OVER the last decade, the growth of vital art centers outside New York has been so extraordinary that it will likely be deemed the New American Regionalism by future historians. Though university-educated, the new regionalists have resisted both the high-culture blandishments of academic art and the nostalgia of much provincial work. Their efforts have been supported by a comparable increase in regional galleries, art journals, and by the general change of local newspaper art-writing to genuinely informative and sophisticated criticism.
Unlike regional artists in the past, who frequently rejected the art of their times, contemporary regionalists embrace current art issues, yet phrase them in the language of a particular place. Nowhere is this articulation of the global through the local more apparent then in the work of the Visionary Imagist, an association of southern Louisiana artists.
They have adapted the visual vocabulary of jazz, rhythm-and-blues, Cajun music, voodoo, Mardi Gras, and Mediterranean Catholicism to relay their concern with spiritual malaise and environmental desecration. Hot Caribbean colors in their work pay tribute to the semitropical climate and the often forgotten Latin heritage of the area.
As the name implies, these imagists have forsworn both abstraction and the cool cerebrations of minimalism in favor of naturalist representation. Yet lurking in the recognizable objects is a teasingly skewed illusionism. Subtle incongruities of scale create a sense of the uncanny or the surreal. The viewer is invited to see the figures not as simple representations but as metaphors.
Underlying the individuality of the Visionary Imagists is a yearning for transcendence. For Douglas Bourgeois, whom Artnews magazine recently named as one of the 10 American artists for the 1990s, the ``personal search for the ineffable'' has focused on pop culture. In the late 1970s, Bourgeois's canvases filled with portraits - icons, really - of doomed cult figures like Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, and Tuesday Weld. But his recent paintings, inspired by friends who have surmounted self-destructive behavior like alcohol and drug abuse, symbolize the possibility for healing.
The moral seriousness of Bourgeois's painting - indeed of all the Visionary Imagists - contrasts with the nonchalant irony or acid pessimism of much contemporary art. Yet humor is a mainstay. A fey postmodern word-play has been transplanted to the cultural soil of the bayous by Kentucky-born painter Ann Hornback. Hornback expresses both ecological and feminist concerns in her literal visual translations of common expressions like ``Bus Boys'' or ``Broad Minded.''
Similarly inventive is Andrew Bascle, whose sculptures are made from found objects. Observers have sometimes interpreted Bascle's creative reuse of scrap metal, plastic bottles, and even lint as a plea for recycling. Bascle, however, strives for something else. ``I believe all materials have a hidden life which I try to bring out,'' he has explained.
The meticulous craftsmanship in Visionary Imagist art, a reaffirmation of the value of work, is typified in the paintings and painted constructions of Jacqueline Bishop. She achieves a magic realism, the visual equivalent of Latin American literature.
Perhaps because southern Louisiana has been disfigured by pollution, ecological matters have indirectly informed all of the Visionary Imagists. But for Bishop, the environmental threat is a persistent theme. Her ``Burning Birdhouse'' series features small birdhouses encrusted with enamel-like pictures of birds in a lush tropical setting. The serenity of the setting is broken by flames shooting from the roofs.
``Visionary with a vengence'' is how Roger Green, art critic for New Orlean's Times-Picayune and perceptive interpreter of the Visionary Imagists, describes the paintings of Charles Blank. Blank pierces, twists, and withers the human form. High-key colors and ominous shadows heighten the drama of figures caught up in a psychic maelstrom.
While the work of the other Visionary Imagists lyrically hymns transformation, Bascle's paintings, like those of painter Francis Bacon whom he admires, palpitate with fear and panic. Bascle shares a taste for the macabre with sculptor Dona Lief. Her work reiterates a fascination with non-Western ritual and sorcery and highlights what Lief calls humankind's lost ``spiritual connection with nature.''
As a movement, Visionary Imagism was influenced by the art and legendary personal verve of Louisiana State University professor Robert Warrens. The freewheeling fantasy in Warrens's painting has been cited by the critic Edward Lucie-Smith as ``the quintessence of this particular aspect of Louisiana art.''
At the center of the movement is one of Warrens's students, artist-dealer George Febres, an Equadorian who moved to New Orleans 25 years ago. It was Mr. Febres who first gathered together the art of Bascle, Bishop, Blank, Leif, Hornback, and Bourgeois at his now defunct Galerie Jules Laforgue.
Febres discovered some of the Visionary Imagists while curating a 1981 show called ``Visions'' at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. Since then, museums and galleries, primarily in the South and Southeast, have regularly exhibited their work. The Contemporary Arts Center, currently undergoing extensive expansion, is in the process of organizing a major traveling exhibition of Visionary Imagist work.
Lew Thomas, curator of the show and visual arts director of the center, likes to quip that New York is just another region, but he recognizes the clout New York continues to have on the national and international art scene. To facilitate greater recognition of the Visionary Imagists, Thomas has enlisted D. Eric Bookhardt, the New Orleans-based critic credited with naming the group, to prepare a comprehensive catalog for what Thomas hopes will be a widely viewed show.
Southern Louisiana has given birth to internationally acclaimed music, cuisine, architecture, and literature. It is too soon to tell if Visionary Imagism will enlarge that distinguished list. Yet the movement goes a long way to redeem what has been disparagingly called provincial art. As part of the emerging New American Regionalism, Visionary Imagism calls into question the whole notion of a cultural mainstream.