Galleries come and go; that much we know. Yet, in this city, there always seem to be more coming than going. Still, it came as a shock when Galerie Simonne Stern closed its doors in December 2002 after owner-director Donna Perret tied the knot with Compaq computer founder Ben Rosen and decamped to the Big Apple. The Stern was the city's oldest serious contemporary art gallery, and for years the building just sat there, a dark and empty hole in the middle of gallery row. But finally, after years in limbo, the old Stern site has been reborn as Gallery Bienvenu. And while new galleries happen, the splendiferous sleekness of this one, designed by architect Lee Ledbetter, is a pleasant surprise, upping the ante on the proverbial white cube, local garden variety.
The art on the walls complements the starkly elegant ambience of the space, yet even here surprise is the order of the day. A longtime devotee of the urban landscape, Katherine White this time around proffers some surprisingly reductive and even minimal views of reflections off the river. It's a process that she says starts with photographs and collages and ends up as encaustic and ink "explorations of wave patterns and light." Currents, Eddies and Light.1, a dishwater gray expanse emanating waves of pale, undulating reflections, is minimally representational, yielding a satisfying sense of the river's densely viscous murk. White heightens the contrast in Currents.6 with a splash of romantic incandescence against midnight purple waters, but cuts it down the middle in Currents.10 with subtly luminous traceries that define the convoluted wave forms with near-Japanese economy -- all of which make for an interesting new ripple in White's aesthetic direction.
Unexpected as well are Keysook Geum's "web" dresses. A Korean artist and costume designer with a Ph.D. in textile studies, Geum employs beads, silk remnants and wire mesh in delicately lacy, diaphanous forms that suggest an invisible human presence seemingly levitating over the ground. Interwoven with traditional symbols like the lotus, a Buddhist icon of purification and enlightenment, their web-like forms also comment on the cohesive ephemera of the Internet and our increasingly interwoven and global culture. Flow, a kind of 6-and-a-half-foot tall gown with elongated arms and a collar that frizzes out into a splash pattern of pixie dust, suggests a carnival gown for a fairy queen, or perhaps something woven by humanoid spiders with a flair for the dramatic. Barely there, the shadows can seem more tangible than the work itself. In art world terms, it recalls Leslie Dill's poetry dresses -- only here the verses are implicit.
Also new to New Orleans are the paintings and collages of Peter Opheim, a New Mexico artist originally from Germany. His paintings are pop abstractions that apparently reference landscapes in tight, bright, Klee-like colors and biological forms that reminded me of pretty pills embedded in terrazzo, or fossilized jellybeans in sandstone punctuated occasionally with vertical design motifs in a kind of Reaganesque tribute to the Sierra Madre. It's all fairly pristine if a bit unyielding. His artist statement poses questions like "What is your relationship to beauty?" which sounds like a line from Homeland Security, and ends with an Arnold Schwarzenegger taunt: "How strong are you?" I'm not entirely sure what I think of the paintings yet, but his collages in the back room are kind of cool.
More mental mysteries come to us courtesy of Teresa Cole, whose unique intaglio prints explore "optics as an agent of seduction." and the way "pattern is used to distort information to make it secure." Actually, these pieces make pretty much visual sense, even as her comments come off as ... cryptic, you might say. Take, for instance, A Crime in Three Parts, which features two panels of gestural red and black vertical slashes punctuated with seemingly coded patterns of white dots and an underlying maze of ovals like a goulash of prying eyes and oyster shells. A central panel features a black shaft down the center scribed with a devious mosaic pattern set against a field of pale slate, a dark and lacy armature vibrating in a fog of aesthetic intrigue. All in all, it's an auspicious debut for the sleekest new space on gallery row.