Sunday, December 7, 2008



Through Jan. 18

Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., 715-3968;

One of the many interesting discussions generated by the Prospect.1 biennial has to do with favorites. Almost everyone has not only a favorite artist or exhibit, but also a favorite venue. Of the two main exhibition halls occupied entirely by Prospect.1 artworks, the Contemporary Arts Center seems to be a favorite of artists with masters degrees, while the Old U.S. Mint appears to be a favorite of art buffs less steeped in trends and academia. Why that would be is anyone's guess, but one factor may be accessibility: the work at the Mint tends to be accessible in ways that are often sensual and occasionally humorous. The CAC stuff tends toward a grittier sort of Sturm und drang mingled with more cerebral conceptual musings. Both are meaty and provocative, but the work at the Mint may be more seductive, as evidenced in Blossom, by upstate New York-based artist Sanford Biggers.

An actual player piano entangled in a tree — the sort of juxtaposition Hurricane Katrina so often left in its wake — plays a familiar melody as if by a ghostly pianist. The melody is "Strange Fruit," a harmonically seductive song popularized by Billie Holiday, but the "strange fruit" in the lyrics actually refers to the bodies of lynched black men hanging from trees after authorities turned a blind eye — a stance some saw as analogous to the Bush administration's neglect of the city, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, in the wake of the storm. As if to drive home the point, Zwelethu Mthetwa's Common Ground Series of photographs of impoverished shantytowns in his native South Africa are shown with photos of flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward homes, and it's often difficult to tell them apart. Bold, colorful and gorgeously composed, they seduce the viewer into other worlds where many might not otherwise venture. Similarly, New Orleanian Deborah Luster uses archaic photo techniques to elegantly hypnotic effect in photographs of violent-crime sites in Orleans Parish.

Nigerian artist El Anutsui's large, metallic wall hangings are lushly sensual in their melding of African and Western abstraction, but look again and his materials turn out to be caps and foil from discarded liquor bottles woven with copper wire in a triumph of recycling, a literal transformation of trash into treasure. In like manner, Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes mines discarded styles from the past in the form of brightly colored op and pop icons from the '60s and '70s — plastic flowers, targets, Christmas and Carnival ornaments — transformed into a large and extraordinary mobile.

French New Yorker Anne Deleporte quite literally transformed yesterday's newspapers by pasting them on the Mint's walls and vaulted ceiling, and then painted everything sky blue except for key iconic images such as dancers, airplanes, dollars and snakes, all floating in space like the afterimages or apparitions of collective memory. Similarly, New Yorker Fred Tomaselli collages printed images of tiny eyes, lips and body parts along with colorful acrylic dots in paintings that meld the look of Mardi Gras beads, psychedelic patterning and DNA spirals in a tribute to regeneration in the wake of chaos.

If all this sounds a little lush, Los Angeles artist Stephen Rhodes takes us on a wild ride that seems almost inspired by John Belushi and the Marx Brothers. Like a parody of the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland, it's really his protest against the degradation of American ideals by various office holders, past and present. Japan's Yasumasa Morimura, a kind of transsexual Cindy Sherman, mocks the pretenses of art and politics in his hilariously madcap photo self-portraits. Local Serbo-Croatian artist Srdjan Loncar rounds it out with his acerbic Value installation, employing stacks of fake cash to comment on the way art and finance speculators have turned the world into a manic-depressive casino. Be that as it may, the Mint has never looked so good.


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