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Water, water, everywhere

New Orleans Artists in Exile captures the city's devastation

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The rising, polluted waters of Hurricane Katrina are an expected motif in New Orleans Artists in Exile at Arts Without Borders Lambert Gallery. It was, after all, water combined with bureaucratic negligence, racism and classism that resulted in what will surely go down as one of the grand debacles of the nascent 21st century.

Like Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina was a disaster that brought untold traumas to its victims but also a sense of unity in desolation. It's a strange solidarity indeed between the New Orleans aristocrats with second homes on higher ground who have lamented their losses in the pages of glossy magazines, and the less privileged residents captured in TV news stories who have seen their entire pre-storm existence erased.

Artists are their own subgroup inside the subgroup of New Orleans' displaced -- people who often struggle financially and psychologically, regardless of hurricanes, and who suffer unique injury when disaster strikes.

Several of the 12 artists in New Orleans Artists in Exile have had their teaching positions eradicated, lost stockpiles of work or had their studios and homes flooded. Eighty-two-year-old New Orleans photographer Herman Leonard, who has shot some of the music world's most gilded throats -- Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday -- lost countless prints in the storm.

But the selection of work on display in New Orleans Artists in Exile functions as a resuscitation of an indomitable New Orleans spirit that so many fear will be lost when the city is remade in some new form. His black-and-white photographs on display highlight not only iconic crooners but an ineffable, egalitarian aspect of New Orleans, visible in images of a joyous Creole Mass or a gleefully jitterbugging interracial couple at a cramped juke joint.

The gallery's foyer features a vision of Katrina's devastation filtered through an artist's eye. One of the exhibition's most dramatic, haunting images is Sandy Chism's large painting "Levee Break," a semi-abstract landscape in oleaginous olive greens and tans, reminiscent of the similarly tortured, dense works of Anselm Kiefer. On the facing wall are Derek Bell's "Post-Katrina" photographs, which add an artful touch to disturbing newspaper documents of the hurricane's aftermath. Invested with rich color and a golden afternoon light, images like one of a body floating face-down in the water have a Sebastiao Salgado effect of intensifying horror by aestheticizing it. Bell captures a heavily tattooed, wheelchair-bound denizen of the city and a heavyset woman cropped at the neck surveying the flooded trash-filled swamp of her city -- both represent the human wreckage in a place filled with flotsam.

The literalness of Bell's photography is balanced by several painters in the exhibition who use abstraction as an appropriately inexact, open-ended tool with which to comment upon tragedy. Kathleen Banton's abstract painting "Right now we need power and strength" features lines of bright blue and orange cutting through a gooey mass of thick, gobby brushstrokes in an evocation of difficult progress.

Abstraction proves a mixed bag, however, in the large selection of works by New Orleans gallery owner and painter Jonathan Ferrara, a man of noble ambition who has campaigned for artists' health care and to take guns off New Orleans' streets. Ferrara's primary experiments are with various surface textures, but he takes his roaming style on an unfortunate detour in two diamond-shaped canvases splattered with Pollock dribbles and two eyeballs titled "Open Your Eyes."

New Orleans appears, at least on the evidence of this show, to value its women artists as much as its men. Tribute to an iconoclastic, sultry N.O. vibe are Jenny Bagert's small Polaroid image transfers of nude pregnant women and brooding artsy vixens that suggest the darkly sexual lyrics of P.J. Harvey. And one of the show's standouts is Miranda Lake, whose blend of fairy tale, apocalyptic landscapes and vintage photographs of children recall outsider artist Henry Darger and the retro media mishmashes of Savannah's Marcus Kenney.

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