Sunday, August 29, 2010

Los Invisibles: The Latinos Who Rebuilt New Orleans

In the dark days that followed Hurricane Katrina, returning residents were confronted with what looked like an overwhelming task. Many flooded houses needed to be gutted and renovated, and even those on the relatively high “sliver by the river” often needed roof repairs. The scale of the damage was daunting, but many home owners were aided by a small army of mostly Hispanic laborers, many undocumented, who gutted houses and replaced roofs, often with astounding efficiency, typically for less than others would have charged. For their trouble, many were short-changed by unscrupulous homeowners and shady contractors, who all too often got away with it. Although there are many good arguments against illegal immigration, the bottom line for south Louisiana is that these guys were lifesavers, scruffy angels of deliverance who received scant recognition for their role in helping to save a city. This INVISIBLES exhibit of photographs by Abdul Aziz, Meryt Harding, Dennis Couvilion, Craig Morse, Leslie Parr, Mario Tama, Aoife Naughton and Wes Wallace, was assembled by curator Jose Torres Tama as a gesture of thanks for their ubiquitous contributions.
     Here we have an opportunity to observe them more closely. What we see in Aoife Naughton and Wes Wallace’s CLAIBORNE AVENUE series are the wary expressions of men who wait on street corners, either for work or police harassment, whichever comes first. The look on the faces of some young hombres posed on flood ravaged carousel ponies in Craig Morse’s CAROUSEL OF DEMOCRACY is more ambiguous, or ironic, but Mario Tama’s MIGRANT DAY LABORER #4, top, reveals a swarthy young guy holding up a snapshot of a baby he might never have even seen in person, but his beaming visage says all you need to know about hope. Torres Tama’s contributions include photographs of Hispanic workers protesting the mysterious death of Jose Reyes, a Salvadoran who died while in custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, aka ICE. It was ICE’s eighth such mysterious death recorded so far this year. ~Bookhardt

Above: Taco Wagon by Leslie Parr (Click Images to Expand)
Through Sept. 4
Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-2506;

Understory: Botany as Identity at the Front

We all know how Hurricane Katrina affected the people of this region, but only the earliest storm weary returnees got to witness a remarkable phenomenon of nature that was as dramatic as it was fleeting. Called “the Katrina Spring," it was an amazing out of season flowering of a vast array of local plant life, as what were mere muddy stumps in September came back blooming, as if on steroids, in November, a time when most were normally hunkered down for a long winter's sleep. This UNDERSTORY show, while not specifically about that event, deals with its roots in the tenacious and near-defining role that plant life plays in shaping this city’s sense of place. Here works by Aileen Boos, Christopher Brumfield, Shana Hayward, Susan Norris-Davis, Megan Roniger, Jonathan Traviesa and David Webber explore the secret life of local flora in any number of ways.
     Native plant specialist Susan Norris-Davis’ delicately realistic pen and ink drawings are expertly executed botanical studies, but each one is also accompanied by an eloquent little essay (available on request), a personal narrative that reads like a short story dealing with the interplay of this city’s plants and people in the wake of Katrina. Curator Megan Roniger’s mixed media renditions of area vegetation like cat’s claw, angel’s trumpet and oleander, above, suggest a kind of pop-baroque minimalism, with flowers and leaves reduced to patterns of iconic forms that hint at things infinite and eternal. And then there is the untitled installation by Aileen Boos that capitalizes on the borderline-sinister beauty of the psychotropic angel’s trumpet flower, deploying vaguely humanoid ceramic and cloth replicas of them in an arch-like phalanx of angels, top, or migration of souls, with a shadowy chorus for counterpoint. All of which is appropriate to a place where the most gorgeous flowers can cause madness if ingested and where the most common vines can strangle trees or rip apart houses, or anything else foolish enough to linger in their path. ~Bookhardt
UNDERSTORY: Group Exhibition of New Work Dealing With Local Plant Life
Through Sept. 5
The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980;

Sunday, August 22, 2010

New Orleans Art After Katrina

Prospect.1: Paul Vilinski's Emergency Response Art Studio

Like much of this city in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, the most pressing questions facing the New Orleans art scene had to do with survival. With the population widely dispersed, how many artists and galleries would return? It had taken 200 years for the art community to attain the vital and cohesive level of activity that it enjoyed before the storm, so the burning question was, how much would remain? No one dared dream that the scene would be bigger and more dynamic than before. Yet, by 2008, the New Orleans art community had grown to a point where PRESERVATION, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, could pose the question: “Can art save a city?” It was quite a turnaround from the dark days after the storm when many urban planners urged rebuilding only on the higher ground along the river--an approach that would have eliminated much of the affordable housing preferred by artists.

 Sculpture for New Orleans: Eye Benches by Louise Bourgeois

New Orleanians reacted with fury to any attempt to limit the size or scope of the place they called home, reflecting the militant attitude that had emerged as residents trickled back after weeks of forced exile. Art galleries were among the first businesses to reopen. The Arthur Roger and Cole Pratt galleries sat on relatively high ground, but Barrister’s Gallery, then located in Central City, one of the most storm-ravaged neighborhoods, held its first post-storm opening on October 8th even before electricity had been restored. Also hitting the ground running was the late Cole Pratt, whose eponymous gallery reopened its doors around the same time. “The best way to recover is for everyone to get to work,” he said, but it seemed only a matter of time before the demographics of a smaller and less touristed city imposed a gallery shakeout. A few did close, but were quickly replaced by others, and by 2008 a new gallery district catering to younger and more experimental artists had emerged along St. Claude Avenue.

The resilient, fighting spirit exhibited by New Orleans arts activists was aided by volunteers and innovators from all over America who saw the city as an opportunity to test their vision and make a difference. A symposium at the Arthur Roger Gallery famously led to Dan Cameron’s proposal for the international art expo that became the Prospect.1 New Orleans International Biennial. Organizations with roots all over the country such as Transforma, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Creative Time, the Andy Warhol Foundation and Sculpture for New Orleans helped fund and implement a variety of art-based rebuilding projects. World-class artists such as Mel Chin, above right, (whose Operation Paydirt aims to remediate the lead in our underclass neighborhoods) and Paul Chan contributed much time and energy to art with a goal of social justice. All built on the work of existing local groups such as Ya Ya, KIDsmART and the Creative Alliance of New Orleans to place this city in the forefront of “Community Based Art”--a global movement that employs visual art as an agent of positive social change. The challenge for the future will be to maintain the momentum and fulfill the promise of so many auspicious new beginnings.  ~Bookhardt

Prospect.1: Leandro Erlich's Window and Ladder

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Matthews at Arthur Roger, Slonem at Martine Chaisson

      Bunny Matthews' BLACK AND WHITE exhibition of paintings and drawings marks his first foray into the top echelon of the local gallery world, and if much of the work reflects what we have come to expect of his larger colored pencil and ink drawings, there are also some surprises. Most notably, his roughly 8 by 15 foot magnum opus, NIN'T WARDICA, below, conveys a vision of a Lower 9th Ward apocalypse that somehow melds Picasso's GUERNICA with his familiar VIC 'N NAT'LY cartoon characters that have long graced local newspapers as well as Leidenheimer bakery delivery trucks. And while the notion of a Pablo Picasso-Bunny Matthews hybrid might seem doomed from the outset, this mural-size extravaganza no only works but works amazingly well. Rendered in sepia acrylic on Tyvek, it melds the pathos of GUERNICA with the far funkier environs of the 9th Ward while commemorating the memory of the hundreds who died when the floodwalls collapsed. Many other drawings such as MY MUSE, above, are rendered in a breezier style even if the topics are not, for instance, a drug dealer extracting an eye from a user who fell behind on his debts. More elegiac subjects include a portrait of the late James Booker in a turban titled THE BAYOU MAHARAJAH, one of the maestro’s more grandiose monikers. All in all, it is a show that presents Matthews’ vision in a bold new light.   
       Also new is the elegant Martine Chaisson Gallery on Camp Street. Housed in an antique building that is a fine example of adaptive restoration, it’s walls hold a number of Hunt Slonem’s flamboyantly gestural paintings of birds, butterflies, rabbits and human exotica, sometimes arranged in a vintage salon style, perhaps a nod the two 19th century Louisiana plantation houses that he occupies when not working in his New York studio. The works themselves are representative of his oeuvre, and make for a dramatic premier of a striking new art space. ~Bookhardt
Bunny Matthews: BLACK AND WHITE        (Click Images to Expand)
August 7 - September 11
Arthur Roger @ 434, 434 Julia St. 522-1999;
August 7 - September 25, 2010
Martine Chaisson Gallery, 727 Camp St., 302-7942;

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Thomas Woodruff's Fever Dreams and Freak Parade

      Thomas Woodruff’s two concurrent local shows are aptly named FEVER DREAMS and FREAK PARADE, respectively, and both explore his intimately carnivalesque and neo-Victorian vision. Like the Victorians of yore, Woodruff gravitates to things mythic, mystical and naturalistic. SUN STUDY #1 at Taylor-Bercier, below, is a demonic female head suspended in space with strawberry blond locks that morph into a corona of fire. Between ears like oversize butterfly wings, her head supports yet another head--a leering gargoyle with fangs over which even more demonic heads appear upside down--and the sense of a Kali-like demoness viewing us hungrily from above is palpable enough to lend a whole new frisson to notions of global warming. But the real masterpiece here is SLEEPY, above, a pastel painting of a sleepwalking adolescent female with rows of candles mounted on the oversize snails that crawl along her outstretched arms. It is weirdly psychological, but let’s just call it an amazing pastel-on-paper spectacle, a twisted gift from fairyland.
      The larger FREAK PARADE show at the CAC builds on an ongoing series that often strikingly resembles fantastic 19th century Mardi Gras float illustrations, not to mention carnival sideshows. The participants range from animal, vegetable, mineral and human to various combinations thereof. BAMBI-LYNN is drum majorette twirling a flaming baton as she struts her stuff in her short skirt, boots and a little jacket left open to display her lovely breasts, all nine of them. COBRA BALLOON is a bejeweled airship like a floating Faberge egg with a wicker basket of cobras suspended below. There are also unicorns, ice ghosts and a cigar-smoking skull, among others. Following up the rear is a hooded and bejeweled figure sweeping up the glittery litter after the parade has passed, leaving things tidy enough to ensure eternal encores of the beautiful strangeness that Woodruff says is the best defense against the relentless onslaught of globalized sameness. ~Bookhardt
FEVER DREAMS: Recent Works by Thomas Woodruff
Through Oct. 22
Taylor Bercier Gallery, 233 Chartres St., 527-0072;
FREAK PARADE: Works by Thomas Woodruff,
Through Oct. 24
Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805;

Sunday, August 1, 2010

An Accidental History of the New Orleans Underground

What a difference a year and a half makes. In the winter of 2008-2009, the Louisiana State Museum's Old U.S. Mint facility was resplendently decked out with work by some of the international art world’s best- known luminaries. The event was the Prospect.1 New Orleans International Biennial, and the fortress-like Mint never looked so good. Today it houses a free and oddly retro Drug Enforcement Administration expo focusing the perils of illegal substance abuse. Featuring detailed recreations of jungle coke labs and crack houses, it even describes how easy it is to set up a meth lab in a hotel room. But what really makes it worth seeing is the local adjunct exhibition produced by the Louisiana State Museum.  Beyond exploring Louisiana’s long legacy of smuggling, this serendipitously doubles as a history of the New Orleans underground and the artistic and criminal subcultures that commingled therein. Exhibits range from traditional criminality —for instance, a boat used by rum runners to ferry booze from offshore schooners to docks in Vermillion Bay—to William Burrough’s New Orleans experiences writing his pseudonymous dope novel, JUNKIE, complete with a blowup of the original Ace paperback cover and the NOPD ledger recording his arrest. (Anyone who read Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD will recall the section set in Algiers, where Burroughs appears under a pseudonym.)
      Other romantic items include an ornate vintage opium pipe from the dens of our bygone local Chinatown that stretched from Rampart to the plaza where City Hall and the Public Library now stand, as well as an old 78 RPM record of the jazz classic, JUNKER BLUES, by Champion Jack Dupree. A related LP, JUNCO PARTNER, by my old friend, the late, great James Booker, tortured genius and piano virtuoso par excellence, is also on view. Jazz, blues and drugs shared a long local history and while many went down that road, some, like Booker, became martyrs along the way. ~Bookhardt
Click Graphics to Expand
TARGET AMERICA: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause
Through Nov. 24
Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., 568-6968;