Sunday, December 14, 2014

Prospect.3: Recent Work by Andrea Fraser, Hew Locke & Ebony Patterson at Newcomb Gallery

It's like a parallel universe in some ways; visiting the Newcomb Gallery can be like coming home and finding similar but unfamiliar furnishings in place of your own. Hew Locke, a London-based artist from Guyana, is inspired by his Caribbean homeland's Carnival processions celebrated in cities  that are often situated below sea level and surrounded by swamps and old plantations, or along marshy coasts that are rapidly washing away. The first piece I saw, Mosquito Hall, left, looks so startlingly like a bayou fishing camp from my childhood, I had to look twice just to see the psychedelic swamp spirit hovering over it. In fact, the abandoned old structure is a relic of Hew Locke's childhood memories of Guyana, now immortalized in paint. Nearby, the walls are covered with his linear baroque flourishes like drawings rendered in black rope and beads depicting the march of history as a fantastical carnival procession with mythic gods, beasts and bizarre creatures brandishing assault rifles. Titled Nameless, it's a uniquely compelling installation created during Locke's first visit to New Orleans, where he was surprised to find so much that seemed so familiar, including Carnival beads dangling from the trees.

In the next room, a small mountain of colorfully bizarre fabric, left, suggests something the Society of Saint Anne marching krewe might have left behind. But a label says it's Andrea Fraser's Monument to Discarded Fantasies, a conceptual installation comprised of Brazillian carnival costumes. In a nearby gallery, Jamaican artist Ebony Patterson's paintings suggest ethereal androgynous figures in vortexes of glitter and paint in what a wall text calls her "exploration of Jamaican dancehall culture as a space for... masquerading and gender fluidity" in the "laissez-faire spirit of Carnival." Locke and Patterson are also in the Contemporary Arts Center's upcoming En Mas exhibition featuring Carnival as a contemporary performance art practice in the Caribbean, Europe and New Orleans. Locke's procession piece, co-produced by the CAC and Britain's Tate Modern, premiered at Tate's Turbine Hall last August.  ~Bookhardt

PROSPECT 3: Recent Works by Andrea Fraser, Hew Locke, and Ebony G. Patterson, Through Jan. 25, Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, 865-5328. Left: two birds--beyond the bladez (detail) by Ebony Patterson

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Photorealism: The Besthoff Collection at NOMA

Citarella Fish Company by Richard Estes

It's no secret that Sydney and Walda Besthoff are big time art lovers, but the size of their photorealist painting collection, which takes up the entire back half of NOMA's first floor galleries, may come as a surprise. It is clearly one of America's best, and if anyone wants to see what virtuoso, bravura painting looks like, this is the place. While not fully understood, photorealism is important because of what it reveals about how people have come to see the world around us. Painting as we know it was defined during the renaissance by the depth perspective revealed by early optical devices. Sometimes the lens was just a pin hole in a dark enclosure, but the perspective it revealed has shaped our worldview ever since. Without even trying, people learned to see optical perspective over the centuries by looking at images. The invention of photography in the 19th century mechanized that process. Photographs came across as truth, but when photorealism appeared in the 1960s, the human hand reemerged as an arbiter of reality.  

Sunset Street, 1974 by Robert Bechtle

Photorealism records reflections and other details the way a camera sees them, which ironically enables the painter's hand to create hyper-real images--like Richard Bell's dazzling painting of Cat's Eye Marbles in a swirl of laser sharp reflections, or Peter Maier's impossibly sharp and sleek views of antique cars--that seem more vivid than photographs. But photorealism at its best reveals the subtler magic that underlies our ordinary, everyday world; at least, if we are receptive to it. In Richard Estes 1991 New York street scene, Citarella Fish Company, or Davis Cone's 1984 view of the Happy Hour  theater on Magazine Street, the canvas almost seems to breathe with the sheer presence of those times and places. Similarly, Robert Bechtle's haunting Sunset Street, 1974, vibrates to the cool, Bay area light rather like a minimal modernist reprise of Edward Hopper's stark vistas bathed in the pale luminosity of the distant New York sun. Such works suggest a special insight that, as the late novelist David Foster Wallace put it, "has everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is real and essential, yet so hidden in plain sight all around us..." ~Bookhardt

Photorealism: The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection, Through January 25, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Hoffacker, Alley and Loncar at Barrister's

'Tis the season to be jolly: Ho ho ho. As we enter the Christmas season of giving, more Americans seem to be recovering from the recent recession, yet the presence of homeless people hustling for handouts persists like a Dickensian flashback to a harsher time. Passers by avert their eyes, as if to make them invisible, but NOPD homicide detective Charles "Beau" Haffacker not only engages with them, he buys their cardboard signs, on which he paints their portrait, leaving bits of scrawled pleas for help visible. An intriguing selection of them are on view at Barrister's. Here his sketchy yet deftly executed brushstrokes enable us to actually see their human dimension, maybe for the first time. Many may be addicts or psychologically impaired, and some may be war veterans suffering from PTSD, but by painting them with such a deft hand and empathetic eye, Hoffacker reveals their soulful aura. Their issues will no doubt persist, but they are no longer invisible.              

In the adjacent exhibit of sculptural works by Daniel P. Alley and Srdjan Loncar, modern art plays tricks and nothing is what it seems. Inspired by mass media imagery, Srdjan Loncar fills a gallery space with languidly curved sheet aluminum sculptures with faux finishes like the oxidized steel employed by minimalist sculptor Richard Serra in his similar, but way larger, installations. Curiously, the relative thinness of the aluminum panels, and the glossy white surface of their flip side also suggests oversize photographs in what must be seen as a comment on the profligate appropriation that digital technology facilitates. Daniel Alley takes us to the Washington Monument, which recently reopened after its pyramidal tip was repaired. In this pristine installation, dozens of imperfect cast aluminum pyramids appear in a precisely lit display, a mini-jewelry showroom where they rest on a glass shelves like so many variations on a theme. Rising from the floor, a majestic replica of the monument displays a perfect pyramid at its peak. Alley's work is dedicated to aluminum technology pioneer William Frishmuth, a German immigrant who cast the aluminum pyramid that topped off the Washington Monument in 1884. ~Bookhardt          

Concerted Effort: Metal Sculpture and Assemblage by Daniel P. Alley and Srdjan Loncar; Homeless: The Definitive Collection: Paintings on Cardboard by Charles "Beau" Hoffacker, Through Dec. 6, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

P.3: Herbert Singleton and Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Herbert Singleton was a compelling New Orleans folk artist whose inclusion in Prospect.3 reflects its focus on important, if too often overlooked, people and places. A lifelong resident of Algiers, he was a carpenter before a drug habit landed him in prison. Both left him scarred by the time he died, at 62, in 2007. Today his eloquently mordant observations live on in the visceral social commentary seen in wood carvings like Leander Perez, below. Here the late, racist, Plaquemines Parish political boss points out a man in a work gang whose expression tells us this isn't going to end well. Except for Come Out of Her--his pithy meditation on black womanist theology's notion of a female first human--Singleton's subjects are mostly deeply flawed outsiders like himself yet, like characters in Dostoyevsky's novels, their stark pathos connects with our most basic human emotions.

Leander Perez by Herbert Singleton

Come Out of Her by Herbert Singleton
Indeed, his sharply etched focus on the dark side of the human psyche is seen in a variety of carved figures and bas reliefs featuring perpetrators, victims and mourners painted in deeply brilliant shades of Rustoleum. Dr. Kilikey is a bas relief of a drug dealer with a mythic, demonic presence, preparing a heroin user to shoot up. Both are archetypal figures in a pathological narrative that Singleton further elaborates in a carving that begins with the fateful name "Angola," top, as youthful foibles lurch toward a tragic conclusion in an electric chair. This human narrative is, absurdly yet convincingly, interwoven with scenes of a possum hunt, and it all ends with the carved words: "Lawd Have Mercy." (For more, see Andy Antippas's superb paper, Reading Herbert Singleton, delivered at an American Folk Art Museum symposium in 2008.)

A few images from Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick's classic, unflinching, documentary photos of life at Angola, the notorious Louisiana state prison, help provide a context for Singleton's crime and punishment obsession while previewing their nearby Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex exhibition, where prisoners appear like caged animals in banana republic zoos, or laboring in fields where they are either indistinguishable from slaves on antebellum plantations or else resemble documentary scenes from South Africa under Apartheid. Calhoun and McCormick have been working on this project for decades, and their recent video of a man who spent 30 years at Angola only to be exonerated by recent DNA evidence underscores why this series is so profoundly important. (More on Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick and this exhibition can be found here.) ~Bookhardt

Prospect.3: Herbert Singleton: Inside Out/Outside In; Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick: Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex, Through Jan. 25th, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Self-Taught, Outsider and Visionary Art from the Gasperi Collection at the Ogden Museum

The Throne of God by Sister Gertrude Morgan
Once folk art was just folk art. Somewhere, up in the hills, resourceful matrons would gather to make quilts and gossip, or retired small town cops would carve duck decoys or other, less identifiable things, but it was all "normal," good, clean fun. But in the 1970s, another kind of folk art became fashionable. It was variously dubbed "visionary" or "outsider" art, terms that were a kind of code for art by people who sometimes heard or saw things, often very strange things. Some were just oddballs while others were on a mission from God to save souls with their religious paintings. Local collector Richard Gasperi assembled over 500 such works, much of it is on view at the Ogden, where it makes for a great prelude to the expo of Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings inspired by the South, upstairs, with which it shares much in common.

Noah's Ark by David Butler
Birds and Crosses by Willie White
An entire gallery chamber is occupied by the works of David Butler, who in his retirement became a visionary conjurer of strange, benignly demonic avian and reptilian creatures painted in the rich colors and staccato patterns often associated with African art, but here mostly rendered in shaped corrugated tin panels. In real life he stayed close to his rustic home but his vision soared across time and space to  encompasses local swamps and African jungles as well religious scenes like Noah's Ark, above. Another retired gent with a similarly mesozoic visio, Willie White, sold felt marker landscapes like Birds and Crosses, from his Central City front porch, but although Mose Tolliver, an elderly Alabama, also painted odd animals, his women were odder, at times resembling those obscene "Sheela-na-gig" female gargoyles that can be seen exposing themselves above strategic portals on ancient Irish cathedrals. But Sister Gertrude Morgan was all about piety, hers and ours, and here she reveals to us The Throne of God, top, which clearly illustrates how she came to be considered something akin to a  William Blake of the Lower 9th Ward. It's quite a contrast to Jack Zwirz's inexplicably beguiling portrait of an Eleven Fingered Seamstress in an evening dress, below, or Rev. Howard Finster's colorfully inscribed painting illustrating how "millions of church folk drink Coca Cola and drive home safely."  ~Bookhardt

Eleven Fingered Seamstress by Jack Zwirz

Self-Taught, Outsider and Visionary Art from the Collection of Richard Gasperi, Through Feb. 22, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600