“Transforming Identities”, New Orleans Art Review

Tranforming Identities


Provocative. Witty. Humorous. Pungent. What more can one say about the art of Willie Birch at the other Arthur Roger Gallery in the New Renaissance Hotel at the comer of Tchoupitoulas and Julia Streets? Birch’s deceptively simple work penetrates deeply into our brains like the knife of a surgeon for a social consciousness-raising operation on viewers” anesthetized minds. Slowly the delight of these unassuming works becomes the awareness that any stereotypes we have brought with us have just been overthrown. Like The Fool who always catches us with our guard down, the artist has conned us into playing his game his way and we are quite pleased at ourselves for being so perceptive of things.

"Korean Women (We are Americans)", 1994

The display of so many works from Birch’s earlier style offers an opportunity for reflection especially when one has seen the newer figurative paintings. The deceptively naïve style that derives at least in part from graffiti expresses Birch’s penetrating insights about the human condition. Birch as The Fool misleads the uninformed viewer with a pseudo-naive style into assuming that the works must be simple things. Caught with guard down Birch’s message slips beneath the cultural radar and becomes part of one’s thinking. The ideas so clearly phrased have the immediate effect of shaping one’s response to the work as the once naive style becomes one that is simple and direct and delightful because of its lack of pretense.

In other of Birch’s works one can become mesmerized by the deceptively random litany of ideas distributed over the surfaces of the work. I find my eyes roaming from phrase to phrase here and there as my head turns this way and that way and nods up and down as well as from side to side, eyeballs flitting back and forth in all possible combinations including many I have never experienced before. The phrases are like the bits of a song blown by a breeze or heard from a distance from which a whole is reconstituted in the mind and understanding grows with a vigor that would not have manifested itself if the ideas had been presented as rasterized text. As my rational mind pieces together the suggestions of the fragments of text an aesthetic order asserts its identity through the strong sense of design and the expressive surfaces of paint and arrangement of visual elements. The strong physical presence of the materials and the technique whether painting or construction contributes to the immediacy of the effect. I am not sure whether I should describe the effect as more or less subtle than that of American Pop Art or Europe’s Nouveau realisme or Artepovera art.

All of this is displayed in a pure white gallery space with large glass windows through which large volumes of light pass to illuminate the gallery space. The strong colors and bold technique freed from the limitation and control of frames makes the space come alive much as light refracted through a gemstone sparkles into life. Entering the luminous space from the cool dark luxurious interior of the New Renaissance Hotel can be stunning experience in the passage from darkness to light. The effect may be a bit overwhelming at first as one’s pupils need to adjust themselves to the intense luminosity and myriad works visible from wherever one stands. Personally I love walls and spaces crowded with works and have always been a fan of the paintings and engravings of eighteenth and nineteenth century galleries and museums but it does requirse one to adjust and adapt and that might create a first impression of a French Quarter Shop before realizing it is a serious art gallery space with visually and mentally invigorating work by Willie Birch as The-Fool-Who-Is-No-Fool. It is we who are fooled and we should be grateful for that whether it be for a social consciousness expanded by art or the phenomena of flowers in art.