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Secret Messages

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With a title like Landscapes and Heroes, Nicole Charbonnet's show at Simonne Stern might seem to suggest famous myths and legends, or at least, famous movies. Yet, while these semi-abstract works bear a passing similarity to landscapes, any actual figures, heroic or otherwise, are in scant supply. Adding to the ambiguity, most evoke old walls with faded signs or images instead of paintings in the usual sense. Presumably, these rather spectral mixed-media works are not to be taken literally -- or are they?

Unlike realistic landscapes painted according to Renaissance perspective, Charbonnet's roughly textured surfaces suggest the imprint of man and nature. This Road, the first piece in the show, is a view of an old black-top, two-lane highway vanishing into the horizon. Flanked by scrub brush and dirt below a chalky blue sky, it recalls those roads to nowhere in west Texas and New Mexico. Yet, this scene appears as a flat and faded image on a rough rectangular surface. Above it is written, "I'm a connoisseur of roads. I've been tasting roads all my life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world." But who is the author of those words? Is it the artist or some invisible figure, perhaps one of those heroes alluded to in the title? Up close, columns of tiny notations can be seen through the painted imagery. Not easily deciphered, they are sensed, nonetheless.

Here Charbonnet seems to suggest that the landscape is like a ledger, a sensitized surface on which events leave their mark. If objects in renaissance art were arranged in space, these works imply arrangements in time, or maybe time and space, hinting, like Einstein, that somehow its all the same. But that doesn't explain the zebra. Safari Landscape With Heroes #4 is mostly just a zebra under a faded blue sky. A pale pastel savannah recedes in the background and again close inspection reveals the presence of text, of little words oozing through the fur, the grass and sky. Laurie Anderson once said that language is a virus. If so, this place is infested. But modern physics says everything is information anyway, so there you go.

But where are the heroes? Charbonnet says they're on TV -- where else would they be? She photographs them with her digital camera and then paints them on these works, where, as in real life, heroes vanish into the sunset, into the shadows, become obliterated by words, by stanzas of Wallace Stevens or Emily Dickinson, words bubbling up like the hazardous wastes of the gods. And, in any event, zebras are heroes too. But those are all ideas. Ordinarily ideas fuel the trajectories of words, but here ideas thicken the mix the way horse hair thickened 19th century plaster. The result is a kind of sediment of texts and images that appear in layers like the skeletal carcasses of sea creatures imbedded as fossils in limestone. Monumental yet ephemeral, familiar yet elusive, they invite and defy interpretation.

More heroes and landscapes appear in Vidho Lorville's canvases at Wyndy Morehead. Like Charbonnet, Lorville uses art as a medium for ideas that may entail translation, only his ideas are often related to the spirit world. A recent arrival from Haiti, Lorville is appalled at America's ignorance of voodoo, which he considers a religion, a science and a culture. His lushly painted if somewhat caricaturish canvasses reflect that culture, especially in surreal images like The Crossing, in which five African women appear on an alien shore, a reference to the slave trade. They are joined by a spectral figure like a faceless pope, a reference, Lorville says, to the spirits of the sea.

In voodoo, African spirituality and Roman Catholicism are mixed. In New Orleans, they are all mixed up with the tourist trade as Lorville's Once Marie Laveau Pass by Bourbon Street suggests. Here the voodoo queen appears with a candle, surrounded by a mixed retinue of spirits, historical figures and tourists in a floating melange like those James Ensor carnival mask paintings. Actually, Lorville evokes echoes of both Ensor and the late Noel Rockmore in his unique Afro-Creole-Caribbean potpourri. It's a colorful brew that may benefit from further explanation, but which for many New Orleanians, at least, will not be entirely unfamiliar.

Nicole Charbonnet's Safari Landscape With Heroes #4 speaks to the artist's fascination with time and space.
  • Nicole Charbonnet's Safari Landscape With Heroes #4 speaks to the artist's fascination with time and space.

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