Uneasy Jubilation Finds Beauty in the Dark, Danger of New Orleans

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Uneasy Jubilation by Cory Bilicko

(Left to right) “Mardi Gras Zulu King” and “When I Die, You Better Second-Line” – both acrylic on canvas by Cory Bilicko.

Artist Cory Bilicko will present his latest work in a New Orleans-themed exhibit at Long Beach Playhouse this summer. The theater, located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. in Long Beach, will host an opening reception for the show, entitled Uneasy Jubilation, on Sunday, June 16 from 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM.

Born in Biloxi, Mississippi, and having lived in the South his entire life until moving to California from New Orleans in 1995, Bilicko is a self-taught artist who works primarily in acrylics.

He says he has a profound interest in finding the beauty within the darkness; what some might see as unsettling or horrifying, he sees as material that’s ripe for exploration. Underlying most of his paintings is a sense of solitude, which manifests as either an acceptance of loneliness or finding companionship with animals and natural environments. Indeed, these themes and motifs have pervaded Bilicko’s work, but, for his current show at the Playhouse, he is highlighting various aspects of New Orleans’s rich, diverse and sometimes disturbing culture.

The show’s title, Uneasy Jubilation, encapsulates a particular component of life in The Big Easy- how, despite the celebratory atmosphere and the warmth of its people, New Orleans can be a dangerous place. In fact, when he still lived there in the mid ’90s, it was the homicide capital of the world.

“I used to walk along Decatur Street in the French Quarter after waiting tables at the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen just down the street, and I’d pass this bar that had a huge sign that read: ‘New Orleans- Murder Capital of the World,’ and it had a flip chart with big numbers. Every few days, and sometimes on consecutive days, the number on it would change to reflect how many murders there had been in the city that year,” Bilicko said. “Here we were in this bustling tourist destination, a city that epitomizes fun, and this business is prominently displaying how many people had been killed. It was a daily reminder that I really needed to be street-smart, and that there’s a price to pay for the free-spiritedness and laissez-faire attitude that’s prevalent in that city.”

The murder record was broken in New Orleans on Nov. 29, 1994, and there were 28 more homicides before the year ended. It was three weeks later that Bilicko graduated from the University of New Orleans, and four months later, on April Fools Day, that he left the city in a U-Haul headed to Long Beach, having never even been to California before. And it was a year and a half later, at the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, where he’d worked up until just days before moving away, that three of the employees there were shot and killed- their bodies left behind in the freezer.

“That restaurant was a very special place. It’s hard to put into words without it sounding cliché though,” Bilicko said. “We were this eccentric, dysfunctional family, and we forged relationships that continue today. When I worked there, several of us had our sights set on big things. I had a firm plan to move to California soon after finishing college, but others had their own trajectories in the works. Martin became an accomplished author. Kyan went on to be one of the Queer Eyes for the Straight Guys on Bravo. Eric and Wendy are successful make-up artists in New York. But, aside from the horrible restaurant murders, we’ve lost other friends who’d worked there with us. Kevin, always a sweet guy, became a troubled soul and lost his way amid the dark bars and seedy influences of the French Quarter. And the one-year anniversary of Clifton’s passing will come four days after my show’s opening.”

Tragedy seemed to follow even those who successfully moved on from that restaurant. In the late summer of 2001, Bilicko flew to New York to visit several of those friends, including Michelle Mock, from the Pizza Kitchen. As Bilicko celebrated the rendezvous with Michelle, Martin, Eric and Kyan, there seemed to be no hint in the air of the horrors that would take place merely three weeks later on that infamous September morning.

Four years later, it was Hurricane Katrina- which devastated not only New Orleans but the entire Gulf Coast, including his hometown of Biloxi.

“It just seemed like some kind of curse,” Bilicko said. “But, when the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, 2010, I burst into tears. We needed that so badly. It was a reprieve.”

But that celebration would be short-lived. On April 20, 2010 came the BP oil disaster- the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Sick fish are still coming out of the coastal waters.

“With all these large-scale and personal tragedies linked to this wonderful city, I felt compelled to center my exhibit on New Orleans,” Bilicko said. “I wanted to highlight its bittersweet nature, but also commemorate its victims and salute its survivors. Sometimes, when I reflect on my time in New Orleans, I feel truly lucky to be alive.”

About the artist:
Cory Bilicko will be featured in the Long Beach Open-Studio Tour in October. His work has been displayed at Gallery Expo in Bixby Knolls and Greenly Art Space in Signal Hill. He has also had solo shows at FreeSpirit Yoga studio and Long Beach Vegan Eatery. He lives and works in his studio, which is a back house in Bixby Knolls.



About Long Beach Playhouse:
Established in 1929, the Long Beach Playhouse is a landmark in the city of Long Beach. It was the first performing-arts organization in the city, and it is the oldest continuously operating community theatre west of the Mississippi River. The Playhouse produces 13 shows annually while actively collaborating with other artists and arts organizations. Long Beach Playhouse cuts across age, gender, ethnic, and cultural boundaries to nurture and cultivate new and traditional audiences.


One Response to “Uneasy Jubilation Finds Beauty in the Dark, Danger of New Orleans”
  1. Cory Bilicko says:

    Thank you for helping to promote the exhibit!