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The Last Wave

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Tiny Tim was right. A falsetto voice in the wilderness, Tiny Tim, way back in the 1960s, scooped modern meteorology with his Cassandra-like refrain: "The ice caps are melting, tra-la-la-la!, all the world is drowning, tralalalala!, the ice caps are melting, the tide is rushing in; here comes the water to wash away our sins ... ." That was from his 1968 God Bless Tiny Tim album, which beat out Randy Newman's 1974 prophesy refrain, "They are trying to wash us away ..." by several years.

When it comes to natural disasters, artists have often been ahead of the game. How did Tiny Tim know these things? While an art show may seem a roundabout way of addressing Louisiana's dire coastal-erosion problem, remember that art has the power to raise awareness, and the Grand Isle Juried Fine Arts Exhibition has, in its brief history, attracted a stellar cast. While Grand Isle's Community Center is hardly the Guggenheim Museum, it is where the action -- as in wave action -- is. When they say art is on the front lines of the fight to save the coast, they mean it literally.

This year's curator, Jacqueline Bishop, has assembled a diverse exhibition that deals with our ecological plight in a style that is often more poetic than pedantic. In this vein, Houma artist Claire Fenton's Nesting Box, a 3-foot-tall construct of copper, twine and leaves, suggests the handiwork of a species of humanoid birds, an architectural nest for living in harmony with nature. Her Winter Swamp features vertical panels, each framing a leaf and dripping something mossy so as to suggest a fragile biological totem frozen in time, part Louisiana Indian, part Jean Cocteau.

Copper also appears in M.K. Turner's Architectural Sketch No. 2, a flat copper panel oxidized in rich turquoise patches. Initially reminiscent of a federal flood zone map, it features an incised doric column rising out of the blue and harking, perhaps, to Atlantis and its likely problems with flood insurance were it still around today. Glinda Schafer's Disappearing Marshlands is a pastel painting of a marsh dying from salt water brought in by an oil company canal, yet the golden glow of dead grasses and the sculpture of dead trees has an ironic beauty about it.

Matthew White's black-and-white photo Highway/Bayou/Sky is oddly similar, yet here the water on both sides of a two-lane highway shimmers silver under a thunderhead, highlighting the fragility of the slender asphalt strip as the waters encroach ever closer, a briny apocalypse lurking beyond the horizon. What is needed here is a higher power, and lo, along comes Sallie Ann Glassman with her Grand Bwa Altar, yet another of her spiritual voodoo technologies for warding off disasters. Might holding an art show on Grand Isle have a similar effect? If artists can rescue blighted neighborhoods, perhaps their presence on Grand Isle might help mobilize the gods on our behalf as well, before Louisiana goes the way of Atlantis.

Natural Disaster, Volume II at the Acme Gallery, the second of a two-part expo curated by Stephen Collier and Jonathan Traviesa, mingles natural disasters with the unintended consequences of human activities. For instance, Richard Sexton's Bird's Nest Incorporating Human Refuse looks starkly elegant at first, and only on close inspection do we see the plastic packaging and pull tabs amid the sticks and twigs. Jonathan Traviesa's Storm of Development photographically documents an old house, a former Miami gallery in its last days before demolition, in a visual parable illustrating how real estate developers can inadvertently mimic the behavior of predatory beasts. But the increasingly insidious relationship between man, nature and technology is invoked in Srdjan Loncar's Branch. Here a tree branch with bright green leaves turns out to be made of little color photos of leaves and tree bark constructed into a facsimile of a branch. Which alludes to what may be the greatest disaster of all, that our attempts to create a "new and improved" nature has us traversing a mirror-maze from which there may be no return -- except, of course, as virtual replicas of ourselves.

Claire Fenton's Winter Swamp (detail), a stark biological totem frozen in time, evokes the fragility of the wetlands.
  • Claire Fenton's Winter Swamp (detail), a stark biological totem frozen in time, evokes the fragility of the wetlands.

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