Sunday, November 30, 2008

St. Claude Collective + P.1: Pierre et Gilles



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

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tony Fitzpatrick and Juan Carlos Quintana at Taylor/Bercier

Nostalgia is one of the least understood and most underestimated sources of creative inspiration—at least, so far as contemporary art is concerned. Novelists and poets have for ages plumbed the depths of their past experience with a mixture of dread and fond remembrance, but in contemporary art the kind of postmodernism that came to prominence in the 1980s mandated that artists be impersonal media critics, a phase that has somehow survived over the past quarter century mainly because so much of the New York art establishment still seems stuck in the 1980s. Fortunately, the rest of the world is not, and now that Wall Street has imploded, maybe the 1980s is finally over. Nostalgia takes many forms and the link between nostalgia and identity might be the subliminal frisson that gives this otherwise marginalized sensibility its unexpected punch. Berkeley-based painter Juan Carlos Quintana is Cuban, an identity expressed in his paintings in much the way that Cuban art almost always looks like Cuban art. But he was born to Cuban parents in Louisiana, grew up in New Orleans, and the Cuba of his longing is a land he has only briefly visited.

His new DENIZENS OF HAPPYLANDIA paintings meld tart commentaries on American materialism with a stylistically Cuban sensibility in otherworldly scenes peopled with cartoonish characters. Cultural boundaries are blurred in MISER’S LAST WISH, in which a bewildered figure leaning against a tree rubs his head, as if from a migraine, as a demonic fairy announces: “You’re down to your last one; make it fast.” In IDEOLOGICALLY CONFUSED BAILOUT PLAN, a battered banker and a jaded parrot view a muddled landscape from a hot air balloon. Here as in other works, there is a touch of Cuba’s long tradition of caricaturing the powerful, only now there is a sense that the differences between ordinary Americans and the victims of colonial oppression in the Caribbean may not be so great as we once thought. Strange, lush and surreal, these are provocative works by an artist who straddles both worlds.
In the case of Tony Fitzpatrick, the nostalgia is for the lyrical essence of the place where he grew up, as well as for another place that he has come to love. The former is the Chicago of his youth, a vision gleaned as a child accompanying his father on drives to his customers for burial plots and embalming fluid, then later during his adventures as a car thief for a chop shop. The latter is New Orleans, his home away from home. His affection for both is evident in his gorgeous collages and prints. One series of collages crafted in his poetically precise tattoo style is dedicated to Mardi Gras, both as a local institution and as a pervasive culture that colors the city and state. Another, more general, series features words embellished with charged imagery. RAZOR MEN features the words “Blood, Star, Razor, Men, Prayer,” in a bold vertical sequence embellished with dice, flowers, music notes and butterfly wings. Fitzpatrick says it refers to “men of a certain age” who carry straight razors for protection and who, if stopped by the police, “tell them they are barbers.” This is a universal image applicable to NOLA and Chicago, and is done in a style more typical of his work in Prospect.1. More local are works like THE KINGFISH, which looks like Mardi Gras masker, a crowned harlequin fish surrounded by flowers, skulls and a vintage Shell Oil sign, and is, ironically, all about Huey Long, whose “Every Man a King” motto flanks his feet. MARIGNY GIRL is his tribute to the Faubourg, and the cat-woman figure is an archetypical bohemian. Fitzpatrick says, “I love this neighborhood because there is no one kind of resident. It is a place with an imperishable imagination… full of what is possible in this world.”



Tony Fitzpatrick: THE NIGHT PARADE
Juan Carlos Quintana: DENIZENS OF HAPPYLANDIA
Through November
Taylor/Bercier Fine Art, 233 Chartres St., 527-0072; www.taylorbercier