by Doug MacCash, THE TIMES-PICAYUNE
The current exhibit at Arthur Roger Gallery is a sure crowd pleaser. Francis X. Pavy, Debbie Fleming Caffery and Elmore Morgan Jr. are all Louisiana art legends long-known for their stylish depictions of the Bayou State beyond city limits.
Lafayette-based Pavy came to fame in the 1980’s with his evocations of Cajun nightlife. His folk-influenced style, reminiscent of Roger Brown and Robert Gordy, combines dreamy narratives with the sort of insistent abstract pattering you find in Australian aboriginal art. Over the years, Pavy has composed and re-composed his catalog of symbols — silhouetted fiddle players, coffee cups, barbed wire, wavy water, starry nights, rice plants, etc. — into an amazing array of inventive genre scenes.
Most of the smaller pieces in the current show fall into Pavy’s tried-and-true formula, but the largest canvas, the 3-by-9 foot “Great Spring Flood,” pushes the limits of his style. Though Pavy’s work is sometimes described as “Swamp Pop,” the description has more to do with the alteration than art history. His art has nothing to do with Pop art, but it does contain elements of synthetic cubism, and in “Great Spring Flood,” the cubist elements have burst through the levee.
In this huge canvas, Pavy fractures the picture plane into scores of flattened, patterned shards that are more abstract than descriptive. Stylized cities rise from the bottom of the scene like ziggurats, strange stalactites plunge from the sky and the river swirls through everything like an attenuated amoeba. Though Pavy has long flirted with spatial anomalies, in “Spring Flood,” neither gravity nor perspective apply in the least. Not everyone will appreciate Pavy’s departures from his folksy roots, but its adventurous paintings such as “Spring Flood” that breath life into a known quantity.
Franklin-born photographer Caffery, who also came of artistic age in the 1980’s, is well-known for her depiction of Louisiana noir. Through her lens, burning cane fields become apocalyptic visions of destruction and redemption, alligator carcasses become ghostly reminders of mortality and lone children become fallen angels. She has and unerring knack for finding the exact interface between darkness and light, and she captures those twilight moments starkly in black and white.
The suite of photos in this exhibition (most of which appear in Caffery’s new book, “The Shadows,”) covers many of her past themes: harvest time in Acadiana, mysterious Mexican and Peruvian folk celebrations and the endless twilight of Cajun and Latin dance halls. New to her oeuvre are a selection of photos of Latin-Americans and European circuses, which she captures in Rembrandt-esque chiaroscuro. The dwarf glancing pensively skyward, the elephants reduced to great gray blurs, the eerily costumed horses and the tiger’s face isolated in a streak of light are all Caffery classics.
Maurice, La., -based Morgan, who began his artistic career in the 1950’s, is the dean of Louisiana landscapes. He is an impressionist in the looser, less analytic mode of the mature Monet. And like the French master, Morgan prefers to paint on the countryside instead of the studio.
But his impressionistic painterliness is only the beginning of Morgan’s unique style. He marries his loose brushy landscapes with oddly shaped canvases that bring to mind minimalist works by Ellsworth Kelly. The way Morgan shoehorns the landscape into exotic shapes is the real joy of his art — and that joy is in strong evidence in this current show, which features an unusual selection of Urban New Orleans images.
Note the dynamics of his compositions. In one triangular piece, Morgan allows the World Trade Center to push upward through the center of the landscape. Logically bisecting the composition. But in another roughly rectangular piece, he causes the smoke stacks of an aluminum plant to defiantly collide with the top of the composition. Best of all is a pair of canvases that together form an oval. In the bottom half, a forest of cypresses is abruptly truncated by the shape of the format; in the top half, though, a serpentine oak tree spreads horizontally to take advantage of the lateral stretch of the canvas. In each case Morgan causes us to reconsider the role of the canvas shape in a composition — as aspect of art we’d otherwise take for granted.
Most of the contemporary art world eschews regional flavor. The thrust these days is for uniformity and universality. The distinctly Louisiana-flavored visions of Pavy, Caffery and Morgan are a breath of fresh bayou air.