His style may be eclectic, a mixture of surrealism, imagism and who knows what, but Keith Perelli is a painter's painter in every respect. Like all such artists, he is known for being busy, for always drawing or painting, or preparing to draw or paint. Word has it that he constantly does those things at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where he teaches students to draw and paint. In this, he is much like Picasso, who never seemed to stop, and the opposite of Marcel Duchamp, who was known to stare at a blank space in his studio for weeks on end, as if trying to make something happen there by the sheer intensity of his gaze. Both approaches are valid, but there is something to be said for assiduously applied effort. Even so, some may have been put off by the seeming solipsism of Perelli's vision, his tendency to literally put so much of himself in his baroquely dreamy yet beautifully rendered canvases. All bets are off, however, when tragedy strikes. His response to 9/11 was an innovative and ghostly series of victim portraits and visual political critiques, and his response to Katrina was even more interesting.
The scion of a clan with long local roots, Perelli's entire family lived in his native St. Bernard Parish, and all lost their homes in the deluge. His creative response was this Return series of small-to-medium size paintings of ghostly boats or houses, all oddly juxtaposed, and all noteworthy for their surreal luminosity. The grand exception " and it is a grand exception " is a massive 6- by 8-foot painting, Radial Arc, inspired by the ravaged Superdome in the aftermath of the storm. Instead of people crammed into its massive expanse, Perelli has populated it with 1,000 ghostly shotgun houses, many individually painted on stiff paper and cobbled together into a kind of cubist Space Odyssey, a mosaic like a vast UFO containing the souls of dead houses in a scene strangely reminiscent of Anselm Kiefer's dense evocations of apocalyptic topographies, death camps and the like. Impossible to describe, it has to be one of the most remarkable paintings ever produced in this region.
His Profile series marks a reprise of his earlier preoccupation with the figure, but his works this time around are mythic and arboreal, as vines become veins and fruit becomes flesh in scenes that suggest an alternate reality or parallel universe. The sum total of all these works is an expo that is probably Perelli's best to date " and that's impressive.
A veteran artist and longtime Key West resident, Roberta Marks creates found-object sculptures and box assemblages that reflect a contemplative sensibility. Influenced by Japan, India and Thailand as well as by the Proustian aura of vintage objects here in the West, Marks delicately interweaves Buddhas, fabric prints and Asian calligraphy on paper with antique fountain pens, Madonnas and tintypes, fishing lures and old lace, in constructions that resemble the reliquaries of someone looking for enlightenment in thrift stores. Perhaps she was.
It's a noteworthy distinction and a contrast with Joseph Cornell, the founder of the genre, whose own boxes were precise arrangements of vintage objects handcrafted into time machines designed to transform nostalgia into personal epiphanies. Marks, by contrast, is a time and space traveler who explores the quiet corners of sensory experience, the moment of silence just after the applause, the afterimage that lingers just after the movie has ended. Her Asian relics evoke the ghosts of the Floating World of old Japan, the Kabuki theaters in the quiet after the performance " the same silence shared by the pensive blond usherette in Edward Hopper's famous painting, Movie, New York, 1939, a universal space of reflection that celebrates cultures by transcending them.