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Dixie Cup Runneth Over

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It's called The Truth About God, but despite the definitive tone, you will find few clear revelations, divine or otherwise, in this enigmatic exhibition of paintings by Nicole Charbonnet. Instead, this is an unusually philosophical body of work that often seems more about questions than answers. In fact, Charbonnet arrived at the title more through serendipity than religious epiphany. An avid reader, she began to notice the variety of ways in which people refer to God, and the title is actually taken from a poem by Anne Carson. A poem that is rife with irony.

But maybe not so ironic as the nightly news accounts of madmen in various parts of the world blowing up themselves and everyone else in the name of God, even as the madmen in our own country advocate a "clash of civilizations" approach to resolving our differences with other cultures. And culture is really what it comes down to since most of our ideas about God come to us through organized religion, and religions are largely reflections of the cultures in which they evolved over time. Although there is no religious imagery here, and even though her title may have as much to do with Dadaist or Taoist notions of chance as with anything overtly theological, Charbonnet's paintings do reflect something of that interplay of culture and time.

After all, what's so holy about a Dixie Cup? Or even several? Probably nothing much, but hers are monumental, ranging from two-feet to four-and-a-half-feet tall. All are painted in faded primary colors on dense, chalky surfaces that suggest bits of crumbling plaster or masonry walls more than anything we ordinarily associate with canvas. Yet here they are, paper cups with pale, primary colored cloverleaf designs that ordinarily might look cheap or even tacky, but here they look almost architectural owing to their monumental scale and weathered surfaces. Icons from pop culture have appeared in much of Charbonnet's past work, but where pop culture is as immediate and ephemeral as, say, a Campbell's soup can, Charbonnet's surfaces have this "witness to history" look that changes the equation. Consequently, those loopy faded Dixie Cup cloverleaf patterns soon began to remind me of Moorish Islamic mosaics, like something from an abandoned version of the Alhambra, perhaps, with geometric designs that contain no depictions of people or things because Islam is rooted in the Old Testament in which God forbade making "graven images," an admonition the Moors took literally.

Whatever the subject, such surfaces are a constant in this show, often with marks bleeding through from below like those ghostly antique advertisements that turn up on peeling painted walls in the older parts of town. Even Seascape, a view of some breakers crashing onto a beach, appears somehow solid, frozen in time and space. Look closely and you see bits of printed text bleeding through the turquoise surf -- something about Osama and a Dachshund. Whatever, the bleed-through (known as "palimpsest" in art lingo) is what you might call her "New Orleans effect." Charbonnet says that as a child she used to play hide and seek amid the monumental raised tombs at Lafayette Cemetery, and something about those crumbling masonry walls must have stuck.

Even her drawings on paper, many of which appear in the central gallery as a massive composite mural, have this ghostly, fossilized look, like scenes from movies or television frozen into calcified afterimages. A drawing of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby reads like a bad memory etched indelibly in concrete even though it's only paper. Such ephemeral yet static images are typical of Charbonnet's earlier work, but her newest efforts take the form of the loopy abstractions and swirl patterns as we see in her Red Sea series. Parting Of the Red Sea No. 4 is indeed red and wavy and it does suggest a passage of sorts, but it really harks as much to cultural history as religion, and in particular to that delicate cusp in art history where abstraction finally gave way to pop art. Or am I merely having flashbacks to that Dixie Cup? Hmmm. Abstraction is what you make of it and cultural truths are, like beauty, mostly in the eye of the beholder.

Nicole Charbonnet's  Parting of the Red Sea No. 4 - is part of her series of paintings exploring the relationship - between time, truth and beauty.
  • Nicole Charbonnet's Parting of the Red Sea No. 4 is part of her series of paintings exploring the relationship between time, truth and beauty.

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