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Social Studies

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Art reflecting, and commenting on, social conditions is nothing new. For all we know, those beatific-demonic Hieronymous Bosch paintings may have been allegorical commentaries on the lives of the people around him. Social comments were often couched in fables and fairy tales back in the days when ruffling the wrong feathers could get you beheaded. But by the first half of the 20th century, social commentary had merged with realism in art that graphically depicted the plight of the working poor. Such social realism was usually clearly and immediately accessible.

Another round of social commentary hit the art world in the 1980s and 1990s. Rooted in the writings of the French structuralist philosophers, postmodernism placed a heavy emphasis on visual art as a kind of language or code that could "deconstruct" the socioeconomic structures of modern capitalist cultures. Yet, while the critiques of the postmodern philosophers themselves were often on the money, attempts to use those philosophies as strategies for art making were far less direct than the work of the early 20th century social realists. As with the fairy tale and fabulist social critics of yore, you pretty much had to know the code to get the content.

Social Strategies: Redefining Social Realism is a group show firmly rooted in postmodernism even though most of the art world has moved on to a kind of post-postmodern perspective. Actually, it is eerie seeing a show featuring work by Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and Gilbert and George -- you might have to keep reminding yourself that the first George Bush isn't still president! If much of this comes across as a gallery of pomo golden oldies, there are at least some occasional points of interest.

Of the two DVD projections, Beat Streuli's Broadway/Prince Street, 04-01/2001-2002 view of pedestrians gathering and moving on from an intersection, is somehow incisive, a penetrating look into the unalloyed reality of ordinary life without spin, which makes it all the more striking, like a modern update of Walker Evans' 1930s candids of people on the subway. Far more theatrical is Nan Goldin's Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, 1991, a portrait of two drag queens looking like extras from the movie Taxi Driver.

In a very different vein, Sue Williams' My Husband, 2002, uses script-like brush strokes to create an abstraction suggesting body parts, placing it somewhere between calligraphy and pornography. Even the predictable old pomo technique of using prosaic materials inscribed with printed text works surprisingly well in Mary Kelly's 1999 opus, Mea Culpa (Buenos Aires, 1976) in which a few stenciled words on compressed lint tell a chilling tale of state torture. More contemporary is Glexis Novoa's Paranoia, 2001, a kind of sci-fi mural, a futurist landscape replete with obelisks with bulging eyes drawn in graphite on broken slabs of white marble -- chilling reminders of 9/11 and the no less chilling Patriot Act laws enacted in its wake. If Social Strategies is often predictable, it is not entirely without surprise.

Also realistic in approach, if rather fabulist in tone, are Nique Le Transome's paintings at the Salon du Beau Monde hair salon on Julia Street. Here the self-taught New Orleans-Vietnamese artist continues his series of allegorical canvases, realistically painted works that might pass for fantastical outsider art were it not for his incendiary mix of Roman Catholic and erotic, often homoerotic, imagery. Under the circumstances -- including Archbishop Hughes' call for Catholics to avoid Southern Decadence Fest -- Transome's choice of subject matter should definitely qualify as social commentary. Heightening the contrast are details such as Transome's flair for including nude youths, altar-boy types, in provocative poses juxtaposed with church symbols. An equal opportunity provocateur, Transome features a female in his The Maid of New Orleans (The Curse of the Dark Bishop), a vision of a nubile nude standing on a thunder cloud holding a sword defiantly over her head -- an apparent play on Joan of Arc (the Maid of Orleans), who was burned at the stake for heresy despite heroic acts of faith and patriotism. This Maid may be a tad too sexy for the history books, but that's par for the course for Transome, for whom it would appear that sex and the church go hand in hand.

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