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Laconic Landscapes

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What is it about this place? The city, like the swamp around it, resembles a strange dream: picturesque, uncanny, otherworldly. Beyond the fact it was settled by fugitives and misfits, the "land" it was built on was more like terra infirma, as the first settlers found out when the annual spring floods obliterated any distinction between the city and surrounding waters. Indeed, those swamps are as mysterious today as they were when the Europeans first saw them.

But that quality of mystery, which envelops this area like humidity, is difficult for artists to convey. Swamps, like French Quarter patios, soon fade into tourist cliches when transposed to canvas or paper. What to do? For Louisiana native Roberto Ortiz, the answer lies in the mind's eye and its ability to graphically translate subjective experience. Yet, to do that, one must be very selective, as we see in works such as The Reflecting Pool, a view of three cypress trees against an expanse of pale blue sky and murky, turquoise water. Ostensibly, there's nothing to it, just a few trees with traces of moss and some cypress knees poking above the surface of the marsh. On the pallidly dappled surface is a ghostly reflection of the moon, which appears no less ghostly in the sky above, and while the whole scene is very minimal, it is also arresting in some not-so-obvious way. Perhaps it has to do with the subtly lucid way that everything is reduced to essentials, like the afterimage of a dream that lingers upon waking.

Similar qualities are seen in Winter's Sleep, in three more trees seen as barren silhouettes against a glowing sunless sky. And again it's that relationship of subtly yet intensely defined forms that blurs the boundaries between a visual record of a place, and how it is felt, or sensed, when we are there. We are conditioned not to notice mysterious sub-currents, but power places turn up routinely in the wilderness, and even in the city, if we are open to them. Yet, for that to happen, our sensitivities must be attuned to such things, which may not be so outrageous or far fetched, but perhaps only an expression of life's essential mystery.

Mortality, our experience of life and death, is the bottom line. And They All Went to Heaven, one of Ortiz's more overtly surreal images in the adjacent room, is a view of a river, a small boat and a waterfall. The river is lined with trees that disappear into a vanishing point punctuated by a lightning bolt. As a near-universal symbol of passage, the boat is empty and poised at the precipice of the waterfall, which overflows the painted margin of the canvas. Rendered in tempera, which cracks as it ages, Heaven is a painterly reminder of the transience of this world and of the intimate relationship between time, mortality and wonder.

Often experimental, the show ranges from overt surreality of Heaven to seemingly realistic vistas such as Domain of the Iris, a long, horizontal panorama of green marsh grasses and white, cumulus clouds billowing into the atmosphere. If such works evoke the more traditional realism practiced by other artists, they may, on closer examination, turn out to be more visionary than they seem. In all, it's Ortiz's most interesting show to date.

More landscapes appear in the work of Andrew Bucci at Cole Pratt. A veteran artist born in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1922, Bucci came of age in the heyday of abstract expressionism, which continues to influence his current work. What Bucci does with it, however, is almost timeless in its simplicity. A master of gestural understatement, he creates ethereal watercolors such as St. Jones River, Dover, DE, which is dated 9/7/63 but which closely resembles his recent work. A nimbus of river willow fronds that suggests a gentle explosion of foliage hovering in space, St. Jones recalls the gestural drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and the gestural ink drawings of wooded landscapes by the great Japanese Zen masters. (Which is actually less far fetched than it sounds, considering Zen's influence on so many abstract expressionists.) But, unlike Pollock, for Bucci less is more; his river willows are as subtle and translucent as haiku poems, barely there at all.

Roberto Ortiz's The Reflecting Pool may not seem like much at first glance, but its subtle impact is almost like the afterimage of a dream.
  • Roberto Ortiz's The Reflecting Pool may not seem like much at first glance, but its subtle impact is almost like the afterimage of a dream.

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