When it comes to energy and influence, the University of New Orleans Fine Arts department is in a class by itself. Besides having its own satellite gallery on St. Claude Avenue, UNO is distinguished by a hyperkinetic cadre of artist alums who are sometimes as influential in New York and other art capitals as they are here. One-time New York neo-geo avatar and current Yale University painting department director Peter Halley is a case in point, and while unfortunately not represented in this show at Arthur Roger Gallery, he was a mentor to New Orleans native and UNO grad Wayne Gonzales, whose work now appears in top New York and London galleries. Gonzales is known for paintings of crowds (pictured) that suggest spectral afterimages of news photos, and in these works we sense the anonymous power of the collective id, as unpredictable yet familiar as a summer storm. For his part, Gonzales was a mentor to current UNO graduate student Nina Schwanse when she attended Cooper Union in Manhattan. A Los Angeles native, Schwanse aims to "restructure" the mass-media narrative to create "disjunctive portraits that disappoint," as we see in K-A-T-E, a video in which she rather brilliantly and entertainingly impersonates several celebrities named Kate (Gosselin, etc.) at their most inanely self-absorbed.
The Common Ground expo's further mingling of art stars Joseph Ayers, Marlo Pasqual and Megan Whitmarsh with emerging talents Jason Derouin, Sophie Lvoff and Aaron McNamee was intentional. All reflect UNO's typically offbeat approach to conceptual abstraction, with Whitmarsh's colorfully witty fabric sculptures offering an especially emblematic example. But the biggest surprise may be how polished these emerging artists' works look at the city's leading gallery, as opposed to their usual St. Claude Avenue haunts, where they often seem more experimental. Kudos to Arthur Roger and curator Jim Richard for that. It is an ironic truism that the secret to success is to make "art that looks like art," and here we see some familiar work presented in an artfully optimal new light. — D. Eric Bookhardt
Through Sept. 12
Common Ground: Group exhibition curated by Jim Richard
Arthur Roger Gallery, 434 Julia St., 522-1999; www.arthurrogergallery.com