Sometimes life is like a skateboard ramp that sends you up and then down, a leap of faith that can land you in exotic, faraway lands. Places like Vermont, a place very unlike Louisiana. Clark Derbes, a New Orleans native and former resident of Baton Rouge, went there on a lark after graduating from LSU a few years ago, and life's ups and downs have kept the ambidextrous artist and ardent skateboarder bouncing back and forth ever since. Literally. An Associated Press photo taken in Baton Rouge and seen in papers from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, shows him suspended several feet in the air from a bed sheet attached to his outstretched arms and feet, uplifted by Katrina's winds on that fateful day in August 2005. Spontaneous flight aside, Katrina seriously interrupted his plans.
It delayed his intended move back to New Orleans after spending several years in Burlington, Vt., a place where one thing led to another, including some public art commissions and a surprising amount of press for a young artist. Now 28, his abstract and mostly large collage paintings at Jenkins-Connelly have come a long way from his graffiti-like earlier efforts. Here his work melds the abstract psychological aura of a Klee or Dubuffet with a certain vertiginous visionary sensibility that has a kinetic American feel to it. And what exactly does that mean? Beyond Jackson Pollock, I think of those busy city streets and open roads that propel the pioneer social landscape photographs of Robert Frank, that great beat poet of stream-of-consciousness black and white imagery. Derbes' paintings are more structured and colorful, but the sense of motion is palpable.
You see it in Titanium Dioxide, a five-and-a-half-foot square collage made up of countless painted patches of handmade paper and occasional graphic scraps, bits of salvaged printed matter. But you have to look closely as none of that is obvious at first. At normal viewing distance, it's simply a painting, a field of dark stripes on pale yellow and white, a textural maze of labyrinths that suggests madcap weather maps or a utopian highway system designed by and for whirling dervishes. Indeed, their curving structures seem to almost samba dance as they oscillate in a vibratory space somewhere just above the canvas in a dialogue, of sorts, between matter and energy, form and feeling.
But not all is wavy-gravy in Derbes world. Get Well Soon is much more angular, a series of small rounded nodes connected by bold- colored lines overlaid on a network of manic crosshatching and triangulated geodesic structures punctuated with the occasional asterisk and a stray bird or two. The mind strives to find analogs in the form of whimsical aerial views of imaginary landscapes, but everyone will see it differently, as they will his other, mostly large, canvasses that somehow conflate schematics, crazy quilts and maps of suburbia punctuating patches of farmland. It's architecture and urban planning juxtaposed with the elusive patterning of nature and the subconscious, the left versus the right brain, all seemingly celebrated in these intricately precocious patchwork pieces that read like modern art. Some of my favorites that the gallery, alas, sold prior to the show might have helped to visually elucidate the work on the walls, but this is an important first local solo show for a promising emerging artist.
Speaking of collages that read like paintings, Sean Neary's pieces at the Big Top are noteworthy for coming across so differently from what they actually are. Here, works that sometimes resemble breezy caricatures, offhand cartoons of stars and public figures, are actually meticulously constructed collages that use patches of color from the pages of glossy magazines to painstakingly construct images such as The Swan, of a vapidly pretty beauty contest winner, or The Silent Alliance, a view of president Bush and a Saudi sheik crafted from glossy color lithography backed by shredded dollar bills. His views of Katrina survivors are elaborate interpretations of dramatic news photos, and it is paradoxical that so much meticulous work goes into results that look so casual. But art is a demanding journey, and it should be interesting to follow the progress of artists such as Neary and Derbes as they navigate the winding road ahead.
- The curving forms of Clark Derbe' large collage painting, Titanium Dioxide, suggest a kind of samba dance involving energy and matter, form and feeling.