What does 25 years mean? For a 25-year-old, it's a life. For a 50- (or near 50-) year-old, it's most of an adult life. Arthur Roger, 48, has devoted most of his adult life to the gallery that bears his name. It's a gallery that, after a quarter of a century, has become this city's undisputed leader as a showcase for contemporary art.
It's not an easy business. And Roger wasn't born into it, or anywhere near it. A product of the Ninth Ward, the son of a streetcar driver who died when Roger was just 16, Roger got into the art business almost by accident when he was a student at the University of New Orleans and needed a job. He found one at a French Quarter gallery and eventually learned the business well enough to feel confident. What happened next is the stuff of legend. Almost every New Orleans artist has heard the story of how Roger's mother mortgaged her house to raise the money to launch the gallery at it's humble first home on Magazine Street. That was back in 1978 when Magazine Street meant funky; a street of junk stores, fleabag apartments, pool halls and colorful decrepitude.
In the 1970s, serious local galleries could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and launching a new one was not a venture for the feint of heart. But Roger did just that and, against the odds, not only survived but eventually even thrived. He did it the hard way, by the sweat of his brow and a workaholic determination, and this 25th Anniversary show serves as a kaleidoscopic memory of all that has gone before.
As shows go, this one is necessarily eclectic, with rarely more than one or two items from each of the 70 artists represented. For those who follow the local art scene closely, it is a reminder not only of how the gallery grew, but also of how the local art scene grew, mutated and evolved. For instance, the first thing you see as you enter the door is Bluefields 4, one of Allison Stewart's recent, semi-abstract, botanical paintings. Influenced by Louisiana swamps and Aspen sensibilities, it's a departure from her early efforts as one of the gallery's original artists. Nearby is Andrew Bascle's Flying Four Whisk Wasp, a found-object sculpture in which egg whisks, alligator clips and a variety of stainless steel doodads conspire into a surprisingly convincing wasp.
Unlike Stewart, Bascle -- one of the artists associated with the atelier of the late George Febres -- came along later, after Febres closed his gallery to focus on his own work. Known as the Visionary Imagists for their quirky surreality and obsessive attention to detail, a number of these artists, including Jacqueline Bishop and Douglas Bourgeois, became closely identified with the Arthur Roger Gallery over the 1990s. Here Bourgeois' recent, near-monochromatic Inviolate, a striking evolution from his earlier work, employs maimed dolls as icons of social dysfunction. Bishop's mixed-media Natural Order, a screen of blackbirds painted with flora and fauna and mounted in a baroque gilt frame, utilizes related symbolism.
Somewhat more predictable are the works of Elemore Morgan, whose spontaneous Plein Air paintings of Louisiana rice paddies suggest an odd amalgam of Zen and Acadiana, and of course Francis Pavy's psychedelic School of Paris works such as Yellow Guitar, which suggest a not-so-odd mix of sex, rock 'n' roll and Acadiana. Also holding down the fort of established traditions are Willie Birch, whose quasi-realistic street scenes of the 'hood celebrate local African-American traditions without losing their edge, and Jim Richard, whose overstuffed, haute bourgeois interiors celebrate the secret life of objets d'art with an otherworldly edge.
Stephen Paul Day's Blue Saint, an operatic glass and bronze concoction of heroes, daggers and filigree, extends postmodernism into the heady realm of Victorian romanticism, while Mitch Gaudet's cast glass Opalescent Font returns this artist to his roots in alchemical baroque intrigue. And Luis Cruz Azaceta and Al Souza cleave to their Byzantine ways in mind-boggling, maze-like concoctions, two-dimensional puzzle palaces that might cause the CIA more fits than Saddam or bin Laden if they ever had to decipher them. In fact, Souza's Flower Power is, in that sense, not unlike the show as a whole: an elusive tapestry of signs, ciphers and insights.
- Al Souza's nearly indecipherable Flower Power, with its Byzantine ways, is symbolic of Arthur Roger's 25th Anniversary Group Exhibition with its elusive tapestry.