When Plein Air painter Phil Sandusky evacuated to Atlanta, he did there what he normally does here: he painted landscapes, quickly and deftly, with his easel set up on the street. That's what Plein Air means in French, "open air." Here, he and others of his ilk are a fairly common sight, but not so in Atlanta, where he was told to move on by a security guard on one occasion, and made the subject of a TV news story on another. On TV he expressed joy at being able to paint a place that was new to him instead of the same old New Orleans, but when he got home, guess what? Big chunks of this city seemed unfamiliar as well. Lucky him, having so many new things to paint -- the kind of luck he needed like the hole in his roof.
But he persevered, and the result is this expo of pre and post-Katrina views of the city. And there's something startling about scenes of unmitigated disaster rendered in Sandusky's belle epoque style with its touches of William Meritt Chase's brushwork and hints of Monet's pale luminosity. In his pre-storm Neighborhood by Audubon Park, fuscia Victorian cottages shimmer in the visually fragrant air like an opium flashback to the streets of childhood, but no such reassurance appears in his Houses Near the 17th Canal Breech, or his Destroyed Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood, which are as they sound, or Ruins of Sid-Mars, which is jarringly vacant, an aggregate of snapped pilings where the venerable Bucktown bistro once stood. In this series, Sandusky brings a Barbizon touch to disaster, recording the tragic banality and surreality of the wreckage with the dispassionate eye of a trained observer while displaying a range of emotion and subject matter unprecedented in his oeuvre to date.
Now that Katrina has rearranged our landscape it's up to us to redesign it, and the two approaches that have surfaced so far could not be more different. The plan supported by most residents of the flooded areas, as well as UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan and former mayor Marc Morial, is to let people make their own decisions based on construction and insurance costs predicated on yet to be announced FEMA benchmarks. This may be an imperfect process but it has the advantage of seeming fairly democratic. Mayor Nagin's Bring Back New Orleans Commission, by contrast, wants to shrink the city to the high ground while preventing the dispersed residents of many flooded areas from fixing up their homes unless they can demonstrate, over four months, their collective will to rebuild their entire neighborhood. If not, their property could be acquired at 60 percent of its former value by an agency like the one authorized by the Baker bill in congress. This push to redline vast areas of the city may be a stroke of genius, but a lot of folks seem convinced that it's a scam. And while you might expect African Americans to be wary of a group of mostly white guys who want to enforce their collective wisdom through eminent domain and withholding building permits, a lot of middle class white folks living in the high and dry parts of town voice similar suspicions. Why is that?
One theory is that putting a real estate developer, even one as highly regarded as Joe Canizaro, in charge of the planning process smacks of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. He may be perfectly sincere, but he's a still a real estate developer, and it doesn't help that he's a big time Republican activist who is trying to downsize a mostly Democratic city. And then there's the Baker bill, which Mayor Nagin says will be used to convert properties in flooded areas like eastern New Orleans into green space, even as Congressman Baker tells his fellow lawmakers that those properties will be redeveloped, generating revenues to offset the cost of his plan. Say what? I can't claim to know who is right here, and it may be that Canizaro's proposal is just what the doctor ordered, but unless Nagin and his allies can convince the skeptics that this really isn't a scam after all, we may be in for some very spirited discussions over the next few months.
- In his Destroyed Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood, Phil Sandusky brings a Barbizon touch to the havoc that Katrina left in her wake.