New Orleans has always been a city of surprises, but for the past few years two of the more surprising things remarked upon by visitors have been the vast scale of the damage inflicted by storm-related flooding, and the pluck, resilience and tenacity of the city's inhabitants as they rebuild under sometimes daunting circumstances. Central to this effort has been the innovative work of diverse people coming together to accomplish common goals. The adaptive reuse of the storm battered Universal Furniture building on St. Claude Avenue is a case in point. A project of the St. Claude Collective, an unusual coterie of artists, builders, architects, engineers and alternative healers, the Universal building now houses a police substation and a large exhibition of work by some of this city's more adventuresome artists, as well a Prospect.1 photographic installation. It one day will house futuristic endeavors of all sorts, but for now the cops and artists typify the truly unusual alliances that comprise the rebuilding effort.
With over 40 artists' works, it's a show that defies the easy comprehension, but some broad generalizations can be made. Perhaps because it was organized by Andy Antippas of Barrister's Gallery, a curator known for his provocative proclivities, the artists appear to have been unusually uninhibited, often even punchy. This makes for rambling yet--as even the New York Times felt obliged to note--consistently lively expo. One of the more noteworthy side effects of the Prospect.1 biennial is the way local artists were motivated to organize their own shows in tandem, and they often did so with flying colors. And if those colors sometimes clash or run, so be it. When you look at the big picture-at Prospect.1 and all of the local exhibitions it inspired-it soon becomes clear that this is an outpouring of creativity on an a scale unprecedented even in this preternaturally creative metropolis. It is monumental and extraordinary, and like all such things, it is composed of many little and not so little pieces.
One of the more intriguing things about this Universal expo is how the cop spaces and artist spaces sometimes seem to blend together. Through an easily overlooked door is a dimly lit space that might be a "ritual crimes" evidence room containing animal bones, crockery shards and ceremonial drums, but is actually Elizabeth Shannon's LOUISIANA EMBLEM installation. Some watercolors of svelte nudes clutching handguns are not crime depictions but portraits by Carol Leake with titles like SUZETTE WITH PISTOL.
And Malcolm McClay's replica of a terrorist holding pen that projects the viewer's image into its cage-like interior bears a resemblance to a nearby police interrogation room.
Even the Prospect.1 installation, a series of campy photos by Parisian artists Pierre et Gilles, contains components that might under other circumstances attract the interest of NOPD's sex crimes unit, but context is everything and the same might be said of many modernist figurative artists from Picasso and Francis Bacon to deKooning and Jeff Koons. Similarly, a lovely baroque metal bouquet of sensual forms by Chicory Miles turns out to be a cluster of disembodied breasts. Underscoring the Roman Polanski edge, a morbidly hypnotic video, BADLANDS, by Michael Greathouse, tracks vultures circling in the skies above a telephone pole.
More vibrantly redemptive are paintings like Sallie Ann Glassman's hallucinatory visions of downtown New Orleans awash in rainbow colors. Nearby, a chipper if minimal peppermint stick turns out to be Robin Levy's vastly elongated photographic C print of an umbilical cord. The effect of these works can be quite psychological as we see in Alan Gerson's MEN IN COATS, a Kafkaesque little army of men in suits, like those unearthed Chinese imperial warrior statues, cobbled from kneaded rubber erasers. This psychic complexity is typified by Myrtle von Damitz' painting, STRICKEN, which while outwardly morbid is also sublimely intricate, a celebration of the beauty that resides in decay, and vice versa.
The St. Claude Collective Exhibition: Group Exhibition of 40 New Orleans Artists
Through Jan. 18
Universal Furniture Bldg., 2372 St. Claude Ave., 525-2767; www.stclaudecollective.org