It was like meeting an old friend in a new and unfamiliar place. In this case, the old friend was Ida Kohlmeyer, or, rather, her paintings and sculpture. When she died six years ago at 84, she was probably New Orleans' best-known artist, having been shown routinely here as well as New York, London and other world culture capitals for several decades. The place was the Renaissance Arts Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street, a sleek new hostelry that lives up to its name with quality contemporary work by mostly New Orleans artists strategically placed throughout the premises.
But this show occupies the new Arthur Roger Gallery Project, located in a self-contained corner of the ground floor that can be entered either from the lobby or directly from the street. Coming in the wake of the closing of several established galleries over the past year or so, this new space can only raise Roger's already high profile, adding yet another venue to his existing Julia Street operation. The work on view, a menage of archetypal Idas vibrant with glyphs and grids, makes for an auspicious beginning.
Although Kohlmeyer was a student of Hans Hoffman during the abstract expressionist 1950s, the exuberance of her best-known work harks to the folk art that first caught her eye as a young bride on her honeymoon in Mexico. It was a buoyancy that evolved over the 1960s and '70s, often taking the form of brightly colored organic forms laid out in hieroglyphic formations. Her sculpture, developed during the last decades of her long life, employed similar forms rendered in solid, three dimensional space, as is evident in this highly representative selection.
Floral Complex, 1990, is a 3-foot-tall sculpture featuring botanically suggestive yet ambiguous shapes painted in shades like watermelon red, sky blue and kiwi green. Here pods, fronds, shoots and stamens comprise a nifty assemblage of miscellaneous appendages gesturing expressionistically at their surroundings, and it's not hard to see in this something of the gaudy animism of Mexican folk art, as well as those weird scientific experiments wherein tomatoes and cantaloupes are prodded with electrodes to reveal their true feelings. (Floral Complex clearly seeks attention.)
In Synthesis 15c, 1983, a painting, brightly colored forms ambiguously reminiscent of acorns, seed pods, hearts, melons, lightning or what have you, appear loosely arranged on canvas, seemingly floating on a black field. Less grid-like than some, the looseness of Synthesis calls attention to those ambiguous shapes -- where did they come from? The literal answer might be Old Metairie, where she lived and worked. As an artist and homemaker, kitchens and gardens must have been important to her. But the broader answer is automatism, or spontaneous expression, a legacy of her teacher, Hans Hoffman. In this painting, Kohlmeyer's glyphs are like a kind of spontaneous graffiti. In her more tightly structured grids, they may suggest Mayan calligraphy, but in any case they reflect her own colorful sensibility, a private language that conveyed something joyous to her many fans, friends and collectors.
More ambiguous calligraphy appears in Karoline Schleh's Smoke, Water & Writing show in the rear of Soren Christensen. Known for her meticulously dreamy prints and works on paper, Schleh in this show employs related sensibilities on canvas with intriguing if experimental results. Scribble is a pale field with a couple of lines of script written backwards. All around it on the canvas are billowy plumes of soot, clusters of them, apparently the residue of smoky little flames. And one necessarily wonders, what is going on here? How did they get there?
Smoke and Writing I is similar, only here the lines of script are scattered all over the canvas and the feathery plumes appear in ascending and amorphous clusters, creating a surreal chiaroscuro effect, like schools of smoky jellyfish in a pale white sea. The backwards handwriting is disorienting, as if seen from the wrong side of the surface. Or like something compiled by whimsical spies. Inspired by local poetess Andy Young's superb All Fire's the Fire collection (a limited edition of hand-crafted books by Faulkner House), Schleh's new work elicits unexpected subtleties, oddly reminiscent of Robert Ryman or even Mark Tobey, from what is ordinarily a vividly chromatic medium.