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Gambit Weekly Border Town Alchemy

By D. Eric Bookhardt

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Seen from the rear window perspective of the fast-fading 20th century, it sounds strange to say that art, science and mysticism were once inseparably linked, as intimately interwoven as the morning glory vines in your neighbor's yard. But, in fact, they were and had been all along, until just a few centuries ago. That was when science decreed that nothing was real that could not be quantified -- weighed or measured -- and a lot of people have spent a lot of time weighing and measuring things ever since.

Nothing against weights and measures, mind you, but fixing one's focus solely only on those things deemed tangible enough to be calculated seems sort of, well, fixated somehow -- or such is the overall import of Paul LeBlanc's new show, Terra Reforma, at Sylvia Schmidt. LeBlanc is apparently a latter-day alchemist of sorts, and his work suggests a peculiar mix of medieval mysticism and modern anarchical funk art. Indeed, his salvage sculptures often have a distinctly Magazine Street (or even West Bank) aura about them.

Filius Cosmi, for one, is an ornate little affair, like a cross between an old-time carriage lamp and those outdoor folk altars that used to dot the landscape of South Louisiana. With snakeskin filigree, a cypress knee stem and a little statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague inside, Cosmi falls into this funk icon category.

In fact, the Infant Jesus of Prague has attained unusual ecumenical stature in these parts by being a prominent patron of both Roman Catholics and Protestant Spiritualists alike -- a true folk art saint. But LeBlanc's treatment of this is as archaic as it is folksy; it all comes across like a medieval experiment gone strangely awry, perhaps an alchemical attempt at time travel that ended up in the wrong part of Marrero by mistake. Similarly, Tree of Alchemy, a kind of illuminated turtle shell replete with bird wings, esoteric inscriptions and treelike protrusions, transforms swamp funk speculation into a kind of crazed medieval gris gris.

Yves & Kay is among LeBlanc's more polished -- and surreal -- pieces.
There is a strange, kitschy beauty about these constructions, a Louisiana pop baroque sensibility that stands in contrast to the more painterly resolve of the canvases. Terra Transforma is a classic alchemical painting, a hybrid of cross and tree festooned with esoteric symbols, all floating in space. Painted in a style of renaissance realism, it displays a visionary surreality that becomes pure surrealism in Yves & Kay, LeBlanc's tribute to the late French art icon Yves Klein. A dramatic showman whose stark performance pieces concealed an alchemical kind of spirituality under a flashy facade of street theater, Klein used his art to evoke the underlying emptiness of the material world -- hence the empty, otherworldly look of this canvas.

The polished aura of Yves & Kay contrasts in tone with LeBlanc's more kitschy sculptural constructions, and these almost opposing tendencies pose questions about his direction. But then again, alchemy is traditionally involved with the reconciling of opposites, and presumably so is LeBlanc. It will be interesting to see where all this takes him.

An alchemical aura also pervades The Border, a sculptural installation by Beverly Penn at Heriard-Cimino. An extravaganza of esoteric constructions topped off with mysterious formulae and tiny ballet dancers enclosed under cylindrical glass domes, this deals rather obliquely with the Tex-Mex border, where attempts to reconcile opposites are ceaseless and longstanding.

Unquestionably conceptual in appearance, The Border is made up of skeletal metal stands like stylized altars -- or guard towers -- facing each other in opposing rows. Each supports a ballerina under glass. They pirouette atop round platforms that are really music boxes, all playing at once. So the gallery is filled with chiming cacophonies of "Home on the Range" and "Cielito Linda," respectively, as the tinkling texture of the sound and the tiny figures under glass evoke a sense of little worlds in collision.

Behind each ballerina is an old printer's plate on which a recipe for mole sauce has been superimposed. On the Mexican side, the mole sauce uses natural ingredients and takes three days to prepare. The American mole sauce takes 30 minutes, with contents that read like a chemistry text. So here the mole sauce becomes a metaphor, a meditation on the alchemy of border cultures.

It is hard to say if Penn's use of alchemical symbolism is intentional or not, but it makes for an unusually poetic take on what might be simply sociological. And that is what alchemy was about -- using symbols to energize the psyche and imagination, to rise above ordinary appearances and evolve to another level.

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