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Visionary Imagist Artists Draw on the Vocabulary of Louisiana's Cultural Heritage


NEW ORLEANS — Over the last decade, the growth of vital art centers outside New York has been so extraordinary that it will likely be deemed the New American Regionalism by future historians.

Although they are university-educated, the new regionalists have resisted both the high-culture blandishments of academic art and the nostalgia of much provincial work. Their efforts have been supported by a comparable increase in regional galleries and art journals and also by a general shift in local newspaper art-writing to genuinely informative, sophisticated criticism.

Unlike regional artists in the past, who frequently rejected the art of their times, contemporary regionalists are embracing current art movements, yet they are phrasing them in the language of their own particular places. Nowhere is this articulation of the worldwide through the local more apparent then in the work of the Visionary Imagists, an association of southern Louisiana artists.

These artists have adapted the vocabularies of jazz, rhythm and blues, Cajun music, voodoo, Mardi Gras, and Mediterranean Catholicism to relay their concern with spiritual malaise and environmental desecration. The hot Caribbean colors in their work pay tribute to the semitropical climate and the often forgotten Latin heritage of the area.

As the name implies, these imagists have forsworn both abstraction and the cool cerebrations of minimalism in favor of naturalist representation. Yet lurking in the recognizable objects is a teasingly skewed illusionism. Subtle incongruities of scale create a sense of the uncanny or the surreal. The viewer is invited to see the figures not as simple representations but as metaphors.

Underlying the individuality of the Visionary Imagists is a yearning for transcendence. For Douglas Bourgeois, whom Artnews magazine recently named one of the 10 American artists for the 1990s, the "personal search for the ineffable" has focused on pop culture. In the late 1970s, Bourgeois' canvases were filled with portraits--icons, really--of doomed cult figures such as Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift and Tuesday Weld. But his recent paintings, inspired by friends who have surmounted self-destructive behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse, symbolize the possibility for healing.

The moral seriousness of Bourgeois' painting--indeed, of all the Visionary Imagists--contrasts with the nonchalant irony or acid pessimism of much contemporary art. Yet humor is a mainstay.

A fey postmodern wordplay has been transplanted into the cultural soil of the bayous by Kentucky-born painter Ann Hornback. Hornback expresses both environmental and feminist concerns in her literal visual translations of common expressions such as bus boys or broad-minded.

Similarly inventive is Andrew Bascle, whose sculptures are made from found objects. Observers have sometimes interpreted Bascle's creative reuse of scrap metal, plastic bottles and even lint as a plea for recycling. Bascle, however, strives for something else: "I believe all materials have a hidden life, which I try to bring out."

The meticulous craftsmanship in Visionary Imagist art, a reaffirmation of the value of work, is typified in the paintings and painted constructions of Jacqueline Bishop. Bishop achieves a magic realism, the visual equivalent of Latin American literature.

Perhaps because southern Louisiana has been disfigured by pollution, environmental matters have indirectly informed the work of all the Visionary Imagists. But for Bishop, the environmental threat is a persistent theme. Her "Burning Birdhouse" series features small birdhouses encrusted with enamel-like pictures of birds in lush tropical settings. The serenity of the setting is broken by flames shooting from the roofs.

"Visionary with a vengeance" is how Roger Green, art critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune describes the paintings of Charles Blank. Blank pierces, twists and withers the human form. High-key colors and ominous shadows heighten the drama of figures caught up in a psychic maelstrom.

Whereas the work of the other Visionary Imagists are lyric hymns of transformation, Bascle's paintings--like those of painter Francis Bacon, whom he admires--palpitate with a sense of fear. Sharing this taste for the macabre is sculptor Dona Lief, whose work reiterates a fascination with non-Western ritual and sorcery, and which highlights what Lief calls humankind's lost "spiritual connection with nature."

As a movement, Visionary Imagism was influenced by the art and personal verve of Robert Warrens, a Louisiana State University professor. Critic Edward Lucie-Smith has described the freewheeling fantasy in Warrens' painting as "the quintessence of this particular aspect of Louisiana art."

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