Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Human Figure at the Contemporary Arts Center

It is huge. Featuring over 100 New Orleans artists, The Human Figure, curated by Don Marshall, is a vast smörgåsbord of paintings along with a smattering of photography, sculpture and mixed media pieces. But more than any medium, it is mostly defined by tone and content in works ranging from predictable to eccentric to over the top. Beyond all that, it is also a remarkable mix of established artists and less known talents whose unexpected accomplishments convey a sense of a parallel art universe hidden just beyond the usual gallery and museum scene. That said, it can sometimes be a disorienting viewing experience as familiar imagery often appears juxtaposed next to unusual or bizarre content--but that is not really a problem once you notice the pattern. Just relax and go with the flow.

For instance, Phil Sandusky's atmospheric self portrait with his nude model in the background is fairly typical of this accomplished local impressionist's work, but right next to it is Katrina Andry's Western Perception of the Other, a large color woodcut of a young woman with a wild afro and clownish blackface makeup. Petting a large snake crawling up her legs as her stiletto heels frame a half eaten apple on the ground, this almost picaresque figure confronts clichés about black women with polemical visual satire. Nearby is Mark Bercier's Tsana, a proper and eloquently painted teenage girl whose coy innocence hints at veiled mischief—a paradigm totally reversed in an adjacent painting of a young woman licking the toes of her reclining unseen partner in a work titled Feet, painted by an artist identified only as VonHaffacker, which seems more guided by impulse than polemics.

But even works by leading artists can be surprising. Auseklis Ozols' untitled reclining nude, above, is gorgeously painted, but the model's expression is so zoned out that it recalls those old opium den scenes of yore. Around the corner is a similarly reclining nude by a somewhat less known artist, Jane Talton-Ayrod. Here Manet's iconic Olympia is reborn as a reclining nude Barbie doll in Odalisque Plastique, top, Talton's zany update of the lounging seductress theme. At the other extreme, religious painting takes a Creole turn in George Schmidt's localized Sacra Conversazione, left, in which a baby Jesus on Mary's lap points to a celestial map of New Orleans as cherubs play horns and banjos and nuns clap their hands to the beat. But Nique Le Transome's Deus Ex Machina self-portrait suggests a Vietnamese holy martyr with a long stem carnation clenched between his teeth as blood from a barbed-wire crown of thorns trickles down his cheeks. Much could be said about Keith Perelli's paintings, Alex Podesta's or Evelyn Jordan's sculptures, or Josephine Sacabo's, Craig Tracy's or Gus Bennett's photographs, but you get the picture—guest curator Marshall, the CAC's first director, has managed to present an entire art community in a refreshing, if sometimes slightly disorienting, new light. ~Bookhardt

NOLA NOW, Part II: The Human Figure, Wednesdays-Mondays through Aug. 5, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805
(Left: Organic Angel by Gus Bennett)

Louisiana Senator David Vitter to Newhouse: Sell the Times-Picayune--"You're About to Get Smoked!"

Editor's note: We rarely agree with Senator Vitter on anything, but the wording of his recent letter to Steve Newhouse is a pithy classic:

"....First, no digital platform, no matter how good, can completely replace a printed daily in substance, use, and significance to the community. This is particularly true in large, important segments of the population.

Second, you have a terribly inadequate digital platform which has actually gotten worse since your announcement. The new format has been universally panned (and I agree). And this is reflected in the numbers. As a single member of our Congressional delegation, I actually have far more Facebook followers than your whole enterprise.

Third, from a pure business perspective, you're about to get smoked. The Advocate and others are moving in to fill the void you are creating. And TP subscribers, including me, will be eager to cheer them on by trading our subscriptions.

For all of these reasons, do the right thing. Sell."   More>>

David Vitter
United States Senate

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pitts, Heller, Schwanse and Otte at the Front

When it comes to the unexpected, the Front has been on a hot streak of late, but probably no one could have anticipated anything quite as colorful Ves Pitts' Ghost Walk photographs unless, perhaps, you happen to be a transsexual performance artist. A native of Alabama, Pitts has spent two decades in New York documenting, as he puts it, “people who spend a lot of time on their appearance” even if they often look like escapees from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. He also covers the scene in London, Cairo--and Miami where, he explains, “the 1970s suburban housewife look is all the rage.” But it's mostly a walk on the wild side of Manhattan's tranny demimonde where Pitts is part impresario and part anthropologist; he clearly loves his bizarre cast of characters and the feeling seems mutual, yielding images that mingle shock and empathy in a singular photographic balancing act.

Sally Heller has made a career as an installation artist out of no end of things cheap, glittery and disposable, and now she's turned her attention to female sexuality in collages of women constructed from an odd mix of calligraphy, press-type letters and glitter. Here her bawdy Lewdicrous babes, left, made up mostly of text, strut their stuff in a new twist on the word paintings of the postmodern past, creating an uneasy DMZ where Madonna's material girl coexists with feminist irony--as Nina Schwanse's uber-ironic Babe Rental videos, bottom, mingle feminine allure with hints of cash and carry convenience. In the back room, John Otte's Falling Beauty collage paintings, above, improbably reconcile the elegant modernism of the School of Paris with the bracing brashness of the East Village in the 1980s. Imagine Matisse as a punk rocker with graffiti paint and glitter and you get the general idea. All of which only reiterates the kaleidoscopic sense of shifting times, colors and cultures that pervades the gallery—with no shortage of bling! ~Bookhardt

Ghost Walk by Ves Pitts, Lewdicrous by Sally Heller and Nina Schwanse, Falling Beauty by John Otte, Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 5, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Treme Brass Band Leader Goes Out on his Feet

The embalmed body of the great Treme Brass Band leader and community icon Lionel Batiste rests against a light pole during his wake on Thursday, July 19 at Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home in New Orleans, in this great photo by Chris Granger of the Times-Picayune. A man who epitomized the traditional local values of person humility and extraordinary flair, Batiste was the subject of massive week long memorial celebrations and Second Line parades. More>>

Another New Orleans icon, Frank Trapani, the Frankie & Johnny’s Furniture Store proprietor who co-starred in the store’s memorable TV spots of years past featuring himself and the store’s “Special Man,” died Thursday. He was 83. The legendary commercials, which ceased years ago, were immortalized via Youtube and their discovery by Conan O'Brien. And, as reported by Claire Tancons in eflux # 30, an Occupy Frankie and Johnny’s movement was launched on October 21, 2011, when the St. Claude Avenue institution became the proposed site of a new CVS drugstore. The protest featured costumed artists and anarchist as anti-CVS placards appeared everywhere. Frankie and Johnny's survived.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Katie Holten at NOMA; Michel Varisco at the Ogden

One of the side benefits of the St. Claude Arts District's latest export, the hot new indie movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, is that it immerses viewers in the precariousness of life along Louisiana's steadily sinking coastline. Further investigations into this lacy, tattered patch of land can also be found in two noteworthy museum shows. At NOMA, multimedia artist Katie Holten's Drawn to the Edge is a series of very large drawings of the rapidly eroding edges of  marshes where fragile grasses are consumed by the sea at an alarming rate. Hanging in the museum's Great Hall like giant banners from a conquering army of geologists, some evoke computer charts or geological contour maps, while others reveal fluid lines worthy of the Pre-Raphaelites—Edward Burne Jones' painting of a drowning Ophelia is an  all too apt metaphor. Holten, who once represented her native Ireland at the Venice Biennial, also includes samples of marsh water and sediment as well as resurrection ferns—a more hopeful metaphor in an expo that strikingly conveys the precarious patterns of life where the land meets the sea.        

Michel Varisco's large photographs of the Louisiana wetlands and Gulf of Mexico, Shifting, document both their beauty and degradation in images that can be stunning on several different levels. First, there is something magical about the place that functions as the womb of the American continent where fish and fowl eternally return to mate and recreate their kind. A vast estuary of near mythic proportions, it is a place Native Americans considered sacred. Scarring the natural beauty is an infestation of oil company canals like giant syringes injecting lethal salt water into this extraordinarily fertile terrain that feeds and protects us, causing it to rapidly melt into the Gulf. The result is Eden reduced to a crime scene, and Varisco effectively captures its beauty and horror for all to see. ~Bookhardt

Drawn to the Edge: Installation of Large-Scale Drawings by Katie Holten, Through Sept. 9, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100; Shifting: Photographs by Michel Varisco, Through July 23, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600

Reclaiming Animism: Arts Academics Discover What New Orleans Has Always Known: Everything is Alive!

"Science may be described as a general conquest bent on translating everything that exists into objective, rational knowledge. In the name of Science, a judgement has been passed on the heads of other peoples, and this judgement has also devastated our relations to ourselves—whether we're philosophers, theologians, or old ladies with cats. Scientific achievements, on the other hand, require thinking in terms of an “adventure of sciences.” The distinction between such an adventure and Science as a general conquest is certainly hard to make if you consider what is done in the name of science today. However, it is important to do so because it allows for a new perspective: what is called Science, or the idea of a hegemonic scientific rationality, can be understood as itself the product of a colonization process." More>>    (This article appears in: eflux 36)

Editor's note: We question the nomenclature of the above critique, but not its essence. The problem is not "science," but the pseudo-scientific rationalistic cant that pervades contemporary critical culture. More to the point is Cornelius Borck's Animism in the Sciences which concludes that “voodoo is perhaps precisely where science and technology are heading," even as Harry Garuba's treatise on Animism, Modernity/Colonialism, and the African Order of Knowledge insightfully and incisively recontextualizes its historical perspective. Recommended.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Ralston Crawford and Jazz at NOMA

Here's a question for you: which great American industrial-precisionist painter is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3? There were only two, Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford, and while Crawford was known to be fond of Nola he never lived here. He grew up in Buffalo, New York, and his most famous paintings are of Northeastern industrial scenes, but after visiting Spain and New Orleans in the 1940s his work reflected a more European style of abstraction. The influence of local architecture is evident in paintings such as Basin Street Cemetery, below, which looks nonobjective at first, but look again and tomb-like forms and sepulchral geometry set off by long shadows and stark crosses are all present. St. Ann Street, right, suggests a De Chirico experiment in contrapuntal minimalism, but up close the elements of 19th century New Orleans architecture are all there, reduced to their formal essence.

He was also fascinated by traditional New Orleans jazz culture, and after joining the faculty at LSU in 1949 he began a photographic documentation project that he pursued for the rest of his life. He was the first to systematically photograph second line parades as well as dances and performances at music clubs like the old Dew Drop Inn, where legendary figures like Joe Tillman, left, were often featured. Jazz greats like Papa Celestin and Billie and DeDe Pierce became his lifelong friends, and his rapport with musicians is evident in portraits taken in their homes as well as on stage. The compositional style of his paintings occasionally shows up in photographs like Advertising the Dance, top, where the arched windows and long shadows echo De Chirico's piazza series, but even his images of back street bars, barber shops and regular folks going about their daily lives can be fascinating. Crawford documented the twilight of traditional jazz in the 1950s and its revival in the 1960s, so it is appropriate that his will specified a jazz funeral. He is buried near E. J. Bellocq, the great photographer of Storyville, where jazz was born. ~Bookhardt

Ralston Crawford and Jazz: Paintings and Photographs by Ralston Crawford Through Oct. 14, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100 (Left: Dancer at the Dew Drop Inn) Sinking Fast -- New York Times

"When (Advance Publications') Times-Picayune of New Orleans got around to offering jobs to some of its employees in its lower-cost digital news operation — the print newspaper will come out three times a week — many of the more prominent staff members took a look at the business plan and said, 'No thanks...' ...Advance Publications is making huge moves in some of the 25 cities where it publishes newspapers, most notably in New Orleans, where it is spending the summer reducing the staff. Advance’s regional Web sites have generated traffic and have active forums, but they are a miserable place to consume news. Balky and ugly, with a digital revenue base below much of the rest of the industry, they seem like a shaky platform on which to build a business. Recent traffic trends are not encouraging. According to Nielsen, The Times-Picayune’s site,, had 639,000 unique visitors in May compared with over a million a year ago." More>

New Orleans to Newhouse: Sell the Times-Picayune!

Newhouse to New Orleans: No way!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Making the Soundtrack

Rolling Stone

In the magical adventure film Beasts of the Southern Wild, six-year-old Hushpuppy of "the Bathtub" community in Louisiana embarks on a journey to find her lost mother after her father falls ill. Here, director and composer Benh Zeitlin, producer Michael Gottwald and composer Dan Romer discuss the music behind the film. "[Benh and Dan] have always worked together in that capacity, but Benh's made film his life, whereas Dan is a music producer by trade," says Gottwald. "But I think that Benh, having musical experience, when they come together they create something that is the product of both of them."

The director "has a very good ear for storytelling in film, like the musical storytelling aspect," says Romer. "For a good two weeks, we were sitting together working 20 hours a day on this score, and it was like nine a.m. to five a.m. every day working. Just the level of artistry that he was outputting just made me want to work that much." Explains Zeitlin, "We've just known each other for so long. I sort of understand his tendencies and he understands mine. Like everything else in the film, it turns out that what we needed was actually our family." Beasts of the Southern Wild is in theaters now, with the score also currently available. Related:  Movie Review: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Man, Myth, Monsters and Messersmith + Kleinbard

The allure of myths and monsters is eternal. Their presence in folklore and fairytales may have even helped people mentally prepare for wars, plagues and storms through the ages. This LeMieux expo is an inventive survey of things monstrous transposed from the artistic imagination. For instance, in Carrie Ann Baade's Three Headed Tiger Cursing Heaven painting, a Bengal tiger in Elizabethan attire impersonates a Himalayan deity that somehow seems plausible in spite of itself. More inviting and good humored is Theresa Honeywell's Jackalope Girl tapestry featuring a busty cowgirl astride the giant antlered jackrabbit of prairie folklore, but Juan Carlos Quintina's Nurturing the Republic is Key to a Healthy Economy—a painting of a wild eyed rabbit playing physician to a bedridden rag doll--is the stuff of childhood nightmares. Elizabeth Chen's Rorschach, Mirror, Shark--a shark-shaped hanging mobile made of mirror-finished metal segments--suggests a menacing space age leviathan, lending a high tech aura to this entertaining and sometimes thought provoking curiosity cabinet of a show.  

 Prismatic colors and high drama reign supreme at the Ogden Museum. Here Mark Messersmith's florid, manic, swamp fantasies hold sway in paintings where city streets are besieged by giant gators and tropical beasts along with raging trucks under skies thick with exotic birds and the dark angels of ancient mythology. Carved wooden filigree and other protruding details can  make his zany mix of naturalism and kitsch seem to leap out at you. But if Messersmith's vividly hued fever dreams cause you to reach for the Xanax, sanctuary can be found nearby in Alexa Kleinbard's latter day naturalist fantasies, canvases in which depictions of wild herbs in their native habitat frame idyllic visions of natural landscapes like rococo paintings within paintings. The text panels are also helpful, providing lots of useful information explaining which herbs can replace all those expensive prescriptions in your medicine cabinet. ~Bookhardt

Man, Myth, Monster: Group Exhibition of Fantastical Beasts, Through June 28, LeMieux Galleries, 332 Julia St., 522.5988; Maximalist and Naturalist: Paintings by Mark Messersmith, Remedies: Oil Paintings by Alexa Kleinbard, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600 (Pictured: Night Blooming Cereus by Alexa Kleinbard.)