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Review: Images of Disappearing Coastal Wetlands

D. Eric Bookhardt on new paintings and drawings of the Louisiana coast



One of the side benefits of the St. Claude Arts District's latest export, the hot new indie movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, is that it immerses viewers in the precariousness of life along Louisiana's steadily sinking coastal wetlands. Further investigations into this lacy, tattered patch of land also can be found in two noteworthy museum shows. At the New Orleans Museum of Art, multimedia artist Katie Holten created a series of very large drawings of the rapidly eroding edges of marshes where grasses are consumed by the sea at an alarming rate. Hanging in the museum's Great Hall like giant banners from a conquering army of geologists, some evoke computer charts or geological contour maps, while others reveal fluid lines worthy of the pre-Raphaelites — Edward Burne-Jones' painting of a drowning Ophelia is an all too apt metaphor. Holten, who once represented her native Ireland at the Venice Biennial, also includes containers of marsh water and sediment as well as resurrection ferns — a more hopeful metaphor in an expo that strikingly conveys the fragile patterns of life where land meets the sea.

  Michel Varisco's large photographs (shown) of the Louisiana wetlands and Gulf of Mexico document both their beauty and degradation in images that are stunning on several levels. First, there is something magical about the place functioning as the womb of the American continent, where fish and fowl eternally return to mate and procreate. A vast estuary of mythic proportions, it is a place long considered sacred by Native Americans. Scarring the natural beauty is an infestation of oil company canals like giant syringes injecting lethal salt water into the extraordinarily fertile terrain that feeds and protects us, causing it to rapidly dissolve into the Gulf. The result is Eden reduced to a crime scene, and Varisco effectively captures its beauty and horror for all to see. — D. Eric Bookhardt

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