create a quasi-abstraction that would look smart beside a Kandinsky. The combination of a fence and the corner of an Acadian house with a stairway leading to its garconniere offered another photographic opportunity to Griechen: in this instance, he deftly exploited the angles of the architecture to create an image of visual complexity to rival any of M.C. Escher‘s imaginary labyrinths. Griechen has taken a photograph of a walking path surreptitiously created between a group of sugarcane harvesting trucks that visually echoes a path through an autumnal wood. He captures lush, green water lily pads or cypress trees framing and offering a sense of depth and scale to lone and elegant egrets in the wild. He finds visual drama and dynamics in an open doorway which leads from the blunt geometry of a worn, green French Quarter wall to a luxurious and inviting courtyard or the sight of a rainbow as seen through the nets hanging from a trawling boat. He also finds something poetic in the sight of a man putting away a pack of cigarettes into his jeans pocket while lingering in the doorway of a New Orleans tourist trap. To come full circle – if one looks closely to the left portion of this image, one can spy a three-quarter profile view of the graffitied wall mentioned at the top of this paragraph.
It’s no secret that in many respects, Griechen is tackling some well-worn, cliched Louisiana subjects, but it is the depth and precision of his response that rescues them from banality and superficiality. That, in and of itself, is an art. There is something to be said for a body of work that simply and effectively renews one’s interest in the world around oneself with all of its wonder and beauty. For all of those people who cannot accept an unabashedly beautiful, if somewhat conventional, image as art, I have this to say: artistic rigor is one thing; artistic rigor mortis is another thing, entirely. Too many artists these days confuse artistic rigor with difficulty, obtuseness and the idea that beauty is anathema when beauty (whichever way it is achieved) is really the name of the game and the game itself.
Some people find beauty in nature or the streets. Some people find beauty in geometry or abstraction. Others find beauty in ideas. Some find beauty in sexually charged material or blood, guts and excrement, and others find beauty in nothing.
However, the best people find beauty in everything!
Kerry Griechen is currently exhibiting his work in Lafayette Consolidated Government’s City Hall building on the corner of University Ave. and St. Landry St. in Lafayette, LA until the first week of May 2013.
To view more works by Griechen online, visit his website www.myeyephotos.com
by Reggie Rodrigue
Stephanie Patton, “Intersection,” vinyl, batting and muslin, 2013, 62 x 60 x 4 inches, photograph courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
Troy Dugas, “Rye Whiskey Blue,” vintage labels mounted to paper, 2012, 72 x 72 inches, photograph courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
Patterns. They’ve always held a fascination for us. We divine them from nature. We see them emerge in our own lives. We reconstruct them. We interpret, alter and interpolate them.
In truth, being able to see, recognize and interpret patterns is crucial to the survival of the human species. Without some sort of pattern recognition, no higher-order organism could function or survive or be called a higher-order organism, for that matter. This is because pattern is intrinsically linked to organization. Pattern is in our DNA, our brain structure, along with the rest of creation.
Pattern is also that upon which we build our digital lives and affect change in the real world of the 21st century. In the digital realm, we use complex algorithms – a finite set of mathematical procedures performed in a proscribed sequence – to compute vast amounts of data that would otherwise be impossible to do without algorithms. From these computations, we can begin to interpret patterns in the data. By doing so, we can better understand a pattern that may be an invisible or underlying cause of an issue which confronts us such as climate change, traffic flow or any number of other complex problems that are bigger than one mind can bear.
Currently at the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans, two Lafayette, LA artists who bring pattern to the fore in their own works are exhibiting: Stephanie Patton and Troy Dugas. Within both bodies of work, the two artists begin with a simple premise, a minimum of materials, and a highly repetitive process. However, their finalized works speak to the complexity, beauty and meaning that can unfold from such humble and rudimentary origins.
Stephanie Patton is a multimedia artists who currently lives and works in between Lafayette, LA and New Orleans, LA. She received a BFA in Painting from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1993 and an MFA in Photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996. After this, she spent some time living in New York City, engaging in the art scene there as well as taking classes with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where she honed her skills as a comedian. In 2001, Patton returned to Lafayette, LA and continues to grow her career as an artist as well as an educator. She also became a member of the wildly successful New Orleans artists’ collective, The Front.
Stephanie Patton, “Strength,” vinyl, batting and muslin, 2013, 79 x 79 x 15 inches, photograph courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
Stephanie Patton, “Valor,” vinyl, batting and muslin, 2013, 81 x 81 x 15 inches, photograph courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
Stephanie Patton, “Meeting,” vinyl, batting and muslin, 2013, 55 x 86 x 17 inches, photograph courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
Patton’s exhibition at Arthur Roger Gallery is titled “Private Practice.” The title is now part of a running joke with Patton’s work. Her last exhibition at The Front was titled “General Hospital.” Both titles refer to soap operas/dramas centered around doctors and medical environments.While the thought of naming one’s art exhibition after such processed cheese from television is extremely humorous, there is another point to the titles. They offer a point of entry and a certain amount of accessibility for the viewing of Patton’s Postminimalist works. The titles – with their allusions to drama, tension, sickness, healing and recovery – give viewers a clue that Patton’s works are more than just exercises in design and pattern.
Most of the works on display in “Private Practice” are quilted and shaped wall sculptures composed of white vinyl, batting and muslin, which hover and undulate before the viewer like some sort of hybrid between a cloud, a work by Frank Stella and a mandala. The works are anodyne, yet forceful and rigorous. Patton has found a way to take soft materials associated with rest and transmute them into a series of objects that speak of strength, presence, perseverance, and healing. It is an impressive feat, and viewing these pieces puts one in the frame of mind to think about, not only the more abstract and metaphysical ideas engendered in the work but, also, the thought, time, work, skill and care that went into sewing and composing it.
Stephanie Patton, “Conquer,” Video, 8 minutes 8 seconds, 2013, photograph courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
The real tour-de-force of Patton’s exhibition is a video, however. “Conquer” is 8 minutes and 8 seconds of gut-wrenching pain and claustrophobia followed by sublime relief and stoic transcendence. The video begins with a close-up of Patton’s head, neck and shoulders covered in a tight latticework of band-aids which gives her the look of a badly sculpted, clay bust. She stands before her work “Intersection.” The work acts as a formal backdrop to the action in the video. The action begins with Patton searching for an appropriate band-aid to pull. She finds one, and then … RIP! The pain of the action is palpable, and it just keeps going for what seems like an eternity of band-aid ripping; however, it is riveting. One winces and squirms while Patton steadily removes her dummy mask, keeping time with the sounds of her breathing and those nearly interminable separations of adhesive bandage from flesh. By the end of the video, Patton’s full face emerges from its cocoon. One can almost feel the blood coursing through her inflamed skin. Her wide, watery eyes stare out at the viewer with a startling amount of restraint; yet, there is also much in the way of clarity, openness and beauty in her gaze as well. It’s a brief moment of silent reflection and equanimity … and a challenge to the viewer to move through whatever pain is stifling his/her life into a similar state of unshakable grace.
If you would like to view Stephanie Patton’s video “Conquer,” please follow this link to the Arthur Roger Gallery website.
Troy Dugas, “St. Jerome #4,” European liquor labels on paper, 60 x 60 inches, 2012, photograph courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
Troy Dugas, “Fragancia,” cigar labels on cut paper, 47 x 47 inches, 2013, photograph courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
Speaking of unshakable grace, artist Troy Dugas has that in spades as well. One needs such things to produce work at the same caliber as Dugas’ vintage label collages.
Early in his professional life, Dugas began working with a particular form of collage that involves using duplicates of the same image, rather than the usual pastiche of dissimilar images and materials that typifies most collage. To put it in mathematical terms (which somehow seems fitting), if the usual form of collage is a process of addition, then Dugas’ form of collage is a process of multiplication – amplifying a single element into what seems like an ecstatic, geometric infinity of pattern. In earlier works, Dugas used identical, vintage prints of ships at sea and flower arrangements to create images that mimicked what one would see if one were to look at the original images through a prismatic lens or the compound eyes of an insect.
Today, the focus of Dugas’ work is on creating abstract designs, second-hand portraits and still lifes with large quantities of vintage product labels.
Dugas abstract works mimic sacred geometry, calling to mind the sort of patterns one would find in a church, mosque or temple. From afar, they take the form of mandalas and are quite meditative in their overall impact.
For the uninitiated, the shock comes when one realizes that these exquisite works are made of old labels for liquor, cigars, fish and canned vegetables, among other commodities. At first, discovering this is a wonderful surprise; however, if one thinks about the meaning behind such work long enough, one reaches a gray area where marketing and spirituality rub shoulders a little to comfortably with one another. This forces one to wonder whether these are glorified advertisements or the sincere works of an artist on his own spiritual path. Personally, I tend to think the latter is closer to the truth.
In an age where everything, including our own digital lives on social media websites, is a product to be marketed and advertised ad nauseum, it is difficult to find a space for reflection and spiritual pursuit that eludes the dictates of “the market.” While Dugas’ works are certainly part and parcel of the overall system of capitalism (they are being sold at New Orleans’ poshest gallery after all) and are composed of the refuse of this system, they still manage to take the viewer somewhere beyond the daily grind of consumption – a space of pure, Platonic freedom.
Dugas is involved in a game of extreme subversion. He begins a work with a pile of the lowest form of art and creates something wholly ineffable and transitive. In the context of our time, there is something truly transgressive about Dugas’ work in that it exudes skill (countering the prevailing rubric of “deskilling” in art today), it obviously takes much time and patience to complete it (two things of which most people have very little these days), and most importantly it turns pop culture and pop art on its head. Given enough green bean labels and time, Dugas can create a work of art on par with a Byzantine mosaic or a Buddhist mandala. He metaphorically takes Warhol’s soup can and runs with it in the other direction. By slicing and dicing commodity labels into a million little pieces and recontextualizing them, Dugas points to a way out of the consumerist paradigm by diving right into and through it.
Troy Dugas, “Fayum Clos du Calvaire,” European liquor labels on wood panel, 48 x 48 inches, 2012, photogrpah courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
However, Dugas has recently decided to go in other directions as far as the type of images he produces. His “Fayum” series is a case in point. The product labels have remained a constant and pattern still plays a key role in shaping the work, but Dugas deploys these to compose representational images which riff on the tradition of Coptic Fayum painting. This type of work flourished in Egypt during the Roman occupation of the country at the tale end of the Roman Empire.
Fayum paintings were typically made of encaustic or tempera on wood panel, and they represented living portraits of deceased individuals. These portraits were painted during an individual’s lifetime, displayed in his/her home, and then placed over the head of his/her mummy as a reminder of what the deceased looked like when he/she was alive. Fayum paintings were basically the Graeco-Roman innovation on the ancient Egyptian funerary mask.
While unequivocally beautiful, Dugas’ “Fayum Series” complicates an already complex and hybridized tradition. These works have a particular sort of resonance for our time, bringing to mind the collapse of a civilization (possibly our own included); the atemporality of our digital age where information, ideas, art, and design from vastly different eras coexist through various media simultaneously and are equally valued; an exploration of the colonialist impulses of much modern art such as Picasso and Matisse’s osmotic response to African art and our own colonialist polemics in the Middle East today; and a porous view of individual identity. Beside the infiltration of corporate logos in these works replicating ancient funerary paintings of people who actually were alive at one point in time, Dugas throws another conceptual monkey wrench in the proceedings by basing some of the works in the series on contemporary arrest photographs found on the internet. It’s a chilling touch that begs viewers to answer the uncomfortable question of what posterity and history have in store for them.
Troy Dugas, “Still Life Cactus,” assorted labels mounted to wood panel, 28 x 35 inches, 2013, photograph courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
The specter of modernism haunts Dugas’ “Still Life” Series a little more lightly than his “Fayum” Series, if no less significantly. Here, Dugas breaks with his convention of using a single type of label. He employs an unprecedented assortment of labels to approximate the varying colors, textures and techniques utilized in modernist still lifes. Dugas’ obsessive technique seems to loosen in these works, affording them a sense of playfulness and breezy, if scattered, sensuality.
Together, Patton and Dugas’ current artworks afford viewers vital insight into the ways pattern can be more than simple decoration. Before the onset of modernism and postmodernism in Western culture, there was much meaning invested in pattern. Viewed as symbols of status and origin, pattern was used as a tool to visually order and label the world around oneself. Because of this, every pattern had a fixed meaning. This view of pattern generally broke down under the influence of the modernist impulse to purge symbolism from visual culture. Postmodernism then relegated pattern to being a handmaiden to style and design. The beauty of the contemporary use of pattern is that now it has a freedom of use unafforded to it in the past and it can carry a plethora of meanings depending on its contextualization. This is because we approach pattern from a multitude of different perspectives in our own contemporary moment.
With Patton and Dugas, we have two examples of contemporary artists reinvigorating past forms and materials within new contexts. Their works hold the mirror up to our own complex lives in subtle yet profound ways, unearthing and reflecting undercurrents and patterns of reality. We are given the responsibility of recognizing the patterns and determining their significance.
Stephanie Patton’s “Private Practice” and Troy Dugas’ “The Shape of Relics” are both on view at the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans until April 20, 2013.
Photo of John Otte, courtesy of the estate of John Otte
My new article for Oxford American Magazine is out on the website. It’s a memoriam for curator/artist John Otte who passed in New Orleans on October 3, 2012. He was one of the shining stars of recent NOLA art, and he created what I believe to be the most significant exhibition of art in the city in recent memory, if not in it’s history. Check out the article and find out why by following this link> http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2012/nov/05/only-stair-doesnt-creak-john-otte/
DROP artist Miss Pussycat in all of her splendor
Thanks to the initiative of the founders of New Orleans online art publication Pelican Bomb (who happen to be dear friends and associates of Louisianaesthetic), NOLA now has its own locavore art subscription site, www.thedropnola.com. Once on the site, viewers and interested collectors can choose from three separate packages of rotating work from NOLA artists for three separate subscription fees. It’s a great way to collect art from this hotbed of artistic activity and support local artists in the process! The first edition includes works from Dave Greber, Miss Pussycat and Keith Duncan! New editions will be curated and offered every two months. Local subscribed collectors will be invited to a party where the works will be disseminated, and other subscribed collectors will have their work mailed to them. Check it out!
“USA, Atlanta, A Pawn Shop”
courtesy of the artist
“Joseph and Jasmon Jackson Play in the Bayou, Isle de Jean Charles”
courtesy of the artist
courtesy of the artist
My new article on this year’s iteration of the ongoing photography exhibition “Picturing the South” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta is up on the Oxford American website. Photographers Martin Parr, Kael Alford and Shane Lavalette offer viewers some very distinct interpretations of Southern identity, culture and landscape. Parr chose to focus his mordant lens on the the hierarchy of cultures that make-up the city of Atlanta, GA, skewing every level of the city with an in-your-face sense of humor and satire. Alford goes for a more devastatingly Romantic take on the ongoing environmental ,political and cultural disasters plaguing the small island Isle de Jean Charles off the coast of Louisiana. Lavalette takes a more circuitous route through the South, focusing on it’s musical heritage. It’s a smorgasbord of Southerness that is both surprising at times and totally expected at others. You be the judge of whether they got it right or wrong- let me know what you think in the comments section of this post! To view the article, follow the link to “The Only Stair That Doesn’t Creek” on the Oxford American website here.
acrylic on cnavas
36″ x 48″
acrylic on canvas
40″ x 30″
acrylic on canvas
30″ x 40″
acrylic on canvas
48″ x 24″
acrylic on canvas
48″ x 24″
acrylic on canvas
30″ x 40″
“Was It a Dream?”
acrylic on canvas
40″ x 30″
by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
Dorothea Tanning, the grande dame of American Surrealism, passed from this plain of existence into what I can only imagine to be the ether, the world of dream, earlier this year on January 31, 2012 in New York City. Tanning’s artistic output is vast- it straddled much of the 20th century. Considering that she died at 101, it was only natural for her work to mutate and take on many forms and styles, including abstraction, as she evolved as an artist. Toward the end of her life, after her husband Surrealist master Max Ernst passed, she took on the roles of writer and poet as well. Yet, it is her early work, grounded in figuration and Surrealism, that remains the touchstone of her canon to this day. Tanning’s paintings such as “Birthday” and “A Little Night Music” take their viewers into a cloistered inner-world of feminine desire and becoming that is frank yet ultimately enigmatic. These works pictorially take place inside domestic settings, yet fantastical flora and fauna share these interiors with her women.
For instance, “Birthday” is a self portrait inside a maze-like home. In the portrait, Tanning stands in a doorway, wearing an anachronistic costume which includes a train of vegetation, and her breasts are exposed. It’s as if she just walked into the room and confronted the viewer. Yet, the look upon her countenance is ambiguous. One would expect shock to register on her face. Instead, the viewer is confronted with a visage that is on the edge of equanimity and fatigue. A lemur-like creature with wings huddles in the foreground of the painting, looking more stunned than the artist herself.
In Lafayette, LA, Artist Amy Guidry began the body of work she is currently showing at the Downtown Lafayette Ballet Academie shortly before Tanning’s death. There is serendipity at play here. Out of a strange coincidence comes a passing of the torch. Guidry’s work on display shares so many affinities with Tanning’s work that it is almost uncanny. Here’s the check list:
1. surreal figuration – check!
2. self portraiture – check!
3. fantastical flora and fauna – check!
4. allusions to female desire – check!
5. allusions to becoming – check!
6. unusual setting – check!
7. flamboyant fashions – check!
Despite all these correspondences, Guidry isn’t just repeating history, however. There’s a new sensibility to these paintings that probably could not have been registered in Tanning’s world of the 1940’s. Whereas, Tanning painted herself and her heroines in slightly ominous domestic settings, Guidry paints herself in a forest of birch trees floating in a white void. In symbolic terms, Guidry has created a tabula rasa ready for a new investigation into what it means to be a Western woman in the 21st Century.
In Tanning’s era, women were still viewed, on the whole, as second-class citizens whose main occupation was being “barefoot and pregnant,” regardless of the work of the earlier Suffragettes, female sweat shop workers of the late 19th and early 20th century, and the many women who entered the work force in the absence of men during WWII. As soon as the war ended, hard working women were “put in the their place” once again, and were there until the dawn of the Feminist movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s. It’s hard not to think that Tanning was responding to her times when she painted her Surrealist masterworks. This is just conjecture, but she was painting a moment when women were caught between freedom (self determination) and gender entrapment – between what she and her sex needed or wanted and to what society as whole said that women could aspire.
Old habits die hard, and the ideas that Tanning was grappling with haven’t exactly died. Women still make less than men. They still have to deal with the issues of self-determination and their place in society – the recent brouhaha over writer Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic Monthly article about the debate over women being able to “have it all” is testament to that (Artinfo got into the fray and collected a gaggle of responses from female art professionals here.) However, a sea change is currently under way. Today, there are more women enrolled in universities than men. This means that there will soon be more educated women in the workforce than men, and the ranks of female professionals and politicians in the upper echelons of society continue to expand. The glass ceiling that women have been under for so long seems to be cracking (the recent conservative obsession with the politics of women’s bodies only serves to underscore the progress women have made). With this comes a new conception of what it means to be a woman. The title of Amy Guidry’s exhibition “New Realm” says it all.
In fact, (and I’m not entirely sure whether Guidry is aware of this, but…) in classic symbolism, birch trees signify new beginnings and a cleansing of the past. I spoke with the artist about her use of birch trees in the paintings at her opening, being curious about their use and considering that birch trees are not typically associated with Louisiana. Guidry told me that she was simply attracted to them for their visual quality. In the space of the white void and the cleansed forest, Guidry has unconsciously cleared the way for women to advance from their cloistered existence in domesticity into the future – and according to Guidry’s artworks, the future will be all about reconnecting to nature with women at the vanguard of this movement … and wearing some pretty fierce clothing! It might sound laughable, but if one is going to fight the good fight, one might as well look good doing it (Guidry is quite the snappy dresser, by the way). The clothing Guidry depicts herself in registers as simultaneously regal, militaristic, feminine, antique and contemporary, and the attention to the details of these garments is phenomenal. One could get lost in the shimmering folds and lacey effects that she marshals. This attention to detailed figuration also applies to the rest of her subjects from goldfish, butterflies, birds (especially the glorious pheasant departing Guidry’s mouth in “Freedom”), and flowers to her own lips, rosy pallor, and outsized heart in “Complete.”
The work goes much deeper than that, however. Guidry also seems to have found a way past the old conundrum of “the Madonna” and “the whore,” the two standard/opposing symbolic measurements of womanhood in patriarchal society. In Guidry’s “New Realm” paintings, a perfect balance is struck between spirituality and sensuality, with neither overpowering the other. One gets the sense that Guidry has a finely calibrated sense of self through these works, even when she is depicting herself in some sort of rapturous moment such as “Beginning.” All together, the works in “New Realm” call to mind an incongruous but ultimately satisfying mix of Persephone, Joan of Ark, St. Francis of Assisi, Bjork, Kate Moss, Kazimir Malevich (the master of composing figures against a white background) and, as mentioned above, Dorthea Tanning. Somehow, it all works and makes sense. It’s basically about the ability to choose one’s direction or directions without distraction, without shackles, and without having to ask for permission from the powers that be. Guidry seems to be saying that the real power resides inside all of us, whether we are innies, outties are something in between. We can all be “forces of nature” as long as we tend to ourselves and our surroundings with diligence, curiosity, wisdom and love.
Amy Guidry’s “New Realm” is on view at the Ballet Academie (200 Polk St., Lafayette, LA 70501) for the month of July until August’s 2nd Saturday Artwalk.