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Journeying Into Haiti's Rich Past : Heritage: The syncretic, sensual and spiritual strands of Haitian art come together in a colorful exhibit at the Iturralde Gallery.

August 14, 1991|LEAH OLLMAN

SAN DIEGO — "Everywhere in voodoo art, one universe abuts another," wrote Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson about the sacred art of Haiti. African tribal customs and Catholic rituals have mingled and fused to breed vibrant, intriguing forms of expression in the former French colony.

"A Haitian Heritage," at the Iturralde Gallery, gives an ample account of the country's visual richness. The show's paintings, sequined flags and metal sculptures, which date from the 1950s to the present, come primarily from a single private collection, but the selection is broad, touching on syncretic, sensual and spiritual strands of Haitian art.

Most of the work was collected by Dr. Robert Brictson, a retired professor who divides his time between homes in La Jolla and Jacmel, Haiti. Brictson's collection is complemented by photographs of Haitian life made by San Diegan Bradley Smith and several works of art from Smith's own collection. All of the works are for sale.

A Nativity scene, a baptism of sorts and a vision of earthly paradise--complete with Adam, Eve and the serpent--anchor the collection in traditional Christian themes. But less familiar sacred themes appear here, too, stemming from African tribal beliefs in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, and in the power of the dead. In one painting, rows of white-robed women with palms raised and eyes closed frame a man who from one hand dangles a metal implement in fire, while holding a bottle of rum in the other. He is surrounded by candles and paintings made directly on the ground.

In another work, a three-headed man extends his arms, and each hand sprouts three small horned figures. The sequined panels here also merge the iconic and the fantastic. Meant as shimmering announcements of a coming god or goddess, the flags are dense with symbols--entwining serpents, stars from the heavens, bottled offerings, skulls and crossbones. Like many of the paintings, the flags radiate energy. Their brilliant colors and flat, outlined images bespeak an unpolished immediacy.

One of the most curious and unsettling paintings in the show, "La Rue Enfer" (Hell Street), brings to mind centuries-old religious manuscript illustrations in the crispness of its execution and its detailed narrative. The painting, made by Castera Bazile in 1960, features a caped man who directs his winged and tailed cronies with long, pointed fingernails. Following his instructions, the creatures escort more typical-looking humans along a path and into a pool of fire, a hellhole of flames, where they cringe with pain.

Charming genre scenes round out the show with images of a market, a modest dance hall teeming with life and a bountiful, magical tree that bears a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. Though several weak, commercial-looking paintings also appear here, they are the exceptions in a show of infectious vitality and freshness.

Iturralde Gallery, 7592 Fay Ave., through Sept. 8. Open Tuesday-Friday 10-6, Saturday 11-6 and by appointment (456-3922).

Greg Reser's new paintings (on view at Java Coffeehouse/Gallery) may be the first of his works to be titled, "Artistic Agony," but that theme has permeated the San Diego artist's work for years. His previous paintings paired art historical images with more abstract approaches to color and form to pose the artist's eternal challenge: how to assimilate the lessons and styles of the past and yet create something new and original? Implicit in Reser's provocative questioning was the issue of painting's capacity to express emotion and meaning--how much does the medium allow?

In the new work, Reser's agony is far less conceptual and far more palpable. Each of the four paintings titled "Artistic Agony" shows a pair of hands working to prepare a canvas for painting, and in each, an accident has occurred. Sawing the stretcher bars yielded a sliced, bloodied finger; nailing the corners of the bars together resulted in a nail through a finger; and stapling the canvas to the bars caused a punctured thumb. These are the practical agonies, and they are much less engaging than the intellectual ones Reser has explored elsewhere.

The paintings themselves echo the process of construction they describe. Each comprises two panels, like stretcher bars, incompletely joined. As always, Reser's work is well-crafted and visually coy--such odd elements as colored eggs and squiggles of color appear alongside the injuries--but these paintings feel simple and silly.

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