Maybe because it was called the New World, America has always been about being new. But of course it's all relative. Stylistically, not much is new under the sun; most of the radical surgery has already been done. For instance, painter Paul Ninas was once a leading local modernist, but that was a long time ago, and you probably wouldn't know it from his New Orleans & the West Indies show at LeMieux. Yet, if his images are no longer cutting edge, they are interesting for other reasons.
Ninas was one of those local art legends, a wanderer turned French Quarter bohemian who moved here in the 1930s after living in Vienna, Paris and then Dominica in the Caribbean, where he had a coconut plantation. A tireless traveler and colorful character (readers of Gambit Weekly's July feature on the WPA-era photographers in Louisiana may remember him as the one who pulled a gun on Walker Evans), he was actually passing through town on his way back to Dominica when he met and fell in love with his wife to be, Jane, and ended up spending the rest of his life here.
Not much seen since his death in 1964, these mostly early, Caribbean-influenced paintings suggest a vision that transcends trends. For Ninas, the Caribbean must have been like what Tahiti was for Gaugin, and the two bathing beauties in Two Women might almost pass for Gaugin girls if not for their dark mocha tan. Some related images seem more modern. Two Nudes depicts a pair of very solid-looking women conspiring rather intimately on a beach, and if their tawny skin and straight black hair evoke Diego Rivera, their sleekly solid monumentalism hints at Maillol, the Gaugin-influenced modernist who bridged the gap between post-impressionism, cubism and deco. Here Ninas does much the same with no loss of tropical exoticism.
Even his landscapes often employ related approaches. In Untitled (Tropical Landscape), a languid, large-leafed tree frames a peasant hut overlooking the sea. Inside, a native woman is barely visible, and the tree, the clouds and the sea all share a pervasive rhythmic sensibility, an almost fleshy sense of mass and movement, as if Ma Nature had put a little sway in her hips once she hit the tropics. Ninas was above all a sensualist, a quality that distinguishes even his more prosaic local street scenes. Even his later, more angular and abstract images still had that rhythmic flow, a hard-to-define vitality that, more than any style or ism, may be his most lasting legacy.
If Ninas was a modernist of the past whose work has aged gracefully into the present, Dawn Southworth is a contemporary artist whose mixed-media collage paintings employ pieces of the past as if they were pigments on her palette. Underworld Voyage is stitched together from a portion of a traditional landscape painting bounded by weathered fabric wedges like tattered storm flags. Below is a section of faded baroque tapestry mottled with watermarks. Cobbled together with obvious stitchery, they form a patchwork whole that evokes remembrances of things past. In Interlude, a pair of pink baroque nudes are ghostly afterimages under a translucent coat of whitewash. Patched with salvaged swatches of colored fabrics, it suggests a makeshift sail for the raft of a baroque Huck Finn.
Southworth is into painted, printed and salvaged fabrics that have all seen better days. She says "these sewn, wrapped, and distressed surfaces suggest the passage of time, the recollection of memory." Others have said that her works suggest "a group of relics that are familiar and yet strange, objects that seem to simultaneously exist in the present and past," and there is indeed something almost Proustian about her flair for foundling materials that bear something of the imprint, or aura, of former owners. In that sense, they are poetic yet spooky, reminiscent of the spirit of Magazine Street as it once was before renovation and gentrification, even though Southworth is from Massachusetts and has never lived on or near Magazine Street. Yet, the parallels are uncanny, psychological, and it is hard to say if this will help facilitate viewer empathy, or if some may find the shock of recognition a little too close for comfort.
- Paul Ninas was more than anything else a sensualist, evoking a rhythmic sensibility that fills works like Untitled (Tropical Landscape).