Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Big" Works from the Ogden Museum Collection

In art as in life, things are not always what they seem. Art museums are often assumed to exhibit the best of the best, but lofty goals can be constrained by logistical considerations. This "Big" expo at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art lives up to its name with quite large works from its collection that are billed as "typically hidden from public view" due to their "grand scale." But does size alone make for a cohesive art show? Fortunately, these works also reflect some unique trends that motivated collectors and museum patrons to acquire outstanding regional art over several decades, works that suggest a kind of cultural cross section of unique local sensibilities that were shared by artists and collectors alike.
What stands out is how fresh many of these works still look decades after they were made. The late Robert Gordy was an iconic local artist until his death in 1986, and while most of his work crackled with a vibrant psychotropic electricity, figurative works like his 1972 “Two Faced” view of juxtaposed female heads (pictured, left) presaged America's current psychosexual gender controversies. Similarly, the late Clyde Connell's 1987 canvas, “Creatures of the Hot Humid Earth,” anticipated AfroFuturism via her deftly strategic use of mystical Egyptian, Ethiopian and Coptic symbolism. The sounds of New Orleans streets visually come alive in late local artist Jeffrey Cook's vibrant wall sculpture, “Makin' of a Melody,” where found objects and Caribbean colors resonate a silent hymn to the soul of our city. Much local painting featured an intuitive fusion of imagism and expressionism into a kind of Creole magic realism.

The legacy of imagism lives on in  Alabama-born Roger Brown's 1988  canvas “The Seven Last Plagues,” a haunting reminder of the not so distant past, even as North Shore artist Charles Blank's expressionistic 2001 “Pink Bombs” canvas, right, presaged America's perpetual Middle East warfare state – two representative examples in a varied yet surprisingly consistent expo featuring often timeless works by legendary area artists including Willie Birch, Nicole Charbonnet, Justin Forbes, Kendall Shaw, Fred Trenchard and Pat Trivigno ("Dancers of Delphi #2," 1986, above), among others. ~Bookhardt / "BIG" Works from  the Ogden Museum of Southern Art Collection, Through Feb. 17th, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp Street, 539-9600.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Mildred Thompson at NOMA

Lately, the New Orleans Museum of Art is a study in contrasts. Even as the "Orléans Collection" of Old Master works originally assembled by Nola's namesake, Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans, overwhelms the eye, this more modest "Against the Grain" expo of works by late abstract artist Mildred Thompson, top, manages to evoke the subtle magic of the ordinary while remaining far more down to earth. Part of a generation of great, but often overlooked, black 20th century female modern artists, Thompson and her peers were often ahead of their time for the way their universal vision set the stage for the 21st century's global perspective. Thompson may have been the most eclectic and experimental of the lot, and this exhibition, co-curated by Katie Pfohl and Melissa Messina, and organized around a nucleus of starkly yet lyrically emblematic works acquired through NOMA's Leah Chase Fund, is her first solo museum show in 30 years. 

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1936 Thompson, as a black female artist in the 1950s and 1960s, was ignored in New York but found success in Europe, where most of these “Against the Grain” works were made.  “Wood Picture,” 1972, right, suggests nothing and everything as homely wooden planks part to reveal a flash of royal purple in a composition that makes distinct visual sense while eluding didactic conceptual analysis. “Wood Picture,” 1966, above, a white on white composition of tautly arranged wooden rectangles, resonates a haunting silent music like a Bauhaus take on a Diddley Bow composition. A silkscreen print, “Untitled (# 111),” may initially suggest pristine European abstraction, but look again and it recalls African patterning, like a wildebeest reduced to its abstract essence. Thompson's range of associations reminds us that all humans are products of diverse cultural legacies built on DNA derived from global migrations that ultimately originated in Africa. As she put it: “There are recordings in our genes that remember Africa. If they are strong enough and we are free of false denials, they will surface and appear without deliberation no matter what we do." ~Bookhardt / Mildred Thompson: “Against the Grain” Through Aug 31st, 2019, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Duke of Orleans Collection at NOMA

What's in a name? Because Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, was the interim French Regent standing in for France's boy king, Louis XV, who was just 8 years old in 1718 when Nola was founded, he was ripe for having a city named after him. But who was he, really, and what did he have to do with us? The 40 masterworks from his “Orleans” collection may initially remind us that piety and royal pomposity were the dominant themes of his time, but numerous picaresque scenes of mythic deities acting out their all too human intrigues provide lots of quirky counterpoint. Antoine Dieu's “Allegory of Philippe, duc d'Orléans,” right, portrait of him surrounded by mythic deities astride a world globe evokes a vintage carnival ball invitation while reassuringly complementing works where familiar figures like Bacchus share space with stuffy French royals and tortured martyrs. Close inspection reveals that Philippe was a collector with an unusually finely honed personal aesthetic. He even studied painting, and his artistic flair affected not only what he chose to collect, but also his curatorial vision, providing a sense of how our city's namesake might really be a long lost relation after all.

Rather than arranging his collection in the formal topical manner of his time, he apparently hung work according to his own unique visual instincts, so a somber religious tableau might share space with a suggestive nude scene like Alessandro Alori's "Venus Disarming Cupid," above -– a sensibility replicated in our local street schemes where Piety and Desire coexist in close proximity. Similarly, Nicolas Poussain's “Ecstasy of St. Paul” view of the holy martyr ascending to the heavens might also pass for a disoriented Greek deity struggling to find his way back Mt. Olympus. Organized by NOMA’s Senior Research Curator of European Art, Vanessa Schmid, these masterworks, loaned by leading museums across Europe and America, reflect the essence of a unique sensibility that influenced the future direction of European art and collecting. It is a complicated sensibility that unexpectedly resonates with the unconventional spirit of the American city that bears his name. ~Bookhardt / “The Orleans Collection:” Forty Masterworks from the Duke of Orleans Collection, Through Jan. 27th, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

"New Southern Photography" at the Ogden

Touted as as “the largest photography exhibition at the Ogden Museum to date,” this sprawling “New Southern Photography” show, curated by Richard McCabe, features diverse yet cohesive selections by 25 emerging and mid-career Southern artists. Presented as a series of photographic essays reflecting the contemporary cultural paradoxes that define the old former Confederate states, the works on view pick up where the often deeply psychological pioneers of New South photographic modernism like William Eggleston, Sally Mann and William Christenberry left off.

For instance, Alabama native Celestia Morgan's “Redline” series employs familiar postmodern socio-economic tropes via juxtaposing geometric map-like shapes in the sky with photographs of crumbling old houses in neighborhoods that were “redlined”-- deemed off limits for loans by banks that saw them as risky credit ghettos. If that sounds clinical, many of Morgan's house portraits evoke an elegiac pathos that recalls the poignant aura of abandonment of 1930s social documentary classics by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange. Postmodern sociology of a more didactic-ironic sort appears in Nancy Newberry's portraits of stereotypical Texans in cowboy hats, Mexicans in sombreros, and flashy marching band majorettes, all of whom portray the self-conscious social constructs of times and places that tend to confuse style with character. Elizabeth Bick's more distinctly formal views of pedestrians navigating Houston's austere architectural canyons appear as figures in a complicated visual “Street Ballet,” above right, recalling the stark musical geometry of classical Bauhaus compositions as well as Harry Callahan's meticulously rhythmic urban industrial photographic streetscapes.  

Andrew Moore's “Zydeco Zinger” view of a ravaged carousel in the post-Katrina ruins of the Six Flags Theme Park in New Orleans East, top, recalls the eerie sense of wonder that characterized much Victorian travelogue photography -– but a similarly near-preternatural quality of presence seen in the photographic portraits of that era when extended exposure times were the norm, resurfaces in Susan Worsham's “Marine,” above left, an image so mysteriously simple yet fully realized that it seems timeless despite its recent, 2009, vintage.

Likewise, Louviere + Vanessa's  “Resonantia” series of musical notes rendered as gold leaf photo-mandalas, above, recall Nikola Tesla's 19th century cyclotron experiments in a vision of time where past and present are as interwoven as the interplay of dark and light in a photographic image. ~Bookhardt / “New Southern Photography: New Views of the Evolving American South," Through March 10, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600,