Sunday, September 30, 2012

The St. Claude Arts District: A Brief History

by D. Eric Bookhardt

 Cai Guo-Qiang's Black Fireworks, Colton School, Prospect.1

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's massive deadly flooding, the advent of numerous artist run galleries along the St. Claude Avenue corridor was probably the last thing anyone might have expected. And yet, seven years after the storm, an ever-shifting total of over two dozen collectives, co-ops, pop-ups and collaborative organizations now comprise an almost entirely artist-run arts district that is unique to this city and without parallel in North America if not the world. Although collective, co-op and artist run organizations have at times played a prominent role in American art history, no arts district of this sort has existed on any scale since New York's famous 10th Street co-op galleries became the epicenter of that city's avant garde art scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And while no one can predict the future of St. Claude's new wave of art spaces, film and performance organizations, they appear to have already caught the attention a noteworthy segment of the American art and media establishment. The April, 15, 2012  edition of the Christian Science Monitor went so far as proclaim that, “Like Seattle in the 1990s, New Orleans is now the hot city. The new energy, stoked by outsiders and mixed with Katrina survivors’ resilience, is rejuvenating the arts scene, jump-starting it into a different rhythm.”    

How did this happen? Much of the initial national and international interest can be attributed in part to the critically acclaimed Prospect.1 International Biennial, which garnered rave reviews from visitors as well as from the national and global art media as they suddenly discovered New Orleans, seemingly for the first time. Part of the reason for its critical success was that its founder, Dan Cameron, deployed its high quality components in fascinating if still obscure parts of the city such as Treme and the Lower 9th Ward, immersing visitors in culturally rich neighborhoods that were, at the time, little known to most outsiders. Such places embody the oft stated local truism that this is a city where the culture bubbles up from the streets rather than being handed down from on high as is customary in Europe and America. Or as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “It proves that biennials can be just as effective when pulled off without bells, whistles or big bucks. Maybe even more effective, if the local cultural soil is spectacularly fertile." 

Indeed, this participatory, community based, often spontaneous quality of expression defines this city's creativity as Creole in the sense that it represents a rich Caribbean blend of African, European and indigenous AmerIndian traditions. This should come as no surprise considering that a majority of the city's population was of Caribbean origin when Louisiana became a state in 1812, hence it was the sensibility that originally set the tone and lives on today in its Mardi Gras Indians and Second Line parades. Yet rather than reflecting what the New York Times refers to as New Orleans' identity as a "cultural Galapogos," some pioneering research by Guadeloupe born, New Orleans based writer and curator Claire Tancons has revealed hitherto little known parallels between these Creole Caribbean creative traditions and a rich array of processional cultures found across many diverse regions of Africa and Asia, situating their centrality within a far broader, if as yet little understood, global dynamic. (Above left, Mardi Gras Indian suit by Big Chief Victor Harris of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi)  More>>

Image Transfer: Pictures in a Remix Culture

Did postmodernism kill New York art? The question has resonance because relatively little epochal new art has originated there in over 20 years. Anyone looking for a culprit need look no further than the Regarding Warhol show at the Met, featuring work by the maestro himself along with the many pretenders to the throne who followed in his wake. And while Warhol's early work was great, it was his later efforts that set the tone for what came next, the mixed bag of postmodern pop progeny that ranged from moderately brilliant talents like Cindy Sherman, left, to egregiously over-hyped hucksters like Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and all the rest who turned the New York scene into a pretentious extension of Wall Street. So it was fitting that the most incisive review of the show appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek where Lance Esplund opined, “I suggest you skip it. This cramped, predictable, ho-hum exhibition... is a celebration of the artist as opportunist.” Ouch. So how did postmodernism, a movement with roots in late Marxist critical theory, end up as the very thing it was supposed to critique?

The seemingly seamless seque from late Marxist postmodernism to "late capitalist" postmodernism is a long and sad story, but suffice it to say that not all postmodern artists obsessed with mass media so shamelessly sold out, and this Image Transfer expo at Newcomb is proof that they still exist. While all is not thrall-inducing, much of the work is interesting in the way any lost tribe's artifacts can be interesting. So here we have convoluted tropes like Karl Haendel's dazzling pencil drawings of Maltese Falcon stills and Man Ray photograms, below; or Sean Dack's neo-cubist digital images  like Glitch Girl, left, or Sarah VanDerBeek's digital remixes of the work of great photographers from art history. Curated in Seattle, Image Transfer substitutes sobriety for flash but what it and the post-Warhol show at the Met have in common is a cutting edge sensibility—from 20 years ago. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Image Transfer: Pictures in a Remix Culture: Group Exhibition Curated by Sara Krajewski, Through Oct. 15, Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, 865-5328

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Amacker at Byrdie's, "...How We Roll" at Barrister's

 Are people getting more generic? Like it or not, we are increasingly wired into an invisible world of electronic networks that know way too much about us. How long before they take over and turn us into hi-def replicas of ourselves? Such are the thoughts inspired by Sarah Amacker's graphically modified photos that stylishly flatten her subjects into two dimensions. Some even have bar codes. Self Check Out: Who Am I?, left, is emblematic, a geometrically exaggerated high fashion babe with no doubt perfect teeth somewhere behind the big bar code that displays her identity as a commodity. Even the ones without bar codes are just as flat and geometric. Yet as commodities in their own right Amacker's photographic concoctions are shockingly inexpensive. What gives? It seems that in real life she's a Baton Rouge biologist who does art on the side. Perhaps she is an evolutionary biologist, a savant who is simply warning us of what we may all become in the not so distant future.

More graphical extrapolations appear at Barrister's, in Wendell Brunious' Buried Alive painterly pop collage of comic strip characters interwoven with visions of black female stardom, above, most pointedly in the form of Whitney Houston. Something about the way this is layered is both musical and wavelike, suggesting a visual dirge for the drowned diva. But the mood turns ambiguous in Vanessa Centeno's videos (Eye Explore, left) and abstract compositions where viscous reds vie with more bilious shades in works that mingle saturated sensuality with creepy science fiction overtones. If this sounds rather noir, it is, and Ryn Wilson's large pseudo film stills of elegant women carrying valises deep into foggy forests, below, or appearing only as a pair of shapely lifeless legs under a blue velvet dress, convey a darkly atmospheric romanticism, a hint of looming oblivion accompanied, implicitly, by an elegant soundtrack. ~D. Eric. Bookhardt 

 Pop Art: Mixed Media Graphics by Sarah Amacker, Through Oct. 9, Byrdie's Gallery, 2422 St. Claude; This is How We Roll: UNO Graduate Student Work Curated by Dan Tague and Tony Campbell,  Through Oct. 6, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506      

"Nocturnes" by Josephine Sacabo and Dalt Wonk

At a time when the entire publishing industry is undergoing a sea change as the relative merits of digital and print media sort themselves out, there are certain books that will be unaffected by the turmoil. Nocturnes, a large format volume of Josephine Sacabo's photogravures accompanied by Dalt Wonk's poems, is a classic example. The reason is simple. As a beautifully produced limited edition it is something of an art object in its own right, a collectible that, while pricey, is still affordable to anyone who truly wants one. In it, Sacabo's stunning images appear as mysterious, even romantic, paeans to the power of dreams, darkness and the lunar light of the psyche. Dalt Wonk's deftly evocative poems, each printed on translucent vellum, segue seamlessly into her haunting visions distilled from the raw materials of her long personal history in the French Quarter, southern France and Mexico, as well as her lifelong immersion in the works of great artists and thinkers through the ages, from Rainer Maria Rilke's poems to Gaston Bachelard's philosophical ruminations on reverie.

Silent echoes of Chopin's "Nocturnes" haunt these dusky, luminous images where dreamy female forms seem to emerge from the shadows of antiquity. If this hints at 19th century romanticism, there is also more to it than that because Sacabo and Wonk's immersion in the subjective reflects a resurgent  critical appreciation for the importance of non-rational modes of understanding. Or as Sacabo puts it: “We dream in images. Images are at the most basic level of our true psychic reality. Our dreams are the metaphorical pictures of our individual realities. I believe that through them we can forge a deeper connection between ourselves and the world. By uniting dream and reality we can produce an art that will resonate and in the process learn something about ourselves and others. I photograph things not as I ‘see’ them but rather as I might have ‘dreamt’ them.”
And for that we should be grateful. As longtime New Orleans residents, Josephine Sacabo and Dalt Wonk epitomize the creativity and originality for which this city has historically been known.  ~D. Eric Bookhardt
Nocturnes: Images and Poems by Josephine Sacabo and Dalt Wonk, 
New Orleans, Luna Press, 2012 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Louisiana Contemporary at the Ogden Museum

Following in the wake of the Contemporary Arts Center's epic series of Nola Now exhibitions that ran from autumn of last year to this August, one might reasonably ask how the Ogden Museum's new Louisiana Contemporary survey show might set itself apart from those massive excavations of recent regional art that appeared just across the street. In fact, although this show also large, featuring more than 80 works by over 40 artists, it still manages to highlight some surprisingly underexposed talents while presenting veteran artists in an interesting new light. Curated by Rene Paul Barilleaux of the McNay Art Museum  of San Antonio, TX, Louisiana Contemporary was culled from over 600 works by nearly 200 artists from all over the state and reflects the importance of contemporary visual artists to this city's identity as a global leader in cultural innovation.

Perhaps because New Orleans is a very humanistic city, its longstanding flair for abstraction sometimes seems surprising, but it is also true that local abstraction is often unusually sensual, as we see in the pristine compositions of well known area artists like Aaron Collier, Anastasia Pelias, Deborah Pelias and Wayne Amadee.  Less known but no less pristine are the paintings of Covington artist Ken Tate, whose pop abstractions like Joy Wreck, top left, crackle with prismatic gestural electricity, or the canvases of UNO undergrad Dixie Kimball, which channel abstract expressionism with startling efficacy, or the whiter shade of pale pictorialism of Adam Mysock (Mt. Washington, above) even as Amite artist Mik Kastner's spidery kinetic sci-fi sculpture Hoodwink, below, is in a class by itself. Outstanding mixed media works by Hannah Chalew and videos by David Sullivan (Under Pressure, top) and Courtney Egan round out the impressive roster of subjectivity. More explicitly humanistic concerns appear in the eerily psychological work of Jessica Goldfinch and Isoko Onodera, whose The Silent Chaos of Distant Past, above left, recalls Lucien Freud with hints of Francis Bacon. No less humanistic or mysterious are the photographs by Angela Berry, Zack Brown,  Maja Georgiou and Kevin Kline among others, and while the show is in many ways a mixed bag, it qualifies as an auspicious beginning for an ambitious new undertaking. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Louisiana Contemporary: Juried Group Exhibition of Contemporary Louisiana Art, Through Sept. 23, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Sometimes-Picayune: Chris Rose's Autobiographical Obit for a Once Great American Newspaper

 "...Sure, I’m far from objective—a self-styled, ink-stained wretch and True Believer—but anyone with even marginal intelligence could reason that as long as there were subways, park benches, box scores, and men’s rooms, there would be newspapers. Every newspaper is vital to its community: the chronicler, watchdog, record keeper, yada yada. It’s a given. Especially in New Orleans.

The Times-Picayune, after all, is different. Or maybe that’s the wrong word. It’s more that New Orleans is different. In New Orleans, the Picayune is woven so deeply into the cultural fabric that it’s impossible to overstate its role as informer, arbiter, entertainer, cheerleader, advocate, and companion. Among the scores of Letters to the Editor published since the paper’s announcement to go digital, many have implored the owners to reconsider, calling the morning paper a “friend.” Has anybody in Westchester County ever called the New York Times his or her “friend”? I realize that the rest of America, in its post-Katrina fatigue, is pretty tired of hearing New Orleanians always carrying on about how it’s the most unique city in America, but, the fact is, it is. Get over it..." 

"...True story: For the first three days after Hurricane Katrina, the paper published online only, an unwitting model for the future, perhaps. Then it contracted with the Houma Courier and Mobile’s Press-Register to print its papers—eight pages with no advertising or syndicated features—and ship them to New Orleans.

It was impossible to find. I was living and working in the city, and writing for the paper, and in the first several weeks laid eyes on only a handful of editions. One day, while visiting a hotel suite at the downtown Sheraton which was serving as a makeshift newsroom, a guy walked in the room with several bundles of that day’s paper. On a whim, I grabbed a stack and headed out into the streets..." More>>

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

No Dead Artists 2012 at Jonathan Ferrara

Long before New Orleans became the emerging artists mecca that it is today, the No Dead Artists expo provided a venue for underexposed talents to be shown in one of this city's leading galleries in an exhibition juried by some of America's most respected curators and collectors. Launched in the mid-1990s by former investment banker turned gallerist Jonathan Ferrara, and long co-sponsored by Gambit Weekly newspaper, No Dead Artists gradually expanded beyond its regional base and now attracts a wide spectrum of entrants from all over the nation. This year's show, which spotlights 12 artists selected from over 500 entries, is no exception and features a cross section of work reflective of the trends and concerns of a new wave of visual artists working in a wide variety of media.

The ecumenical and unpredictable nature of these exhibitions has always had a near oracular quality akin to reading tea leaves as a broad array of concepts, concerns and subtexts rise to the surface in often unexpected new ways. This year it is the role of the individual that is highlighted in relation to an increasingly dense and interconnected world in which people must situate themselves within an ever shifting array of networks, human and electronic, reflecting a time of transition in how people define themselves in relation to their human and natural environment. Consequently our longstanding national myth of the rugged individualist hero is increasingly difficult to perpetuate in an ever more complex, hard wired world dominated by global corporations that are often larger than entire nations. It can now be argued that today's rugged individualists are more often found on the margins of society, or such is the implicit message of Ira Upin's dramatic magic realist paintings such as Fat Cat, in which an aging mobster in shades and puffing on a cheroot reclines in his easy chair as a torched building goes up in flames in the background. But in Jeff Pastorek's paintings the individual subjects appear as tiny portraits arranged in grids that focus on facial features that convey how people express their emotions and desires in relation to each other in a group context, transforming the traditional miniature portrait genre into a kind of painterly social network. In Edward Ramsay-Morin's collages, some photographic portraits of the young adults and couples of the 1950s have been modified so their otherwise conventional Eisenhower-era faces reveal their innermost, cold war decade nightmares in the form of strategic military maps, ICBM missiles and mushroom clouds. Continued: Click Here>>

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Raine Bedsole at Callan Contemporary

There has always been something strikingly elemental about Raine Bedsole's mixed media works, an assortment of sculptural montages and assorted other creations where water often predominates even as air, earth and even hints of fire are never far behind. In recent years, time has emerged as a kind of fifth element, usually in the form of vintage texts or images rendered as graphical echoes of the past. Throw in Bedsole's more recent imagistic watercolors and it soon becomes clear that her works in all media are ultimately vessels for navigating time and space, gossamer though they may be. In past exhibitions her favorite subjects were boats and other vessels including female forms, but this time around her menu expands to include sea shells and marine life as well as some shanty like structures that are no less spindly or ethereal than the boats that have been her signature creations for years.

Her ghostly and gossamer Long Boat, a nearly 14 foot wall sculpture of wire, wood and steel with a tattered vellum skin extends her nautical tradition, as does Rain Boat Empty Tears, above, a canoe like vessel with a skin of old letters punctuated with perforations that leak tear shaped beams of light on to the wall when illuminated from above. These are accompanied by watercolor on plaster paintings of sea shells like Blue Whelk, top, as well as corals and octopi in shades of tidal pool blue on sepia that subtly conjure the ambiance of poems from past ages when the sea was the ultimate mystery of mysteries. Her hut like structures are smaller yet no less otherworldly. Floating House 1, below, is barely there—part tree house and part shanty, it and similar works suggest the makeshift structures of displaced nature spirits who were once at home in swamps and forests but have lately joined the ranks of the dispersed as global changes create new waves of nomads in search of other lands and other abodes where they might once again feel at home in the world. ~D. Eric Bookhardt 

Dream Documents: Mixed Media Works by Raine Bedsole, Through Sept. 28, Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518;