Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gisleson at Antenna + Meow Wolf at The Front

Maybe it was the July supermoon, but this month's St. Claude gallery openings were very dreamlike. Those who braved the pervasive somnambulism of the night encountered low budget vision quests like Susan Gisleson's Jung Hotel installation at Antenna. Less about Nola's long gone Jung Hotel than Carl Jung's "collective unconscious," the show explores how the dreaming mind tends to conflate personal quirks with cultural memory. Here the walls are lined with books with peep show portals revealing lurid dream scenes while, on the floor, a 1960s jukebox features freakishly unfamiliar song titles like I Found a Glass Eye in the Dirt attributed to familiar names like Del Reeves. An array of hanging medallions like souvenir drink coasters encased in clear plastic reprises iconic Americana in the form of vintage fashions and Indian chiefs, antique road maps and anatomy class skeletons, 1920s weight lifters and soft porn starlets, all slowly sashaying in the gentle breezes of the HVAC vent. It's just another night at the Jung Hotel where an antique suitcase filled with realistically slimy plastic frogs at the entrance prepares us for the for what lies in store.

The Santa Fe, New Mexico, art collective Meow Wolf's Moving Still installation at the Front greets us with an Iron Claw machine filled with plastic dinosaurs. The first two galleries are dedicated to a history of the collective, and the rear galleries feature a splendidly meandering environment like a sculptural recreation of a peyote vision formulated by Werner Herzog and Alejandro Jodorowsky. But a reflexive search for Klaus Kinski mainly yields dry ice fog arising from a display case memorial to a deceased cross dresser, and an intricately cavernous maze of psychedelically hued lattice constructions, above studded with visionary beasts from the otherworldly labyrinths that appear only to those who journey by the light of the supermoon. ~Bookhardt

The Jung Hotel: Installation by Susan Gisleson, Through August 3, Antenna Gallery, 3718 Saint Claude Ave., 250-7975; Moving Still: Mixed Media Installation by the Meow Wolf artists collective, Through Aug. 3, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Behind Closed Doors: The Spanish American Home, 1492--1898, at NOMA and the Brooklyn Museum

The title, Behind Closed Doors, sounds racy, but the subtitle, Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898, suggests something more sedate. In fact, this overview of how the newly rich lived in the old Spanish colonies back when sugar was as profitable as oil is now, deals as much with social history as it does with art history. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum, and featuring works from NOMA's own significant Spanish colonial collection, this show excels at deploying elegant and occasionally bizarre objects to illustrate the lifestyles of the diverse peoples who used their wealth to create a culturally rich alternative to the staid traditions of Old Europe. In Spanish colonial society, wealth, religiosity and art were all flaunted and their culture was also part of our history--the pelican on the Louisiana state flag is actually an old Spanish Catholic (and Masonic) symbol. And although slavery was horribly cruel everywhere it existed, the French and Spanish were more open to the richness of Native American and African cultures of the sort that were celebrated in this city's Congo Square, but were banned in the British-influenced American South. That relative openness helps to explain why Spanish mestizo and Afro-Creole people appear somewhat prominently in this show.

Included among the blood and gold-inflected art objects are works that reflect the exoticism of a newly ascendant class. For instance, the Inca king, top, is a mid-18th century canvas commissioned by a Spanish -Inca mestizo of means, while another, Agostino Brunius' Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, above illustrates the stylish elegance of a mixed race elite. But even Spanish colonial religious art could be quite surreal. Our Lady of Agony depicts a lady saint holding Jesus in much the way the Virgin Mary is often seen holding the Christ child, only this is a diminutive version of a bearded, bleeding crucified Jesus being held by a woman who is clearly twice his size. I have often suspected that surrealism was really born in Latin America centuries before it appeared in 1920s France, and this unpredictable show clearly furthers that assertion. ~Bookhardt

Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898, Through Sept. 21, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

New Orleans' Free People of Color Rediscovered

It is in many ways a secret history. In antebellum New Orleans, the gens de couleur libres, or free people of color (FPC), experienced a golden age of influence and creativity unknown outside Louisiana. It was almost forgotten even here after segregation became the law in the 1890s, so it may come as a surprise that they were once nearly half of this city's population. By 1810, much of Haiti's Afro-Creole professional class had fled the devastation of the Haitian revolution. Here their skills were soon seen in the building of Marigny, Treme and parts of the French Quarter where they helped to create much of we think of as New Orleans culture. 

Artist-activist Jose Torres Tama, an Ecuador native who grew up in New Jersey,  became intrigued by their legacy after moving here in 1984. Over the years his interest evolved into a series of portraits and a book, both commissioned by the Ogden Museum, and now this exhibit at Le Musee de FPC sponsored by the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Here we see remarkable figures like legendary beautician/ voodoo queen Marie Laveau (above), inventor Norbert Rillieux who revolutionized sugar refining, Edmond Dede, a violinist and composer who became the conductor of a prominent French symphony orchestra, ex-slave Rose Nicaud who 200 years ago opened our first coffee shop, influential newspaper publisher Dr. Louis Roudanez, and feminist poet Alice Dunbar Nelson, among numerous noteworthy others.
In January of 2012, Dr. Dwight and Beverly McKenna opened Le Musee de FPC in a gorgeously restored 1859 Greek Revival manse on Esplanade Avenue to make their Creole collection more widely accessible. Within we find the secret history of this very accomplished and creative class that nimbly if quietly blended New Orleans' black and white cultures while artfully influencing both. No other large, biracial society existed anywhere else in America, but ours trongly reflects the Caribbean Creole cultures from which it evolved. In that sense, this Free People of Color expo is a perfect complement to Richard Sexton's excellent Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere book and exhibition at the Historic New Orleans Collections. 

Even as our forgotten history is finally coming to light, America's mixed race people are starting to be more recognized elsewhere thanks to artists like Portland's Samantha Wall. Her eloquent portraits at Stella Jones probe their inner lives, using the female body as "a site of struggle" to explore emotions such as "shame and pride" as paths to self awareness. The South's horrific history is well known, but even Oregon had racist laws that remained on the books well into the 20th century, placing Wall's work in a perhaps surprising context. America is only now in the early stages of reflecting the kind of variegated society that emerged here over two centuries ago. ~Bookhardt

New Orleans Free People of Color and Their Legacy: Portraits by Jose Torres Tama, through July 20, Le Musee de FPC, 2336 Esplanade Ave., 914-5401; Indivisible: Mixed Media Portraits of Mixed Race People by Samantha Wall, through July 31, Stella Jones Gallery, 201 St. Charles Ave., Suite 132, 568-9050. Left: Portrait of a Lady by J.H. (possibly Julien Hudson, 1811--1844) at Le Musee de FPC.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hale Woodruff's Murals & Kara Walker's Critics

The 1930s was a banner decade for mural painting in America. The hardships of the Great Depression  heightened popular interest in the kinds of heroic struggles that murals often depict, and in 1938 Talladega College commissioned Hale Woodruff to paint a series illustrating decisive moments in the fight against racial oppression. The six murals at New Orleans Museum of Art, on loan from Atlanta's High Museum, are among his most iconic, but it helps to see them in person; his Mutiny on the Amistad, above, portraying an uprising on a ship carrying slaves to a Cuban sugar plantation in 1839, is strikingly more powerful than any reproduction can convey. Others show the mutineers on trial after their escape to New York and their eventual repatriation to Africa after the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Painted in a romantic realist style, Woodruff's work endures because it eloquently reflects the  longing for freedom, justice and dignity that all people share. 

He was 79 when he died in 1980, so we can only wonder what he might have thought about the latest American art trends. He may have liked Antenna's recent multicultural Mixed Messages IV show where hooded Klansmen are seen fleeing an angry Godzilla, but, like many veterans of the civil rights struggle, he might have been taken aback by Kara Walker (included in the CAC's stellar 30 Americans show), whose anti-heroic views of plantation slaves (think Uncle Tom's Cabin perversely illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley), suggest a kinky kind of psychodrama where depravity reigns supreme and human dignity is all but nonexistent.

An artist of immense talent whose quiet charisma almost masks her visceral flair for publicity, Walker courts controversy with titillating spectacles, most recently A Subtlety (above), her three story tall, anatomically explicit, mammy-sphinx sculpture rendered in sugar at a defunct Domino refinery in Brooklyn. An amazing accomplishment, it is vastly more interesting than the work of many better known spectacle artists. Still, her approach raises no end of Questions about Kara: Why is it never noted that she based her sugar sphinx's body, including elongated buttocks over pigeon-toed feet, on Ernst Fuchs' twentieth century Austrian Ur-Sphinx (above left)? How surprising is it, really, that her most ardent supporters are mostly white and her most passionate critics mostly black? Why was anyone surprised that A Subtlety provoked "tasteless Instagram photos from people clearly missing the point of the work"? (Left) Were they really missing the point of the work??? Was Carol Diehl's Dirty Sugar commentary right to compare her work to Nazi porn or to suggest that her depiction of blacks as "passive victims of slavery engaged in psycho-sexual drama... reinforces the stereotypes that whites imposed on blacks to justify racism?" What was that all about? S&M has long been seen in surrealism and expressionism, but isn't her psychosexual fetishism way too personally convoluted to conflate with black history? Or is this really all about Kara? Kara Walker appears to have the makings of a great artist, but why have leading art critics stuck to press release talking points and not raised any deeper questions about her work in print? ~Bookhardt  

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College, Through Sept. 14, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100

Related: Jeff Koons, The Art World's Great White Hope

Sunday, June 22, 2014

James Flynn at Callan Contemporary

William Blake once opined that it is possible to "...see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour..." In his poem, Auguries of Innocence, he harked to the sages of antiquity who saw the repeating patterns of the natural world as a kind of sacred geometry that contained the secrets of the universe. But Blake's contemporaries were often more likely to see the natural world as fodder for smoke belching factories. In more recent times, physicists in  have rediscovered that nature's geometric patterning actually does contain the secrets of the universe after all, and that ongoing counterpoint between technology and metaphysics is reflected in James Flynn's seamlessly pristine, yet near-hallucinatory, paintings.

Comprised of intricate, symmetrically patterned lines rendered in richly hued pigments, they range from austerely minimal compositions to dazzling visual puzzles that trick the eye into seeing luminous depth where only flat surfaces actually exist. Consequently, they often resemble holograms that change in color and form when viewed from different angles. Olam Atzilut, (a Kabbalist term for emanation, above) is a shimmering arrangement of concentric circles like a bulls-eye in burnished brass but is actually just a painted panel. Concentric circles become even more illusionistic in Sysygy (a celestial navigation term for alignment, left), where their overlapping forms seem to shimmer like a virtual reality rendition of a soap bubble floating in space. Flynn's most visionary work, The Pareidolic Dream of the Lion, top, makes extensive use of obsessively painted moire patterns deployed as a kind of Rorschach that turns the viewer's gaze inward. The human need to make sense of ambiguity causes the subjective nature of our imagination and preoccupations to influence how we interpret what we see (as the term "pareidolic" suggests). In this uniquely surprising exhibition, Flynn takes us to the far horizons of perception, returning us to that sublime metaphysical realm where art, science and magic are united and cohesive once again. ~Bookhardt

Qualia: Geometric Paintings by James Flynn, Through July 25, Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518. Left: The Oracle of Blessed Friedeberg by James Flynn, dedicated to Mexican artist Pedro Friedeberg.