Dispatch: Lafayette: The Beating Heart of Hub City Art

Donald Leblanc, Industry/Nature, 2011. Color pencil and acrylic on cotton in 77 pieces. Courtesy the artist and Gallery 549, Lafayette.

Donald Leblanc, Hillside and Cloud Bank (from a four-part series), 1994. Graphite and gesso on birch plywood. Courtesy the artist and Gallery 549, Lafayette.

Donald Leblanc, Landscape Mandorla, 2009-2011. Acrylic, gesso, and graphite on birch plywood. Courtesy the artist and Gallery 549, Lafayette.

Donald Leblanc, Apparition, 2009-2011. Graphite and gesso on birch plywood. Courtesy the artist and Gallery 549, Lafayette.

Welcome, Pelican Bombers, to the first dispatch from Lafayette/Acadiana! For my inaugural post, I’ve decided it only right to highlight the work of Lafayette artist and gallery owner Donald Leblanc. I’m guessing you’ve never heard of him. That’s OK. Here’s an analogy: if the Acadiana Center for the Arts is the brains of the art scene in Lafayette, then Leblanc’s Gallery 549 is its beating heart. Since 1999, Leblanc’s Gallery 549 has pumped more Lafayette artists into the marketplace than anyone else. Taking risks where others might not, he has given practically every artist of a certain age in the area their first gallery exhibition.

Leblanc is currently exhibiting his own body of work in the large exhibition space of Gallery 549. His personal work is usually relegated to a small chamber within the gallery when on display at all. This shift has been truly revelatory, allowing his work the space it needs. Now, his audience can truly see what a gorgeous body of work it really is. Leblanc began his artistic career in the late ’70s and early ’80s at the dawn of the Neo Geo movement. Since then, he has steadfastly adhered to the stylistic and conceptual preoccupations that helped characterize the movement, using geometric abstraction to outline ideas rooted in continental theory and sociopolitical constructs. For roughly three decades, the primary concern of Leblanc’s work has been to symbolically express the ways in which mankind uses technology to mediate its experiences with nature and reality. It seems that the times have caught up with him once again because, while viewing his work, I was struck by how current it feels. As curators continue to mine the accomplishments of the artists of the ’80s such as George Condo and fellow Neo Geo cohorts Peter Halley and Ashley Bickerton, Leblanc’s works are all the more relevant.

The central image in most of Leblanc’s works is a vertical lozenge, which hovers in a field of monochrome, stripes, or cellular structures. The lozenge operates as a talisman, a reptilian eye, an egg spawned by science and technology, or the gateway to an awe-inspiring sunset vista on a Louisiana marsh (one of the instances in which Leblanc subverts his geometric tendencies). My mind swayed even further, conjuring associations that ranged from the ’80s remake of the sci-fi classic The Fly and the pervasiveness of contemporary surveillance to soulless hotel abstraction and the haunting landscapes and skies of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

However, it’s the craftsmanship of Leblanc’s work that really stands out in the end. His surfaces belie a hearty engagement with a range of media, including acrylics, graphite, and colored pencil that combine in sensuous and startling ways for an artist so concerned with geometry. What seems like a smooth and empty black field from afar is actually a mass of gestures and smudges, bringing a certain amount of expressionism into his work that keeps it from being cold and calculating. Much like Leblanc’s artistic career, his individual works demand closer inspection, rewarding viewers with a window onto the artistic concerns of one of the most heated decades in American visual arts history, as well as the promise of things to come.

“Donald Leblanc ” on view through August 6, 2011 at Gallery 549, 549 Jefferson Street in Lafayette.