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)