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Uncommon Folk



One of the ironies surrounding contemporary art has to do with the question of meaning, especially as expressed through themes involving the human condition. Much of the artwork made by graduates of university art departments these days is art about art, which often tends to be abstract in some sense, either intellectually or compositionally. But when an artist feels impelled to say something about the lives of people in the real world and the issues they face, representational realism can suddenly seem surprisingly appropriate. Such was the experience of Willie Birch. Born in New Orleans in 1942, he grew up in the Magnolia housing project and eventually earned a masters degree from the prestigious Maryland Institute before settling in New York, where he started out as an abstract painter. But a NOLA native is inevitably a creature of the streets, and Birch's feel for the streets eventually inspired him to embrace a more representational style. He made it work for him in New York, where he exhibited at respectable venues and had his work purchased by major collectors and institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then, in the 1990s, he returned home to New Orleans to continue his exploration of the neighborhoods he knew so well. If you're used to his colorful sculpture, these large (some 12 feet across) acrylic and charcoal paintings on paper at the CAC (with additional works at the Arthur Roger Gallery) may seem a little monochromatic at first, with their muted range of black, white, sepia and gray. But those compressed tones emphasize his subjects, the salt-of-the-earth folks who live out their lives in the unpretentious neighborhoods of the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth wards, on streets that laugh, sing and cry with the imprint of all who have lived there. His subjects include social rituals and celebrations as well as folks hanging out on the front stoop, and it could all be almost anthropological or even didactic if not for his feel for the pulse of those particular lives on those particular streets. Rendered in a style that falls somewhere between folk art and social realism, Birch's drawings are familiar yet exotic; anyone who grew up in New Orleans should know exactly what they are seeing. They can also evoke Africa, for instance, the prints in the Hard Ground exhibition of works by South African artists exhibited at Tulane last month.

Parallels with contemporary African, and especially South African, narrative art abound in works like A Sunday Morning, 2004, a triptych depicting milling crowds, Mardi Gras Indians, second liners with parasols, women with baby strollers, even disabled folk in wheelchairs, all under the sharp light of a portentous sky. It's definitely home, yet so exotic it could almost be the outskirts of Cape Town. Related themes appear in Sunday Morning, a scene at a spiritual church where a drummer backs up the organist, and white-clad congregants fan a woman who has swooned in religious fervor.

Easter Bunnies, 2004, contrasts views of Easter parades in the mostly white French Quarter, where women ride in mule-drawn carriages, and in mostly black Tremé, where little girls in fancy dresses and bonnets parade far less formally under the eyes of watchful moms. Birch also touches on the storm in Aftermath of Katrina: A Church and an Altar, 2007, an all too familiar scene that works well with his drawing style. My personal favorites are views of regular folks in the 'hood, elderly women chatting on their front stoops, or gents getting haircuts at the barber shops that function as down-home community centers brimming with the latest news and gossip. Here Birch's folk-influenced drawing style appears at its most convincing, harking to the Caribbean imagery of poets such as Derek Walcott among others who see the inner light, life and dignity of regular working folks and are able to share it with the rest of us.

In his acrylic and charcoal paintings such as The Barber Shop, Willie Birch explores the people and places that define old New Orleans neighborhoods.
  • In his acrylic and charcoal paintings such as The Barber Shop, Willie Birch explores the people and places that define old New Orleans neighborhoods.

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