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Art in the Ruins

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One of the perennial themes of science fiction stories for at least the last half-century or so has been life in a post-apocalyptic society. Everyone from Philip K. Dick to William Gibson had a crack at it, and visions of decimated landscapes with crazed zombies living in the ruins became popularized in films like Blade Runner and Mad Max. Little did we know that such scenes could also occur in parts of this city. Certainly the crazed behavior of gangs of roving psychopaths in New Orleans East a few weeks ago could have been taken from some sort of Mad Max scenario. But most aspects of our post-K landscape are notably subtler, as we see in the work of two area artists.

In some ways, the legacy of hurricane Katrina has assumed proportions that are as mythic as they are meteorological. Mythic in the original sense of a grand and mysterious narrative, an odyssey that takes place as much in the mind or soul as on the ground. Michel Varisco's Fragile Land photographs occupy a post-K realm that exists on several levels. In her artist statement, she says her photographs and assemblages are 'meditations on the relativity of time," but she's probably not invoking Einstein. In all probability, it's more about metaphors. Every picture tells a story, but some stories can't be told in words, or at least not so eloquently. City Park No. 1 is an example of a nonverbal epiphany in the sense of a sudden realization. In old comic strips, a light bulb lit up over someone's head, but this photo recalls the words of Daoist philosopher Lao Tzu: 'Continuity in the midst of change is the secret of the universe." In City Park, which was inundated for weeks with brackish water, there are many stumps like the one in the foreground, all that remains of dead trees that had to be felled. Rising like a ghost behind it is a tree that survived, and while nothing unusual in itself, the juxtaposition suggests that change may itself be transitory. Stuff happens, but life goes on.

Varisco's landscapes sometimes feature ethereal barrens in which nothing but swamp grass appears where swampy forests once stood, imagery that in some ways recalls Walker Percy's novel, Love in the Ruins. In fact, Varisco cites Percy as an influence. Whatever the reference, her photographs of twisted, storm-stressed trees eerily silhouetted amid luminous patches of fog, the multitudes of birds huddled along wires and telephone poles and such, all suggest portents in a new world emerging from the ruins of the old. That is a theme that extends far beyond a purely physical aspect of recovery, one that harks to an older, more mythic sensibility where the boundaries that separate the inner and outer world are not so clearly defined. Despite their traditional pictorial presentation, Varisco's photographs defy neat or easy categorization.

At Barrister's, Maxx Sizeler's Picking up the Pieces is actually an attempt to sort and repackage relics from the sites where demolished houses once stood in a kind of conceptual reprise of the techniques of souvenir and specimen collectors. Most of what we see is archeological evidence of past civilizations in the form of antique Coke or Pepsi bottles, shards of pottery or bits of archaic devices from bygone ages neatly arranged in handmade cardboard display cases. The challenge here is one of mental framing. When we see boxed antique relics, the tendency is to think in terms of assemblages such as Joseph Cornell's magical shadow boxes. But what Sizeler is up to here may be more broadly psychological and Dadaistic "—a taxonomic presentation of relics as the soul of a lost world, the exotic bits and fragments of the past that comprise the psychic foundations on which the familiar modern city was built.

Michel Varisco's photographs such as  City Park No. 1  suggest the psychological dimensions of the storm-ravaged landscape.
  • Michel Varisco's photographs such as City Park No. 1 suggest the psychological dimensions of the storm-ravaged landscape.

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