Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly In the Season of All Saints

By D. Eric Bookhardt

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Everybody loves a saint. No, not the football variety; that is a very different and far less inspiring sort of martyr. No, I mean the real thing, those bonafide holy sages of antiquity whose rapturous agonies and ecstasies rival Hollywood's most convoluted conjurings. All things considered, it comes as no surprise that saints are a longtime favorite of artists -- and if they no longer enjoy quite the same celebrity cachet as in centuries past, neither are they entirely out of the picture.

Locally, saints of all sorts proliferate in plaster, stone and mortar, in churches and shrines dense with incense and the aura of eternity. But they are also found in work by contemporary artists. Recent issues of "Inside Art" have explored the parallels between today's gothic set -- those tattooed and pierced urban primitives, gutterpunks, neo-pagans, S&M fetishists and such -- and the sometimes-bizarre behavior of our forebears of centuries past. Mortifications and exorcisms too morbid to mention here far exceeded the delirium of contemporary decadence, and even Charles Manson pales in contrast to the holy inquisitors of yore. When it comes to colorful mortification, it obviously takes an extremely dedicated artist to even come close to rivaling the real thing.

In this vein, Alex Beard's paintings of saints at Positive Space suggest late-gothic specters from a cutting-edge grimoire. A Manhattan native and one of a new generation of artists who divide their time between New Orleans and points north (usually New York), Beard's current body of work reflects the influence of his adopted milieu, its aura of martyrs, miracles and decay. Painted in a neo-gothic expressionist manner, these Magazine Street martyrs embody the tortured epiphanies of the Middle Ages melded with the late modern angst of the 20th century.

Joan of Arc Burned at the Stake is a big, crimson melange, a cautionary tale in oil on canvas. Here, a nubile Maid of Orleans writhes in agony on a flaming pyre -- a scene replete with all the sensational pathos for which the lives of the saints are so duly treasured. Other golden oldies include St. Sebastian and St. George, but Beard takes a walk on the wild side with scenes from the lives of some of the more obscure martyrs, including St. Henry of Finland Strangling His Beheader, St. Perpetua Gored by the Heffer and St. Pelagia the Licentious Dancing Girl.

Not to be upstaged by his tumultuous subjects, Beard renders his saintly sadomasochism in manner reminiscent of the creepy surreality of Arshile Gorky, Roberto Matta and Francis Bacon, among others. A hint of the staccato edge of graffiti art lends all this an encompassing, limbo-like ambiguity, a sense of being somewhere between antiquity and modernity, spontaneity and formality, the sacred and the profane. And while Beard's vision may not be for everyone, it fits serendipitously with the lively local approach to All Hallow's Eve and All Saints' Day.

Alex Beard's St. Henry of Finland in all his grotesque glory.
Indeed, rarely has our local propitiation of the spirits been so widely celebrated. The art season of All Saints kicked off on Saturday with Hugo Montero's Day of the Dead altar at the Contemporary Arts Center, where the ghosts of old Mexico, as well as the artist's own apparitions, make an appearance. Joining them are the monumental seraphim and discarnate spirits who inhabit our burial grounds.

Elysium -- A Gathering of Souls is Sandra Russell Clark's photographic tribute to New Orleans cemeteries. Created for her deluxe new picture book of the same name, Clarks' black-and-white photos employ infrared techniques to reveal the softly spectral radiance of her otherwise inert subjects. A strikingly parallel, yet distinctly different exhibit, Cities of the Dead: Life in New Orleans Cemeteries, is on view at the Presbytere. Here, Robert Florence's images, also produced for a large-format book titled New Orleans Cemetaries: Life in the Cities of the Dead, offers a colorfully pictorial approach -- a simpatico, if somewhat different take on much the same subject matter.

Of course, when it comes to being different, there is little that can compare with the Westgate Gallery, a gothic fantasy cavern Uptown. More than a gallery, Westgate is really an environment in its own right, a grandiloquent memento mori -- an obsessive shrine to the dark side on Magazine Street.

Meanwhile, the Historic New Orleans Collection features some little-known photos by our late local ghostbuster, Clarence John Laughlin. Haunter of Ruins is another show that attends the release of a new book of the same name. In it, Laughlin, a self-taught artist and mystic, displays his flair for divining the mystery inherent in ordinary objects.

"Everything, no matter how common, has secret meanings," he once said. Now among the discarnate himself, Laughlin's words and images still linger, haunting us from beyond the grave.

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