Sunday, January 13, 2019

Beyond Land and Sea: Binh Danh, David Knox and Jennifer Shaw at the Arsenal in the Cabildo

What do rivers, swamps and bayous have in common with people? They all meander and may migrate beyond their usual boundaries. Water and human destiny have long been linked, and the photographers featured here explore the intersection of nature and culture in this newly refurbished exhibition space in the Arsenal at the Cabildo. Among the more recent immigrants to arrive and thrive in this area are the Vietnamese who fled their war ravaged nation starting in the 1970s. Binh Danh grew up in California, but Vietnam's tropical foliage once inspired him to invent a chlorophyll-based printing process before making these more conventional color portraits of Vietnamese people in the New Orleans area where our tropical environs are conducive to growing the crops that thrived in their native land. Chlorophyll in the form of verdant green foliage still permeates these lucid views of proud Vietnamese urban farmers posed before their gardens and greenhouses as we see in “Y Bui and Kim Le of Marrero, LA,” above, an image where the local and the global coalesce in perfect harmony. In other views, most notably  in New Orleans East, icons of the Virgin Mary often appear as another commonplace subtheme.

One of the migrations often overlooked in the history books is the influx of Southerners who fled to Nola from the devastated parts of the South after the Civil War. Their energy helped build the city even as their rigid social views impacted our old laissez-faire Creole approach to racial issues. David Knox's dreamy photo-collages of Civil War scenes, for instance "Cane Field," above, evoke the apocalyptic poetics of the Civil War South in sublimely hellish imagery where Margaret Mitchell's “Gone with the Wind” meets Dante's “Inferno.”

Jennifer Shaw's ethereal photogravures on Japanese Kozo paper take us back to a flooded diluvian future in views of humanoid sea creatures where people sprout lobster-like appendages and ladies ride giant sea horses in murky tableaux where seaweed replaces familiar garden greenery – scenes that are par for the course in an initially subtle looking show that offers vivid new views of otherwise familiar history. ~Bookhardt / Between Land and Sea: Recent Work by Binh Danh, Jennifer Shaw and David Knox, Curated by Constance Lewis; Through March 31, The Arsenal at the Cabildo, 701 Chartres St., 568-6968.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Eric Fischl at Octavia Art Gallery

He is something of a modern oddity, an artist who wandered into an art world dominated by academic theories that ignored the personal side of the human condition, yet he eventually found success as a painter of unsettling human quirks. In retrospect, Eric Fischl seems to have had perfect pitch when it came to capturing the apprehensive psyche of latter day America as seen in his favorite subjects, Long Island, New York, suburbanites lounging around comfortable homes crackling with uncomfortable secrets, or furtively cavorting on the beach in search of elusive pleasures. Early on, his oddly virtuoso paintings evoked the creamy luminosity of a queasy anti-hero Vermeer of Sag Harbor, but the mostly collage-like works seen here and in other recent shows reflect a tersely fluid, near finger-painterly quality of gesture appropriate to figures who, like characters in a John Updike novel, inhabit a familiar world that seems to be shifting out from under their feet. This is Fischl's home turf, literally and psychically, and his unsettling narratives resonate no end of quiet innuendo. 

“Handstand,” depicts three people on a beach who are, at least momentarily, alone together as an older man on a chaise lounge reads a magazine as a woman does a handstand and a young guy ambles distractedly through their midst. Here the sketchy ephemerality of the dye sublimation medium on mylar recalls that most of Fischl's images start out as photographs whose subjects he rearranges to suit the labyrinthine twists of his vision, so if similar figures turn up elsewhere it is not a total surprise. As individuals, the figures in “Family,” or “Poolside Loungers,” may be unique, but the paradoxes and disconcerting ambiguities of their lives are widely shared. In a unique work in poured resin, “Untitled,” top, five sunbathers appear in randomly awkward poses. Familiar yet remote, perhaps even to themselves, they embody the disjointed vulnerability of the world today while reflecting Fischl's belief, repeated in several recent interviews, that “Art should be embraced as a journey. Result-oriented, not product-based. Understood as a process and a dialogue with history, culture, and time.” ~Bookhardt / Eric Fischl: Recent Mixed Media Works, Through Jan. 26, 2019, Octavia Art Gallery, 454 Julia Street St., 309-4249.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Labor Studies: Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick at the Contemporary Arts Center

The legendary local jazz patriarch, Ellis Marsalis, is often quoted as saying that in New Orleans culture “bubbles up from the streets.” Probably no photographers are more aware of that than Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, lifelong Lower 9th Ward residents who documented those streets for nearly forty years. This “Labor Studies” expo explores the lives of ordinary working folk as once plentiful longshoreman jobs were supplanted by hotel and restaurant work even as farm workers lost their livelihood to machines all over America. As witnesses to those changes, Calhoun and McCormick compiled, over decades, a vast photographic archive that amounted to an impressive life's work. Then, in 2005, most of it was inundated by hurricane Katrina's floodwaters.

Much of what we see is what could be scanned from moldy prints, negatives and slides kept frozen to preserve what was left of them. Despite the damage, many assumed a surreal second life due to eerie chemical changes in their emulsion, while those that remained intact live on as windows into the past and present. McCormick's portrait of Joyce Priestly, a sugarcane cutter at the Bessie K plantation, dates from the 1980s, but nothing seems to have changed since the 1780s. Machines now do those jobs – except at the former plantation now known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where photos from the early 1980s to the recent past reveal that most work is still performed by human labor, as we see in a view of a pair of mules with shirtless inmates tilling the soil with hand tools in the background. Despite being featured in every major art publication, and at every major local art museum as well as at international venues like the Whitney Museum in New York in 2016, and the 2015 Venice Biennale, Calhoun and McCormick have remained almost as below the radar as many of their subjects – for instance, the boy playing a horn on a street corner in a waterlogged image noted in their interview with the New Yorker magazine in 2010. His name was Winton Marsalis. ~Bookhardt / Labor Studies: Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Through Feb. 10, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805;      

Sunday, December 23, 2018

2018: The Year in Review

Monument to Latino Workers
When 2018 began, it had the makings of a monumental year. It was this city's' 300th anniversary, after all, and some monumental art news – for instance, the New Orleans Museum of Art's planned 6 acre expansion of its popular sculpture garden – only added to the celebratory aura. But the protracted controversy over the city's removal of Confederate monuments from their prominent locations last year raised lingering questions about the actual meaning and purpose of monuments that, after months of debate, crystallized into one fundamental question for both the city and its art community: which versions of history should we commemorate and how should we go about that process? In true New Orleans fashion, what happened was a mix of planning and surprise, deliberation and unexpected grass roots serendipity. 

Any city's tricentennial celebration might reasonably inspire art exhibitions involving elements of grandeur, and in that sense the New Orleans Museum of Art's spectacular “Orleans Collection” exhibit of masterworks from the 18th century collection of Nola's namesake, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, did not disappoint. Random references to the old European colonial powers also turned up in the Newcomb Art Museum's “Empire” expo that referenced New Orleans' history as a French and Spanish colony while celebrating the cultural contributions the ordinary local folk who made this city what it is. In a surprising twist, those working class heroes, whether famous or anonymous, emerged as a quiet but consistent presence that defined many of our most intriguing 2018 art events, in museums such as the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, for instance, in Elizabeth Bick's streetscape, above right, among any number of widely varied local venues.  

In the monumental vein, New Orleans maestro Franco Alessandrini's bronze and marble “Tribute to Latin American Workers,” top, was unveiled in Crescent Park on November 10th. Commissioned by retired New Orleans physician Dr. Juan Gershanik, the Creole-constructivist statue is dedicated to the Hispanic laborers who facilitated the city's rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina unexpectedly hinted at the revolutionary worker murals by Diego Rivera who, with his wife Frida Kahlo, is celebrated in a dual portrait exhibit at the  Mexican Cultural Institute. Topically related socially conscious art, such as Brandan Odum's mural of local civil rights leader A. P. Turaud and his wife Lucille in the lobby of the newly renovated Pythian Temple building, was unexpected augmented by a series of posters celebrating events like the successful 1867 protests to New Orleans streetcars that the Paper Monuments organization pasted on unoccupied buildings about town. The power of works on paper to immortalize the workers whose contributions are so often overlooked is exemplified by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormic's “Labor Studies” documentary photo expo, above, at the Contemporary Arts Center, a survey of the Lower 9th Ward natives' views of traditional Louisiana farm, dock and restaurant workers salvaged from their vast 40 year archive, much of which was lost to Hurricane Katrina. Curated by the CAC's Andrea Andersson, “Labor Studies” complements CAC exhibits by William Monaghan and Zarouie Abdalian that she says collectively reflect the “fragile and often invisible laboring community” that sustains so much of what we take for granted.

This year's most widely celebrated local monument to the laborers who built much of this state and nation was Kara Walker's massive working steam calliope sculpture, “Katastwóf Karavan,” above, dedicated to the memory of the African slaves held at Algiers Point before being sold. Walker's performance ended Prospect.4, “The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” on a high note when it closed on February 25th after a three month run that attracted over 100,000 visitors to view work by over 70 contemporary artists from the Caribbean, Africa and the Americas -- a number that Prospect's new director, Nick Stillman, says augers well for Prospect.5, slated to open in fall of 2020 under the creative direction of curators Naima Keith and Diana Nawi. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, it also named Christopher Alfieri as its new president and board chairman. The role played by Prospect New Orleans, since its spectacular inaugural Prospect.1 in 2008/2009, should never be underestimated. As the city changed, in many ways for the better, Prospect New Orleans was the catalyst and the challenge that caused so many artists to rise to the occasion, resulting in new experimental arts communities, most notably along the St. Claude corridor. Other changes at the top include Contemporary Arts Center Director Neil Barclay, who after ushering in new energy and focus is stepping down later this month as CAC veteran M.K Wegmann returns as Interim Director; and Gia Hamilton, who left her post as Director of the Joan Mitchell Center last August, has been named the new Director of the African American Museum, where where her plans include collaborations with cutting edge art organizations such as Independent Curators International among others similarly focused on collaborative innovation. Hamilton's flair for outreach was what successfully enabled the Joan Mitchell Center to become a vital part of the life of the city in ways that made everyone feel welcome and involved, and we look forward to seeing her do as much for the New Orleans African American Museum. +++