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
       

Sunday, November 9, 2014

P.3: The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music



The Propeller Group's film, The Living Need Light, And The Dead Need Music was perfect for All Saints Day. A dreamily surreal reprise of Vietnamese funeral rites, the traditional Vietnamese proverb that is its title suggests commonalities with New Orleans. But how similar can such a distant place possibly be? Set in Saigon and made by the Vietnam and Los Angeles-based Propeller Group, The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music does in fact reveals startling similarities. For instance, in the film a Vietnamese woman who happens to be dead (top) periodically reappears making pithy, poetic comments, presumably reflecting the Vietnamese belief that the recently dead are actually still with us, they're just going through some changes. But if that sounds odd, consider the way the embalmed bodies of local luminaries Mickey Easterling or Lionel Batiste were propped up at their own funerals, seemingly greeting their guests. Although the film's magic realist style can make it hard to tell fact from fiction, much the same might be said of New Orleans lifestyles. Even so, the folks in this film are no pikers when it comes to funeral spectacles, enlivening wakes with not just food and music but also, in the more extreme cases, sword swallowers, snake handlers and fire eaters incinerating stacks of paper money with their breath.


Another parallel is the way mourning is interwoven with partying, but the similarities become mind boggling as the band in the funeral procession plays bouncy tunes while wearing uniforms that resemble our local jazz funeral Onward or Olympia brass band attire. (A brief web search revealed that some Vietnamese funeral bands really do dress that way.) In the film they're seen parading through swamps to cemeteries with raised tombs, another deja-vu touch. What gives? The artists cite the "nonlocality" theory of quantum physics whereby some things can become "entangled" at the particle level and resemble other things across space and time, an idea even Einstein found "spooky." Maybe that explains why Vietnamese food is a "local" specialty, while illustrating P.3's underlying theme that no matter how different others may seem, most of us are really very much the same inside. Meanwhile, Christopher Meyers' adjacent sculptures--multiple marching band horns fused into surreal hybrid concoctions--provide iconic expressions of "entanglement."



Prospect.3: The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, a film by the Propeller Group with Sculpture Exhibition by Christopher Myers, Through Jan. 25, UNO St. Claude Gallery, 2429 St. Claude Ave., 280-6493

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Space Rites, Public Practice and Gun Buyback



One of the great things about the Prospect New Orleans art expos is the plethora of surprising unaffiliated events that they inspire. New Orleans Airlift always seems to rise to the occasion, and this year their Space Rites in the Lower 9th Ward takes us to previously uncharted territory. In a substantial old baroque church on St. Maurice Ave. stands a tall altar stacked with dozens of defunct TV sets transformed by lead Airlift artist Taylor Lee Shepherd into glowing oscilloscopes that respond to sound with gyrating graphical vortexes of light. Dubbed "resurrection technology" by Rev. Charles Duplessis, who incorporates them into his Sunday morning services, their mystical aura was evident on Sunday evening, Oct. 26th, when the Murmurations alternative folk choir joined the Lower 9th Ward Senior Center Gospel Choir for the first concert of the series, above. There old time religion met avant garde innovation as the Murmurations' haunting polyphony interacted with the gospel ladies' spirited singing--they even substituted "9th Ward spirit" for "old time religion" in the song of the same name. The church, arranged by Jeanne Nathan's Creative Alliance of New Orleans, is the perfect venue for such festive down home otherworldliness.


Airlift also staged an elaborate 8th Ward street culture festival coinciding with Prospect.3's opening on Oct. 25th. Organized by Airlift director Delaney Martin and independent curator Claire Tancons, Public Practice promised "Queens, Rappers, Dancers, Horses, Snakes, Doves, Cars and Bikes" but delivered even more: imagine a tricked out St. Roch version of a renaissance fair. It also complemented former St. Roch gallerist Kirsha Kaechele's adjacent six-figure gun buyback and free music recording studio. Both events were  underwritten by spouse David Walsh's famously quirky Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. Here Kaechele's penchant for extravagant surreality created a serene setting for cops to receive Saturday night specials and sawed off shotguns to the silky sounds of a solo cellist under muted blue and purple lighting a world apart from the boisterous carnival of rappers, drummers and dancers reverberating outside. ~Bookhardt

Space Rites: Metaphysical Mixed Media - New Orleans Airlift @  605 St. Maurice Ave. Interactive Installation; Oct. 26, Nov. 22 - Nakatani Gong Orchestra; Dec. 13-TBA; Jan. 7-TBA, all @ 7pm.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Prospect.3: Basquiat and the Bayou at the Ogden


     
A roman candle whose arc over the New York art world blazed all too briefly, Jean-Michel Basquiat died from a heroin overdose when he was 27. The son of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, he came of age in the early 1980s when New York was still a center of creative ferment, and neoexpressionism  was ascendant. But Basquiat was also very affected by Southern folk art, as this resonant exhibition curated by Franklin Sirmans for Prospect.3 makes clear. Here his emotionally charged style may recall the inchoate fury of disturbed self taught visionary artists, but he was crazy like a fox, and the polar paradoxes found in his work--for instance, violence and the sublime--recall the Afro-Caribbean parables of his ancestors. Consequently, his interweaving of fierce emotional energies has as much in common with voodoo or jazz, as it does with the expressionist legacies of Europe and America.


Exu, a Macumba spirit of the crossroads, above left, is a vortex of eyes, spears and slashing yellow and crimson brush strokes within which we see the snarky demon himself leering amid the chaos. Dating from 1988, Exu is one of Basquiat's last works but recalls his early days as a grafitti artist. Zydeco, top, a vast, wall-size painting, is more lyrical and harks to Louisiana's Creole-Cajun heritage as an accordion-playing figure appears amidst an array of vintage audio-visual equipment that resonates a cryptic mythic significance. Also vast is King Zulu, his wall size 1986 opus featuring a grinning, tragicomic black-man-in-blackface mask floating in a field of blue flanked by horn playing jazz musicians, perhaps a reference to Louis Armstrong's reign as King Zulu in 1949. As iconic as Giocometti figures in shades and zoot suits, they seem to almost hover around the mask as we sense an invisible system at work. Similarly, his anatomical expressionist work, Back of the Neck, above, presents us with a visionary universe of symbols that may only be fathomed intuitively and never cerebrally, in what may amount to Basquiat's final, unspoken challenge to late 20th century culture. ~Bookhardt



Basquiat and the Bayou: Paintings and Works on Paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Through Jan. 25, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600. Left: Untitled (Cadmium), 1984, by Jean-Michel Basquiat.