Sunday, March 18, 2018

Josef Salazar y Mendoza: Portraits of Spanish Colonial New Orleans at the Ogden Museum

This city has always been complicated. Even the parts of its history that once seemed straightforward often spiral off in odd directions on close examination. Josef de Salazar y Mendoza's portraits of local socialites and grandees of all stripes reflect Spain's cultural values during the latter 18th century when New Orleans was a Spanish colony, but the Ogden's biographical text panels reveal all sorts of odd quirks and surprises.

Although his painting style was classically Spanish, Salazar was from  Merida, in Mexico's Mayan Yucatan province, and his sitters were a similarly diverse lot. A Spanish colonial attorney general, Antonio Mendez, left, was a native of Havana, Cuba, the Spanish Caribbean capital that governed New Orleans like a distant suburb. In his portrait, he appears to be interacting with his quietly animated children as his intently focused features suggest someone used to facing unpredictable events with a stoic, if wary, resolve.

Several of the figures on view provide us with faces to go with familiar local street names. Salazar's  portrait of philanthropist Don Andres Almonester reveals an imposing figure whose misspelled name now graces a local avenue, and Joseph Montegut's intriguing family portrait, above, reveals the prominent surgeon who was the namesake of a trendy Faubourg Marigny street. William Kenner looks every inch the proper Anglo-American planter that he was, but his wife, Mary Minor Kenner, conveys a European aura appropriate to the daughter of Louisiana's last Spanish governor. Ultimately, it was New Orleans' international and often exotic citizenry that made it such a rich milieu for portrait painters and nowhere is that more evident than in Salazar's portrait of Marianne Celeste Dragon, top, a Creole of French and Greek ancestry whose aristocratic demeanor epitomized the social mutability of this city's relatively large and affluent mixed race community. Swathed in fashionable blue silk and pearls, she lives on as a kind of Louisiana Mona Lisa – mysterious not for her coyness, but because she appears so completely at ease with who she was -- in a place and time unlike any other. ~Bookhardt / Portraits of Influence in Spanish New Orleans, 1785-1802: Paintings by Josef de Salazar y Mendoza, Through Sept. 2, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Tony Dagradi & Gina Phillips at Ferrara

Grammy winner Tony Dagradi is known for his silken modern jazz saxophone virtuosity, a mellifluous lyricism that reveals his mastery of an instrument with no end of potential rough edges. Less known are his sculptural collages. Featuring whimsical juxtapositions of images that read like improvisational visual riffs, they explore the unexpected relationships between moments in visual time in much the way jazz reveals serendipitous resonances between familiar notes and melodies to open up new experiences for the listener. In these works, Dagradi digs deeply, and quite literally, into old books, reworking their imagery to reveal the secret worlds they contain.

Ships and Snakes, above left, is a rhapsodic take on the old European “wanderlust” sensibility, a quest for wonder through exploring the exotica of foreign lands, here depicted via engravings of dinosaur skeletons and Egyptian pyramids, photographs of formidable snakes and flinty explorers, vast oceangoing ships and colorful foreigners in scenes that reflect the old European idea of the world as a frontier to be “civilized” by “advanced” Western peoples--a view that now seems quite quaint. Induction Motors is a maze of engravings of coils, armatures and archaic mechanisms from the early years of electrification. Looking lost among them is a solitary female figure dutifully tending to a mysteriously imposing mechanical device.  Her presence is prescient: then, as now, it is obvious that the machines are really in charge.

Gina Phillips is known for folksy paintings of rural scenes rendered in thread on fabric instead of paint on canvas. During a recent residency in France, where she was inspired by modern masters, she returned to pigments and canvas in a series of works painted on site. She also noticed unexpected parallels with the landscape of her native Kentucky, which resulted in this time and space transcending Crow Valley show exploring the common threads of nature and the human spirit that weave through both places. These gorgeous, often understated works suggest how much seemingly different people and places have in common if we only take a moment to quietly look with open eyes and minds. Books Transposed: Mixed Media Collages by Tony Dagradi; Crow Valley: Paintings and Fabric Works by Gina Phillips, Through March 30, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Adorned Archetypes at NOMA

Although Nola has long been an American epicenter when it comes to costuming, it was never much of a "haute couture” town -- so when the New Orleans Museum of Art announced that it was staging an artsy “fashion” exhibit I was skeptical. But a blurb by NOMA's decorative arts curator, Mel Buchanan, was intriguing: “This exhibition shows beauty, certainly, but also pain, humor, power, and weakness.” It also mentioned that it was divided into themes based on Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung's notions of “female archetypes.” All of which sounded a lot like costumes. In fact, this show not only blurs the boundaries between fashion and costumes, it is also an otherworldly environment in its own right. Much of it evokes props from Frederico Fellini's old psychedelic films like Juliet of the Spirits reworked into “socially conscious” outfits so outrageous that Nola may be the only place on the planet where people could actually get away with wearing them.
For instance, under the Mother Earth theme, a Sarah Burton/Alexander McQueen leafy black Floral Dress with manic multiple belt buckles, top left, looks perfect for a trip to the Rouses Market on Royal St. on a Saturday evening around Halloween, where it would fit right in. Ditto the albatross-like Charlie Le Mindu Berlin Syndrome winged headdress, top right. A Vivian Westwood Chelsea Coat, left, features a shoulder line that hangs from atop the wearer's head so it initially resembles a very tall headless female zombie -- ideal for lady restaurant workers walking home after midnight. The Explorer theme features items like Joanne Petit-Frere's Bishop Braid hair sculpture featuring a black nude model with braided hair woven into an ebony facsimile of an archbishop's hat. The Magician series features Iris van Herpen's spectacular Snake Dress, above left, with black acrylic reptilian coils that envelop the body from the lower jaw to the upper thigh like a writhing mass of pythons. Not everything is quite so carnivalesque, but, overall, this is a show that passes the Nola litmus test: it is engaging, eccentric and conducive to no end of entertaining conversational speculation. ~Bookhardt / Adorned Archetypes: Fantastical Fashions at NOMA, Through May, Through May 28, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Brisco, Broussard, Humble, Ratliff, Bizer, Loney

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the St. Claude Arts District. Founded amid in an outpouring of art community activism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, its mostly co-op galleries opened in tandem with the Prospect New Orleans international art exhibition's inaugural P.1 exposition in  2008. During this year's nearly three month run of its Prospect.4 interation, most St. Claude galleries hosted group exhibitions of "gallery artists" that often resembled Whitman Sampler assortments of aesthetic miscellany with occasional tasty morsels to reward the determined viewer. In this context, Antenna's current Part 4 show stands out as unexpectedly, almost shockingly, cohesive.

That may have to do with Horton Humble and Rontherin Ratliff, highly accomplished Nola native members of the Level Artist Collective, whose works set the tone. Humble's arresting Women of Indigo, above, suggests worlds arising within worlds, as if ancient Ashanti earth goddesses reappeared as a towering, yet ethereal, vision of transcendence hovering above clamorous city streets, His nearby Man Tree painting of a human head appears, up close, to be comprised of icons and artifacts from the history of civilization. Rontherin Ratliff riffs on related themes in his mixed media sculptures, strikingly stark concoctions of architectural relics somehow imbued with hints of human consciousness as if building  materials had absorbed something of the spirit of the people they once sheltered. Amelia Broussard's nearby graphical works suggest topographical maps of the obscure corners of the psyche. Kevin Brisco's pop-realist portrait of the wreck of his old high school Honda Prelude is an inexplicably gorgeous evocation of a rite of passage -- of teenage cars as symbols of liberation and its limits. It is a theme amplified by his pop realist portraits -- including his canvases at the Good Children Gallery down the street, where they share wall space with intriguing graphical abstractions by Jessica Bizer, above left, among others. But perhaps the final word on the pop mythology of freedom appears at Barrister's Gallery where Daphne Loney's Death of a Disco Dancer sculpture, top, a horse-size unicorn lying in extremis on the floor as reflections from a disco ball bathe it in a slow funerary dirge of refractory luminosity. ~Bookhardt / Antenna Part 4: Work by Kevin Brisco Jr., Amelia Broussard, Horton Humble and Rontherin Ratliff, Through March 4, Antenna Gallery 3718 Saint Claude Ave., 250-7975.