Sunday, June 28, 2015

Along St. Claude: Photographs by Jonathan Traviesa



Recently, while showing a visiting artist around St. Claude Avenue, I had trouble explaining the bullet riddled windows of the newly restored St. Roch Market. The artist, a native of a Latin America and no stranger to turmoil, was shocked at such a violent reaction to a historic restoration. It's not always easy to understand how gentrification became such a hot button issue in this old, traditionally working class neighborhood, but now a series of portrait photographs, Along St. Claude, by Jonathan Traviesa, lends a rich visual dimension to the discussion. It is actually the pictorial component of  Eve Abrams' WWNO radio production of the same name that recently won a 2015 Regional Edward R. Murrow award for Best News Documentary for its colorful exploration of this complex issue.

   
In a neighborhood now known for hipsters from all over, it is immensely reassuring to discover that Steve Nuccio, above, has lived on the same block of Franklin Ave. for over 60 years, after arriving on a boat from Sicily when he was 12, and that he raises pigeons in a coop behind his house. Or that tavern keeper Roy Markey was born in Bywater when it was known simply as "da Nint' Ward"--but you have to listen to the radio show (on the WWNO web site) to learn that his family's bar once opened at 6 am for dock workers who preferred to drink their breakfast. Sculptor Malcolm McClay could almost pass for a relative of the Markeys, but is actually an Irish expat who arrived in the 1990s. Joanne Livaccari Cieutat, top, has lived in her old Poland Ave. home for the past 76 years, and here she appears resplendent in her tropical garden dominated by a statue of the Virgin Mary--but the no less colorful personal style of artist Francesca McKenzie, top left, who arrived in 2009, suggests more continuity than might be expected. St. Claude has always inspired deeply felt passions, and it may be that those same passions will enable it to evolve without losing its distinctive character. ~Bookhardt / Along Saint Claude: Photography by Jonathan Traviesa, Through July 5, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980.  

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Orientalism" at the New Orleans Museum of Art




What a difference a century or so makes. For many 19th century European poets and painters, Asia and Arabia were hotbeds of exotica epitomized by dashing Moorish warriors, hookah-puffing pashas and scantily clad harem girls at a time when Europe was far more restrained. But thanks to al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State, those fabled lands now bristle with militants who carry on like homicidal church ladies trying to bomb dancing, drinking and fun out of existence. The Orientalist fantasies of the 19th century European romantics were just that--European fantasies -- but beyond seducing generations with titillating exoticism, they also reinforced Europe's colonial assertions of "moral superiority" over those "sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child," as Rudyard Kipling described them in his infamous poem, White Man's Burden.
 

The New Orleans Museum of Art has long had some splendid examples in its collection, but this small exhibit for the first time places these works in a more  realistic context while showcasing their exuberance. Race heightens the tension in Alexandre Marie Colin's spectacular Othello and Desdemona painting, top, of the swarthy Moorish general fleeing his beloved's bed after being tricked into killing her, yet it's clearly high tragedy in the grand manner. The French master of the genre was Jean-Leon Gerome, whose paintings of snake charmers and some Turkish Mercenary Soldiers Playing Chess (detail, top left) imbue his subjects with an almost hypnotic aura of intrigue, as does William Morris Grundy's Persian Merchant, above left, but German romantics were no slouches, and Adolf Schreyer's nearby Charge of Arabs painting of Bedouin tribesmen on horseback, above, depicts men and horses in perfect harmony in a classic example of the European notion of "the noble savage." The British are represented by two old photographs of sites damaged during the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion in India. Both look surprisingly staid, and although 2,000 rebels were massacred at one site, Secundra Bagh, below, you have to look twice to notice the skulls and bones the typically tidy Brits left behind as a warning to the others.  ~Bookhardt / Orientalism: Taking and Making: Western Art Influenced by North African and Asian Cultures, Through Dec. 31, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Initiating Cause and Effect: Prints by Katrina Andry



The great jazz musician, Sun Ra, claimed to have come from Saturn to lead black people to their true home on another planet. He was still earthbound when he died in 1993, but his belief--that black folk might as well be from another planet as far as many Americans are concerned--still resonates today.  Superficial stereotypes distort everyone's perceptions of each other, but for African Americans the ghetto casts a long shadow no matter who they are. Lately many black artists have created their own caricatures of those negative cliches as a way of critiquing the critiques--a strategy that pervaded last year's 30 Americans expo at the Contemporary Arts Center. So much emphasis on one approach risks appearing redundant, but Nola native Katrina Andry's unusually large, briskly acerbic yet startlingly original wood block prints are in a class by themselves.    

Beyond their virtuoso technique, Andry's prints stand out for quirky innovations like role reversals of  "ghetto" stereotypes featuring white folk in blackface. For instance, When I Grow Up: The Ascribed Black American Dream, top, features the somnolent form of a young black guy with a superimposed tableau of white youths in blackface brandishing recreational and contraband objects including knives amid the interwoven words, "When I grow up I dream of being... a drug dealer... NBA star... homicidal single mother..." and so forth, in an anthem of desperate options. She also often substitutes a reddish "watermelon face" for blackface. The Jungle Bunny Gave You Fever, above left, depicts a Garden of Eden scene with a nude white woman in Playboy Bunny ears and "watermelon face" embraced by a snake as white guys carry on like coke-crazed frats in a parody of the old "oversexed black folk" cliche, an elaboration on her earlier Garden of Eden scebe, Western Interpretation of the Other, starring a black-face eve and an overly familiar snake, left. Andry's stone-lithograph self portraits depict her as an angry black woman in meltdown mode, but in person she's gracious and demure, as befits an artist recently named by Art in Print magazine as one of their top 50 printmakers.  ~Bookhardt / Initiating Cause and Effect: Woodblock Reduction Prints by Katrina Andry, Through July 25, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471.        

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Jim Roche at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art




It seems fair to call him a mystery man. A fifth generation Floridian born in 1943, Jim Roche has a resume that not only lists exhibitions of his work at prestigious venues like the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Museum of American Art, but also his first place finish at the La Carrera Motorcycle Race in Mexico, and a series of cameo roles in several Jonathan Demme movies. An earlier Ogden show featured the great folk art collection that he and his wife, Alexa Kleinbard, assembled, and when I recently met him, his silver hair and courtly manner bespoke an art collector straight from Central Casting. Which is why this Ogden show was so disorienting--until I became aware the Mexican motorcycle race. There's a distinctly gonzo, ad hoc, radical outsider vibe echoing through this big retrospective going back to the 1960s, an era that flavors much of his oeuvre.
    


Loch Ness Mama Playing, top, is a large serpent sculpture with multiple humanoid breasts where its head ought to be--a hallucinatory look that recalls the 1960s work of psychedelic feminist sculptor of Niki de Saint Phalle, who also favored curves, bright colors and buoyant mamaries. It resurfaces in large colored marker drawings reminiscent of adult fairy tales and makes other cameo appearances all through the show-- a smorgasbord of paintings, drawings, process and performance art, with nature and politics as recurring themes. His Bugometry series of colorfully baroque paintings, top left, feature fantastic insects like mutant species crafted by genetic engineers on acid, but his more political pieces evoke gritty 1960s underground newspapers like our own late, great Nola Express. A series of word paintings,  Some People Feel Like This, includes his acerbic, Muck Off Fonsanto: We Have a Right to Know What's in the Food We Eat, a comment on genetically modified foods, but others--most notably a series of crosses blazoned with painted fundamentalist religious messages--evoke north Florida's "redneck" populism in an exhibition that reflects the spirit of the cowboy bohemians of the 1960s and 1970s--an outlaw breed long ago supplanted by academic theorists and shrewd, calculating careerists. ~Bookhardt / Jim Roche: Cultural Mechanic: Drawings, Sculpture and Installation, Through July 12, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

David Bates at Arthur Roger


David Bates is a paradox. Based in landlocked Dallas, he appears focused on the mysteries associated with bodies of water. In an area not known for modesty, he is very low profile. His paintings reflect an eclectic mingling of styles, yet come off as boldly natural. As New York Times critic, Roberta Smith, who is as baffled by him as I am, once wrote, his canvases "bristle like carpentered objects" and "press forward with every molecule..." At a time when soulless, allegedly "cutting edge" paintings known as "zombie abstraction" are in fashion, Bates is a Texas troglodyte who once described his style as "Cro-Magnon." There may be something to that; the way he deploys his eclectic talents suggests he operates intuitively, with the instincts of a folk artist unconcerned with trends or art history. I don't know him, but by all accounts he is guided by two lifelong passions: fishing and fooling around with paint.


Preoccupied with lakes, swamps and the Gulf of Mexico around the Louisiana and Texas coast, he serves up emblematic works like The Fisherman, top left. Here we see a tropical Ernest Hemingway character, but rather than just a pictorial, or "retinal," image, something inexplicably elemental, yet subliminal, engages the senses; you can almost smell the briny air and fishy cargo. Levee Pump House, left, depicts a weathered wooden hut atop a spidery timber trestle, and the creosote is almost palpable. Some hombres tending crab traps in Port Sulphur seem fashioned from similar stuff, yet recall Orozco's gritty 1930s Mexican murals. If Bates' people and places, say, Point a la Hache, left, suggest "carpentered" layers of paint, his colorful still lifes like Mums and Lilies hark to Matisse's florid south of France period, but with more depth. Yet his simplicity can be Zen-like. In Storm, above, the ominously darkening sky, the gulls hovering close to shore, and a solitary sailboat tacking against the wind are rendered with simple, gracefully sweeping blue, gray and white arcs of pigment that evoke damp, turbulent gusts with a hints of ozone from distant lightning beyond the far horizon. ~Bookhardt / Coastal Paintings: New Works by David Bates, Through July 25, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.