Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Joel-Peter Witkin Retrospective at A Gallery for Fine Photography

When he was a small child in Brooklyn, he heard a loud crash and a ball-like object came rolling down the street toward him. When he reached for it, he saw it was a girl's severed head, and then someone yanked him away. Joel-Peter Witkin's now famous proclivity for morbidity blossomed a few years later with his photos of Coney Island freak shows, and he's been art photography's incorrigible goth rocker ever since. Now in his seventies, he seems like the academic he was at the University of New Mexico, but his beautifully produced photographs can be gag-inducingly gross. For instance, Man Without a Head depicts a flabby naked guy slouched in a chair as if waiting for a medical exam, but he only has a bloody stump where his head should be. It gets even worse when you realize he doesn't do digital; all those body parts and bodies are real, products of the lax laws in places like Mexico and Poland. Man with Dog, Mexico City, below left, is somewhat more hopeful, a view of a nude transsexual who—from the waist up—looks like Frida Kahlo. Posed with her cute chihuahua she exudes gracious charm, but the tone, while elegant, still says “freak show.”

Ironically, beauty and mystery are things he does well when he's not being gratuitously gross. In Imperfect Thirst, top, an old master looking nude wearing a barracuda on her head suggests the visionary epiphanies of a newly discovered saint thanks to the glowy northern renaissance lighting and rapturously mystical, if surreal, Hieronymus Bosch aura. As for the fish, she wears it well, and fish do have Biblical resonance, after all. Beauty is a theme in Anna Akhmatova, Paris, France, above, a still life tableau with an armless miniature statue of Venus, some grapes, flowers and a clock ensconced in someone's well-formed fingers that are, unfortunately, attached to a severed arm. Witkin is great at what he does, but in an age when the freaky shock jock excesses of Quentin Tarantino's movies and Donald Trump's tweets have inspired national revulsion, his timing may be less than ideal. ~Bookhardt / The World Is Not Enough: Joel-Peter Witkin Photography Retrospective, Through March 10, A Gallery For Fine Photography, 241 Chartres St., 568-1313.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Anastasia Pelias at Ferrara; Kikuo Saito at Octavia; James Kennedy at Callan

Are there more coincidences in this city than elsewhere? It often seems that way, as evidenced by three abstract painting shows on Julia Street that remarkably, yet unintentionally, complement each other via surprising atmospheric and calligraphics synergies. In fact, Nola artist Anastasia Pelias' new Sisters oil stick paintings may her most deftly atmospheric and gestural works to date. Rendered in swatches of drippy sea mists, emphatic charcoal smudges and subtle wisps of color, all were painted while listening to recordings of female singers for whom each of the paintings are named. While painting to music is nothing new, Pelias' lithe charcoal gestures actually do convey a sense of choreographic fluidity. Reminiscent of Edo period Japanese ink studies where calligraphy and imagery seem to have knocked back some saki and danced a tango together, works like Joni evoke ethereal musical sequences hovering precariously in the air. Patsy, top left, recalls a mysterious Asian pictograph radiating secret meanings, or maybe just plans for a hermit hut cobbled from driftwood and old kimonos. Deftly yet playfully executed, Sisters seems a promising new direction for Pelias.

Kikuo Saito's paintings at Octavia, for instance, African Red, left, reflect the late Tokyo-born artist's flair for floating, gestural brush strokes inflected with a prismatic bravura perhaps partly facilitated by his deep familiarity with great abstract visionaries like Helen Frankenthaler, with whom he once worked. These paintings from his final years, 2010 – 2015, are so pristine we can only wonder what would have come next had there been a next time.

James Kennedy's syn•tac•tic paintings at Callan are so precisely and delicately balanced that some -- for instance, Articular, above -- evoke cut-away views of futuristic inventions, maybe advanced automobile engines powered by the sounds of birds or barking dogs. Some recall Marcel Duchamp's alchemical diagrams crafted in glass, but beyond its sense of mysterious inner music expressed in whimsical mechanisms, this show lives up to its billing as a “spatial conversation” with a “highly developed aesthetic grammar.” And of course, syntax, hence its name. ~Bookhardt / Aastasia Pelias: Sisters, Through Jan. 28, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471; : Kikuo Saito: New Work, Through Jan. 28, Octavia Art Gallery, 454 Julia Street St., 309-4249; , James Kennedy: syn•tac•tic, Through Feb. 18, Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Seeing Nature: Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Collection at New Orleans Museum of Art

Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection features 39 paintings by old and modern masters spanning five centuries. The Microsoft co-founder's collection features a stellar array of big names, and the New Orleans Museum of Art is its only Southern venue. Needless to say, there is a lot to see -- but be prepared for a few quirks. For instance, the Seeing Nature part of the title should be taken very literally because this show is less about landscapes than it is about how artists have been “seeing nature” over the ages. So Jan Brueghel the Younger's Sense paintings -- like Sense of Sight, top -- are really more about culture. In this painting, the 17th century Flemish master depicts a gilded gallery with dozens of dazzling artworks surrounding a pale pink muse chatting with an affable pink cherub in a scene that suggests a fantastical estate sale on Mt. Olympus. What it means is best left to the historians, but it really is amazing.

No less arresting is Georgia O'Keeffe's Black Iris VI, top left, a rhapsodically painted blossom with delicately suggestive petals. O'Keeffe's flowers used to look not quite so overtly anatomical in the pre-internet age, but now even a Google search for hot water heater parts can turn up views of fastidiously plucked female private parts amid the hardware. O'Keefe's paintings are as gorgeous as ever, but Google's anatomical indiscretions make them seem more graphic than she intended. Even a panoramic Grand Canyon painting by David Hockney, above, can be disorienting, perhaps because his color palette looks derived from Life Saver candies, so it seems more cute than awesome – a quality that may cause some to involuntarily flash on Walt Disney while viewing an adjacent Grand Canyon at Sunset canvas by 19th century American master Thomas Cole, above left. Like a party where the guest list looked stellar on paper but seemed slightly puzzling in person, this can be a very rewarding viewing experience if you are prepared to encounter a few disorienting little surprises. ~Bookhardt / Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, Through Jan. 15, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Clarence John Laughlin and his Contemporaries at the HNOC's Williams Research Center

Clarence John Laughlin, the legendary “father of American surrealist photography,” was a puzzling character. His eighty year life spanned five wives and over 17 thousand photographs, but he remained  puzzling long after his death in 1985. A native Louisianian and Nola resident, Laughlin was an irascible rebel who made a point of living in self-imposed isolation. But, as this deeply researched expo reveals, he was also quietly yet frequently in touch with many global art stars including photographers Edward Weston, Bill Brandt and Wynn Bullock as well as epochal French surrealists like Brassai, Man Man Ray and Andre Breton, who invited him to participate in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in Paris in 1942 and published his work in the legendary surrealist journal VVV. He exchanged letters and artworks with many, and this expansive survey pairs his pictures and missives with theirs in a sprawling yet highly personal exhibition that provides unusual depth and insight amid a wide array of images ranging from his most experimental to his most famous.

Featuring ghostly area landscapes with ruins that often resembled relics of ancient empires, his work often harks to surrealism's origins in  fantastical 19th century visionaries like the great French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, whose parents were also Louisianians. An architectural photographer by trade, Laughlin's personal work explored old buildings as otherworldly vistas. The Superb Spiral, top, is a classic Creole spiral staircase that suggests entry into deeply chthonic realms, perhaps Hecate's cave, in an image reminiscent of Redon's darkly metaphysical compositions. Other works include montages of neoclassic plantation ruins like Elegy, above, that explore the mysterious cultural geography of a region where traces of other times and places often inexplicably turn up in mirage-like profusion. Even his documentary work can seem fantastical -- in Passage to Never Land, above left, a derelict peeling painting on glass, transformed by ambient light, glows as if with an inner life of its own. Laughlin never trusted others to comprehend what he was really up to. Shortly before his death he wrote, “I have opened the doors... on a new kind of reality... which has the scent and texture of melted dreams and the hues of soluble vision.” ~ Bookhardt  / Clarence John Laughlin and His Contemporaries: A Picture and a Thousand Words, Through March 25, Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, 400 Chartres Street, 523-4662.