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Abstracts explore Biloxi's transformation at Callanwolde

Nothing about the glowing light and color in Katherine Taylor's Casino paintings at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center Gallery evokes the muddy Mississippi River. At least not since the hopeful transformation of Biloxi into a land of glitz and glimmer.

In a series of photo-based works in oil and watercolor, Taylor paints ambiguous scenes from the strip of lights that have cast a pall over her sense of place. Taylor grew up in the working-class culture of Biloxi, which is now flooded with artifice. Her childhood haunts have disappeared beneath efforts to revive the depressed economy of a town 90 long miles north of New Orleans. Not far from her family's house, the man-made beach constructed a century ago for Louisiana tourists is covered over with hotels and gaming venues. These days, an unnaturally brilliant light keeps the sky and water forever bright.

About a year ago, the Georgia State University graduate student began videotaping her hometown. The Gulf Coast community once alive with shrimping and fishing, edged with canneries and factories where her aunts worked, is just a memory. Taylor filmed different spots along the riverbank, mostly standing on a pier where she hung out as a child. From there, she could capture a complete view of the back bay. Film stills generated from the footage were somewhat blurred to begin with. By the time she got to the paintings, Taylor had so distanced herself from the original images that she was creating abstractions.

The intensity of light has always fascinated Taylor, whose work has tended to be autobiographical and figurative. Her paintings of beauty queens (she was once crowned Miss Mississippi Gulf Coast) represent a personal and social reckoning. Crowned in light, her beauties will play a part in the upcoming Lipstick show at City Gallery East.

As much a psychological study as a cultural appraisal, Casino is one gorgeous case of sublimation. The artist's images are beautiful, hazy impressions, rather than glaring exposés. This blurring has a visceral impact — the effect (perhaps tied to the decadent subject) of having indulged in one too many cocktails. Naming her compositions "Bayview," "Beau Rivage," "Island Princess" and "Fountain's Pier," Taylor compels the viewer to try and make out the shape of a particular hotel, club or landmark.

A number of her paintings are conceived in intimate postcard size. Arranged in linear sequence or in a grid within a shadow box, they project a dreamy landscape. One can imagine nighttime reflections on rainy pavement, or harbor lights seen through a fog. Up close or far away, they have the lure of shiny candies or exotic drinks in fluorescent colors — lipstick red, hot pink, bright yellow and icy white against periwinkle blue, deep violet and gray black. Slick and seductive, just like the neon oases of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. At night, the prostituted environment becomes a visually transcendent pleasure.

Taylor says her focus is "on the convergence of light and its alignment with privilege." She's acutely concerned about the megalomaniacal fantasies that have compelled such developments — changes that exaggerate the splendor of moneymaking and displace the community. But most of all, these luminous paintings reflect a metaphoric pulse of energy in Taylor's ebbing spiritual connections with a place she used to call home.

Casino continues through June 8 at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, 980 Briarcliff Road. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat. 404-872-5338.??

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