Featuring work made between 1978 and 2003, Willie Birch's Looking Back expo provides a fairly comprehensive sense of what this 67-year-old African-American artist has been doing for the past few decades. It's a journey that took him from living in the Magnolia housing project as a boy to having his work in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art among other institutions, with awards including a Guggenheim fellowship along the way. That may sound like heady stuff, but Birch has always remained true to his roots, using his art to celebrate the culture of the back streets and their Afro-Caribbean vibe. Even his New York-period work vibrates with colors that seem local, building on his more abstract pieces of the 1970s, which often read like a lexicon of glyphs from African fabric patterns. He took a turn toward folk art in the 1980s in works like The Last Goodbye, a painting of a funeral in which the colors and forms evoke the rhythms of inner city life, and where the folksy style fits neatly with the folksy subjects. More recently, he reduced his palette to black, white and gray in works like Evoking the Orishas (pictured) which conveys the incantatory rhythms of a Voodoo ritual. In art as in life, Birch is a populist who celebrates the transcendent spirit of even his most prosaic subjects.
Afro-Caribbean culture also profoundly influenced Paul Ninas, a white man who was one of the more influential New Orleans artists of the mid-20th century. A Midwesterner who spent his early adult years in the West Indies, he found a similar culture in the New Orleans area, where he spent the rest of his life. In these works on paper, his drawings of Caribbean people flow seamlessly into later paintings like Back Bay Biloxi, where staccato forms convey the primal rhythms of places where nature is strong and the natives are necessarily tough and resilient. — D. Eric Bookhardt
Willie Birch: Looking Back, 1978-2003
Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999; www.arthurrogergallery.com
Paul Ninas: Paper Trail, Works on Paper
LeMieux Galleries, 332 Julia St., 522-5988; www.lemieuxgalleries.com