BY JOHN D’ADDARIO | Special to The Advocate, via theadvocate.com
New Orleanians have always enjoyed seeing themselves portrayed on the stage. Witness the perennial popularity of shows like “And The Ball and All,” not to mention the innumerable productions of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that have been mounted over the decades.
To some extent, that’s been true of our tastes in visual arts as well. You never have to look very far to see a Rodrigue or a Michalopoulos poster on someone’s wall.
But the deep pleasures afforded by Simon Gunning’s paintings go far beyond just local interest.
True, part of what will draw some viewers to Gunning’s work, now on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in conjunction with the publication of the first monograph about the artist, is recognizing many of the locations he depicts.
One painting shows the massive bulk of an ocean liner floating serenely above the levee on the Mississippi River at the end of Port Street in the Faubourg Marigny.
Another captures a slice of downtown life (complete with neighborhood dogs) in front of Schiro’s Deli on the corner of Royal and St. Roch a few blocks away.
In the hands of a less gifted artist, paintings like those might be little more than glorified postcard views.
But while Gunning has an undeniable talent for capturing details — the way the light of a setting sun hits the side of a shotgun house in the Bywater, the play of ripples and shadows over water — his brilliantly composed scenes are often abstracted and embellished just enough to elevate them beyond the merely vernacular.
Born and raised in Australia, Gunning has lived and worked in the Marigny for more than 30 years.
According to William Andrews, executive director of the Ogden and curator of the exhibition, the show is an opportunity for audiences to acquaint themselves with a body of work that is both extensive and elusive.
“With a large monographic publication in the works, it is a perfect time to have a far-reaching survey of Simon Gunning’s paintings,” said Andrews.
“His vision is penetrating but not quite prolific —many of these works of art take many months or longer to create — and once paintings leave the artist’s studio they are not typically united again.”
While Gunning’s adopted neighborhood and its environs play a central part in his carefully rendered and atmospheric urban streetscapes, most of the Ogden show is devoted to Gunning’s views of the waterways and wetlands surrounding New Orleans and throughout southern Louisiana. (Gunning’s more bucolic landscapes are even exhibited in a separate “show within a show” of their own adjacent to the main exhibition.)
A frequent motif in Gunning’s paintings is landscapes and objects reflected in rivers, canals, and bayous. Paintings like “Blue Rigolets” and “Drying the Nets,” with their main subjects doubled in the water that surrounds and supports them, almost resemble abstract mandala-like figures when viewed from a distance.
Andrews notes how that play between realistic and abstract elements characterizes much of Gunning’s work as a whole.
“From a certain distance they are very concrete,” said Andrews. “But it’s wonderful how — when you get closer — the image dissolves into patterns of brushstrokes and color and you’re left with the sensation of pure paint.”
That delectable tension is also evident in what might be called his boat portraits like “Miss Ashleigh,” where details like the name of the vessel on its hull are rendered in crisp detail against flat expanses of water and sky and the thin line of green horizon that separates them.
And even the simpler sepia and ink works like “Study for Dead Low (Tide)” recall masterpieces by 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner in their evocative depictions of the changing nature of light.
For Gunning, the exhibition couldn’t have happened in a more appropriate venue.
“It fits because the museum deals with southern art,” said Gunning. “And painting the character and nature of the Deep South has the main focus of my art as well.”
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Simon Gunning and the Southern Louisiana Landscape
WHEN: Through Feb. 5
WHERE: Ogden Museum of Southern Art
925 Camp St., New Orleans
INFO: (504) 539-9650, ogdenmuseum.org
ADMISSION: $12.50 adults