The question of originality is one of those issues that hangs over artists like the long shadow of all who have gone before. Creating new work as distinct as a Picasso or a Pollock can be a daunting challenge, and some advocates of postmodernism still cling to the notion that it's no longer even possible. Yet, when you consider that we all experience life differently, and that we all possess our own unique fingerprints and DNA, originality seems not so far fetched after all.
But how to go about it? Factor in that the mostly New York-based art media reinforce moribund trends that many artists feel obliged to follow in order to gain recognition, and you might end up with a bad case of the blahs, which seems a fair assessment of the state of American art today. (Any art scene where John Currin is considered a super hot artist is in trouble.) But then there are those brave souls who manage to create uniquely identifiable work out of personal experiences and homely materials. They may not be the new Picassos, but their work is at least recognizably their own. Take, for instance, Abita Springs artist John Preble.
Preble appears unconcerned that his paintings may at first suggest Gaugin's Tahiti ouvre. His nonchalance seems apt when one learns that the cinnamon toned, bright-eyed female subjects he paints, in seemingly infinite variations, originated in his own Northshore backyard. Startled by his encounters with the hybrid progeny of generations of French, Africans and Choctaw Indians, he has painted his own versions of them obsessively ever since. Collectively known as his Camille series of Creole Indians, they have of late been supplemented with cats, still lifes and even the occasional male figure, rendered in a colorfully muted style that melds primitive innuendo with veiled hints of cubism.
Flaming Hair is emblematic of his recent work. Here, an amber-eyed girl with pale saffron skin and spiked day-glo crimson hair peers out from one of his typically opulent gold-leaf frames. Her facial expression is impassive, and while one can see touches of Gaugin and Matisse, the look is unique. The same goes for Lacombe Maidens in a Smoky Marsh, a pair of russet-hued, green eyed babes with raven tresses and evening dresses standing before a smoldering miasma. Their demeanor is elegant, yet their typically impassive faces look back at us as if through a window in time, like witnesses to an improbable history.
Preble cranks these things out, and he'd be the first to admit that he's not always consistent, but the best ones are distinctly interesting. As are his Animatronic Boxes, bizarre novelty constructions such as his Death of Robert Johnson, a kind of scale model Delta blues environment in a display case replete with juke joints, animated musicians, dancing patrons, even fluttering angels, all of which come to life with the plunk of a quarter in a coin box. Preble maintains an entire museum of such things, the UCM Museum, near his St. Tammany Parish home, and one can only be impressed at the way he has transformed his flair for curiosities into a uniquely creative, if unlikely, lifestyle.
Equally distinct, if different in tone, are Chris Cook's Graphites. Technically these are somewhat like paintings because they employ a fluid medium -- powdered graphite dissolved in resin, oil and turpentine -- applied to a surface. But here the surface is a sheet of aluminum on which the silvery grey liquid graphite has assumed the ghostly look of defunct LCD electronic display screens, or the emulsion side of old black and white photographic negatives. Some suggest blurry oversized satellite photos of military installations, perhaps evidence of Saddam's nonexistent WMDs. Others evoke spectral interiors with patterned curtains and wallpaper, and weird metal ducts snaking through holes in the walls.
At their best they trigger fanciful mental intrigues, poetic narrative meanderings which just as suddenly, as one shifts positions, suggest aluminum panels smeared with liquid graphite. The less distinguished among them never quite rise above their humble origins, yet not for any lack of trying. So this, too, is another hit-or-miss show, but distinctly so; Clark's oozing tableaus of striving graphite are nonpareil -- they are uniquely what they are.
- Tahitian treat: John Preble's works, including Flaming Hair, might recall some of Gaugin's more tropical works, but are entirely their own.