Sunday, October 20, 2019

Audra Kohout at Soren Christensen

New Orleans is sometimes described as a city of relics, a place where the past is never past because so much of it lives on in structures and objects, large and small. Old buildings can speak to us when they subtly resonate a sense of their former inhabitants. Lost or orphaned objects have more intimate second lives as they pass through yard sales and thrift stores and then from friend to friend as quirky gifts that live on as talismanic fetishes, symbols embodying what the surrealists saw as as fragments of society's dreams. This offers special opportunities for artists willing to engage with this unusually arcane and personal milieu, a realm in which Audra Kohout's work reflects something of the vividly dreamy and carnivalesque inner life of this city's inhabitants.
Kohout employs old dolls and figurines in theatrical configurations with bits of exotic fabric and antique props often involving mysterious arrangements of birds, animals, gears and machine parts that hark to ancient mythology and the modern female psyche while conveying a sense of how technology entangles our lives in any number of ways. In this “Reliquary” show, old music box mechanisms play a special role as revolving stages on which Kohout's mostly female figures interact almost like puppets or fairytale princesses guided by invisible forces as they play out their mysterious psychological dramas. For instance, “Dissonance,” left, features two tiny warrior princesses swathed in white fabric and wearing metal helmets studded with animal horns. Seductive yet combative in demeanor, they stand atop little circular stages that are music box mechanisms playing competing harmonies as they turn, suggesting a kind of genteel psychodramatic ballet, or maybe a miniature, innuendo charged tableau vivant. Women bound by competing internal and external forces are a recurring theme. “Coronation,” top, detail, is an ornate box sculpture in which a ceramic girl child is framed in a series of baroque ovals as a retinue of girl dolls including half avian mythic figures look on expectantly. Additional surreal pedestal and stand - alone sculptures make “Reliquary” Kohout's most audacious and ambitious exhibition in years. ~Bookhardt / Reliquaries: New Sculpture and Assemblages by Audra Kohout, Through October, Soren Christensen Gallery, 400 Julia St., 569-9501.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

New Paintings and Mixed Media by Luis Cruz Azaceta and Brian Guidry at Arthur Roger

New Orleans' most internationally celebrated visual artist lives so quietly among us that very few beyond our art community even know his name. Now 77 years old and represented in over 80 major museum collections all over the world, Havana, Cuba-native Luis Cruz Azaceta has become something of a godfather of Hispanic Caribbean abstraction by doggedly avoiding labels and remaining true to his chosen identity as a voice for exiles everywhere. His work arises from the psychological complexities of living in limbo, as expressed in bold canvases and constructions where the threads that connect, and the ties that bind, are forever strained by having to perpetually navigate a world of obstacles that has no parallel for those of us fortunate enough to live firmly planted in our homelands. How does he handle that? In the traditional Cuban way -- by making spirited cultural music from the sometimes seductive, sometimes forbidding, raw materials of the human condition. 
After moving to New York as a teen in 1960, Azaceta was inspired by the city's Kafka-esque anarchy to become a leading figure in 1980s neo-expressionism. Relocating to New Orleans in 1993 returned him to the buoyant colors and gritty sensuality of his native land, but in a city that was deeply parochial yet culturally international. This Arthur Roger show reflects the intricate forces that shaped his life while celebrating his gift for forever seeing the world anew. “N.O. Sound,” right, a multi-hued canvas of colorful rhythmic wedges linked by mysterious schematic circuits, suggests how the urban oyster of Nola culture creates sublime pearls from adamantly disparate forces. “Mayhem,” top expands the view to include Caribbean complexity as a wellspring of cultural genius based on uniting the anarchy of opposites into a ceaseless stream of improvisational creativity.

All this is neatly complemented by Brian Guidry's brilliant “Parallel Earth” exhibition of paintings focusing on the obscure inner dynamics of the forces that animate the world around us. Taken together, both exhibitions illustrate the sublime evolution of Louisiana's uniquely spicy flavors of abstract art. ~Bookhardt / Between the Lines: New Work by Luis Cruz Azaceta; Parallel Earth: New Work by Brian Guidry, Through Oct. 26, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Richard Sexton: Enigmatic Stream, Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River

In this “Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River” exhibit of nearly 100 black-and-white photographs, Richard Sexton has tackled perhaps his most challenging project to date. The vast petro-chemical corridor that extends from Baton Rouge past New Orleans is one of America's most vital heavy-industry complexes as well as a major economic engine for Louisiana. Lauded as a technological marvel and derided as a pollution spewing “cancer alley,” its controversies complicate the documentary photographer's task of clear and unbiased depiction. Here, Sexton lets these industries speak for themselves as otherworldly structures that arise improbably from among cow pastures, homes, cemeteries and the romantic remnants of fabled plantations.

Is it possible for fantastical technological complexes to visually inspire intense emotions? The view of the Norco refinery as seen from over the river at Hahnville, top, is “awesome” in every sense of the word, but what sort of awe does it inspire? Recalling science fiction illustrations, it harks to a disorienting realm beyond ordinary human experience as we struggle to fathom its implications. Comprising the cover of the book that accompanies the exhibit, it visually epitomizes the “enigma” that we live with. The river banks are also studded with utilitarian facilities like grain silos and the relics of antiquated industries in a kind of vast visual anarchy. For instance, the steel trusses of the Huey P. Long bridge, left, are starkly utilitarian, but the arches supporting them reveal surprisingly intricate gothic hints of old Europe. This interaction of vast natural and industrial forces with pervasive human whimsy is a recurring theme as we see in an image of vast oceangoing tankers anchored in the river adjacent the flooded Bonnet Carre' Spillway where a fisherman wades along the shore just as so many before him have always done, yet the dead reside ambiguously in the Holy Rosary Cemetery surrounded by a sprawling Union Carbide refinery, above. The contexts and contrasts defy easy interpretation. As Sexton puts it: “We are intellectually aware of heavy industry’s importance, are in awe of its power, and, at the same time, fear and loathe its existence. Such is the nature of enigmas.” ~Bookhardt / Richard Sexton: Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River, Through April 5, Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St. 523-4662.    

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Now That I'm a Woman Everything is Strange

As art show titles go, "Now That I'm a Woman, Everything is Strange" sounds edgy and of the present moment. The truth is more timeless and complicated. The title is a line from a song in the 1982 animated fantasy film, "The Last Unicorn," about a hopeful female unicorn on a quest to find out why she is the last of her species. She soon learns that unicorns have fierce enemies including an evil witch, who captures her. To escape, she relies on help from a sketchy magician who changes her into a young woman. It is the paradox of her new human female persona that inspired the song as well as the work seen here. Focusing on transformational magic as a timeless aspect of female identity, curator Jessica Bizer says the show "explores fluidity and shape-shifting as sources for feminine power."  

It is an intriguing notion that resonates on any number of levels ranging from ancient mythology to modern psychology, and may well be worthy of a major museum exhibition. This show, however, like many on St. Claude, seems more experimental and offhand, with a grab bag quality about it. Bizer's ceaselessly shifting “I'm Into Shapes” wall projection, top, at its best suggests the sense of magical possibility we associate with unicorns, but Nina Schwanse's “Tempestuous Pussy” drawings are evil witchery in the form of expressionistic demon cats with human breasts rendered in a style reminiscent of Willem de Kooning. “Girl,” above, a sculpture by Rachel Jones Deris, is eerie not only for its strange oracular eyes under a mystical star-burst emerging from her forehead, but also for its odd resemblance to teen eco-activist Greta Thunberg. Sophie Lvoff's photograph “Melon” of a neo-renaissance fruit composition  evokes fertility as a form of mystical mojo, while Rachel Avena Brown's wooden table inscribed with mystical signs literally rounds things out. All in all, it is a show that takes a freewheeling and loosely improvisational approach to timeless myths and mysteries. ~Bookhardt / Now That I'm a Woman, Everything is Strange: New Work by Jessica Bizer, Rachel Avena Brown, Rachel Jones Deris, Sophie Lvoff and Nina Schwanse, Through Oct. 6, Good Children Gallery, 4037 St. Claude Ave., 616-7427.