A couple of decades ago, the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism in Baton Rouge launched an ad campaign with a bumper sticker that read, "Louisiana, A Dream State." It struck me as smart for a place that never made much sense to claim it was really a hallucination, a vast daydream posing as part of America. But someone finally got hip to the implication that we were all sleepwalking here, and the "dream state" campaign was scuttled. Too bad. Yet it all came back to me after seeing Leslie Elliottsmith's new paintings.
If Louisiana were still calling itself "a dream state," Elliottsmith's Landscapes of Human Emotions might be the evidence. Filled with sketchy, freewheeling swirls of colorful acrylics, they suggest those mysterious dream narratives that linger in the mind upon waking. In Futility in Paradise, an arcade of gothic arches shelters an elongated pool or canal. Just beyond it a wildfire blazes. A solitary nude woman sloughs through the water carrying a bucket in each hand, but it is clearly a case of too little too late, like those dreams of moving in slow motion in a speeded-up world (not to mention appearing naked in public at an environmental disaster).
In Everything Under the Surface, a woman at the base of a tidal wave thrusts her arms upward, and its unclear whether she wants to hold it back or join it as it looms over her like a giant question mark. In another, a woman dressed for the mall sprouts holy rays like Our Lady of Guadalupe, as flowering weeds grow tall as trees behind her. In all of them, nature or the imagination, or both, run amuck as all hell breaks loose and civilized order comes unglued. Elliottsmith's brush work can seem offhand, yet it briskly conveys these otherworldly visions from a limbo zone where the reality of dreams trumps what we ordinarily imagine to be real.
No less dreamy are Matthew Cox's peculiar oil paintings at Jonathan Ferrara. In Hiding Brunhilde, seven or eight women are decked out in filmy medieval gowns and capes like lost extras from a Wagner opera. Their dour, horsey looks suggest the effects of overly long winters (or genetic links to the British royal family), but they are very cleverly painted. Seen from a distance, they look precise and detailed a la van Eyck or Botticelli, but up close the brush work is really very sketchy, generating an illusion of crispness that is almost as impressive as actual precision might have been. In Protein Drink, a similar crew, including guys, appears in a modern kitchen with their capes and repressed expressions as a blender whirs behind them. There are many ways to interpret this, but why bother? A good painter can paint anything, and it is to Cox's credit that he can make this stuff seem so convincing. His paintings of cars and such, created with rubber stamps, are clever as well. More "high concept" than conceptual, they impress without necessarily engaging the senses -- at least, not in the same wryly sensual way.
High-concept art, in which the concept determines the idiom and execution, appears to be gaining a foothold, especially at the alternative venues. A couple of examples of this can be seen at Dante's Kitchen in Riverbend, where ink drawings by Francine Judd and David Rhoden are on view. Judd's pieces utilize her own whimsical iconography inspired by Asian alphabets, resulting in intimate yet breezy works that probe the boundaries between linguistics and decor. Rhoden calls his work the "nascent intelligence behind the sarcastic result," which is a funny way of referring to his subjects: sumo wrestlers. His images are bold, faux-grotesque popisms, bounding ovoids that threaten to leap from the walls like abstract postmodern cartoon characters on steroids.
Not enough is written about the numerous alternative venues that exhibit the work of interesting or promising, if not exactly well-known artists, yet such venues are the true spawning grounds of local creativity, where visual ideas are exposed to countless casual encounters. As the year draws to a close, it's time to acknowledge the contribution of all those alternative spaces, and groups such as 3 Ring Circus, that connect emerging artists with the public and help make this city the fertile aesthetic crescent that it is.