Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Making of Gordon Parks' 1948 "Harlem Gang Leader" Photo Essay at the New Orleans Museum of Art

"I still don't know exactly who I am," Gordon Parks once wrote in a 1979 memoir. Despite being one of  the biggest names in 20th century photography, he remains a paradoxical figure today because he was so accomplished in so many different fields. A noted writer and composer, he also became the first black director in Hollywood, where he produced sensitive depictions of African American life before moving on to create the seminal "blaxploitation" film, Shaft. A later film about Louisiana blues legend Leadbelly flopped, but the magazine he co-founded, Essence, is still going strong. The son of a Kansas sharecropper, Parks lived by his wits as a teen orphan in the 1920s before teaching himself photography in the 1930s. By the late 1940s was working for Life Magazine, where he became known for his photo essays. This Making of an Argument show at NOMA gives us a close up look at his great 1948 Harlem Gang Leader series while also providing a rare behind the scenes view of his process via crop-marked contact sheets like the one seen here.

Gang Leader more than withstands the test of time as Parks not only gets into the brawling lifestyle of his teenage subject, Leonard "Red" Jackson, he also gets into his head and home life in the modest flat he shared with his mother and siblings. Scenes of violent gang confrontations and Jackson stalking his rivals alternate with views of him dutifully sharing domestic chores, all set against the backdrop of  Harlem in the 1940s, where the special charisma that so often attends Harlem photos from the first half of the 20th century functions almost as an intriguing extra character in the plot. As with classic fiction, the times and settings may change, but human nature remains the same. Even so, those 1940s Harlem gangstas somehow seemed classier than their inner city equivalents today, maybe because of their dapper taste in clothes. Parks later became an internationally famous fashion photographer.

The Making of an Argument: Photography by Gordon Parks, through Jan. 5, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Jessica Bizer at Good Children; Bonnie Maygarden and Carl Joe Williams at the Front

What is it about painting anyway? For ages, self-styled prognosticators have pronounced painting dead, and for ages painting has not just survived but thrived, often dominating the art world. According to, paintings accounted for 65% of art sales in the last 12 months, more than all other media combined. Part of its appeal must surely be the versatility of this most fluid and immediate of all media. Just as our stone age ancestors used cave paintings to attune themselves to the forces of nature, today's artists use paint to explore the perplexing new realities that surround us in a digital world that is ever more connected but also more ephemeral, or even illusory. Jessica Bizer's new paintings explore what she calls "atmospheres" created by the way digital technology blurs the line between "ordinary and fantastical experience," qualities she has neatly, if ironically, evoked by the use of distinctly analog air brush techniques in conjunction with with her usual acrylic pigments. The results can range from pristinely buoyant works like Hey You, to somewhat darker realms like We're Having a Party, above, where rich wine and paisley tones hover like otherworldly life forms in search of some hedonistic fourth dimensional utopia.

In Bonnie Maygarden's Virtuous Reality show at the Front, the ephemeral aura of techno culture is recreated in painterly abstractions that serve as meditations on the collision between art history's traditional hand crafted values and the weird new world of synthetic imagery that exists all around us. But artist-musician Carl Joe Williams merges the electronic with the shamanic in his outdoor labyrinth-like installation of painted totemic sculptures that incorporate his music in an attempt to attain what he describes as "a supernal place of introspection, and a reminder of connection to all... I see music and art as extensions of each other, visual music with audible imagery." ~D. Eric Bookhardt

The Homeland We've Never Seen: Paintings by Jessica Bizer, through Oct. 6, Good Children Gallery, 4037 St. Claude Ave., 616-7427; Virtuous Reality: Paintings by Bonnie Maygarden; In the Beginning, There Was No Beginning: Installation by Carl Joe Williams, through Oct. 6, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

No Dead Artists 2013 at Jonathan Ferrara

Now in its 17th year, the annual No Dead Artists show at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery once again gives us a lot to think about. Inaugurated in 1995 for the purpose of providing an alternative open platform for artists who would prefer to be better known in their own lifetime, NDA has over the years become something of an uncanny indicator of the prevailing mood of the creative unconscious, a sampling of fresh perspectives from underexposed talents who occasionally go on to make a name for themselves with work placed in important public or private collections.  This year's exhibition attracted approximately 2500 artworks submitted by over 500 artists, of which some 72 works by twenty-four artists from around the country were selected by jurors Lawrence Benenson, who serves on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art, the American Folk Art Museum and the Museum for African Art; Megan Koza Young, the Director of the Dishman Art Museum, and Jordana Zeldin, the Director and Curator at ArtBridge.

The Quaker by Eugene Campbell

Their 72 selections are an eclectic lot to say the least, yet if the diversity can seem a little startling at first glance, the show as whole is held together by some pervasive common threads of introspection and invention,  and perhaps an incipient sense of new beginnings, as if the entire question of what constitutes visual art in the 21st century were a riddle still in the process of being unravelled. 

The City Suburb in the Dark by Wenxin Zhang
And this is probably as it should be. In an age when many of the world's most highly touted artists are increasingly perceived as the pet poodles of the one percent, and when once promising big names like Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Damien Hirst are today seen as little more than toy makers for the established Wall Street and London financial elites, it may well be time to return to the basics of what makes art magical or, at least, meaningful. Considering that we are emerging from a time when critical theory had morphed into just another marketing ploy, and too many programmatic prefab concepts had made too much art too tediously predictable, perhaps the most refreshing thing about this years' NDA expo is its pervasive sense of artists going their own way, unswayed by the prevailing isms of the recent past. By taking pluralism to a new level, the show itself becomes like an enigmatic installation in its own right, one that each viewer must use her or his own intuition to decipher. Click for More>> 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Dan Tague Interview by the BBC; Bruce Davenport and Gene Koss at the Arthur Roger Gallery

Another Hurricane Katrina anniversary came and went, and once again global news organizations struggled to find new angles on an increasingly old story. This time the BBC memorialized America's mega-storm by posting a video interview with New Orleans artist Dan Tague, whose prints of dollar bills folded into catchy messages like "Live Free or Die," or more darkly, "Trust No One," were an indirect result of Katrina. Tague survived the flood waters in Mid City, where he used a canoe to help stranded neighbors, but later found himself feeling aimless after the forced exodus. With his studio under water, he began folding dollar bills to pass the time. He eventually turned them into prints, which found their way into major museum collections, and the rest is history. This BBC piece is not only a great survivor story, it also provides an interesting angle on the role money plays in American culture.

It was high school marching bands that Bruce Davenport missed most after the storm, and he responded by creating vivid color marker drawings of them (see below) surrounded by mobs of spectators, a series he began when many schools were still closed. The works seen here are simple yet obsessive, as what initially resemble experimental abstractions appear as neighborhood street scenes on closer inspection. But Gene Koss's nearby sculptures remind us of the way this city links the largely northern European populace of the upper Midwest to the rest of the world via the Mississippi River and the Gulf. Glass sculptor Koss grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and the verdant, if frosty, qualities of home state inform his vision even now, as we see in Sunrise, above, which somehow distills the contours of the land, the light and the hand of man in a work that Koss says reflects, "the people who work the land and look up a valley at the Wisconsin ridges and hills as they toil.” ~D Eric Bookhardt

Bruce Jr. Does the Parades:  Color Marker Drawings by Bruce Davenport Jr., Sunrise: Glass Sculpture by Gene Koss, Through Sept. 14, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999. (Left: Drawing by Bruce Davenport.)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Seeing Beyond the Ordinary at the Ogden Museum

Living in New Orleans it is easy to forget how different this city is from, not just the rest of America, but also from the rest of the South. This Ogden show, featuring three ascendant Southern Photographers from that curiously alien region known as the Southeast, highlights those differences. Atlantan Laura Noel's Smoke Break series focuses on that persecuted minority known as cigarette smokers--those harried souls who, once glamorized in movies and pop culture, now find themselves ghettoized into the increasingly rare gulags where they can indulge their habit without censure. Perhaps because Atlanta is such a relatively hustling, or even mechanistic place, many indeed seem furtive, but with an occasional  thread of whimsy. The languidly apprehensive looking young lady in Whitney Behind Her Job, above, suggests a modern service industry functionary with an old time cinematic inner life, and a sense of the cigarette's use as a magic wand for creating a veil of mystery. Some of the others look lost in their stolen moments of dream  time, while some just exhibit the haunted look of transgressors wary of being seen--a far cry from the devil may care, Tom Waitsian insouciance of local Nola street life.

Tennessee-based Joshua Dudley Greer focuses on the landscape, including the human landscape, but his eye is no less ironic. Here the sylvan contours of serene Appalachian foothills can't conceal modern updates of old time hillbilly squalor, or quaint hillside communities dwarfed by massive industrial high tension lines, or bustling truck stops where drivers take time out to barbecue ribs. Ah, the New South! But the most poetic works here are by Virginian Susan Worsham, whose portraits excel at conveying the elusive quality of presence seen in images like Destiny, Grandmother's Roses, above, or Marine, Hotel Near Airport, Richmond, VA, images that convey an epiphanous mix of mystery and psychic complexity. The totality of her output is edgier and more psychological than most of the images seen here suggest, but the poetic subtlety of her vision is refreshing nonetheless. ~D. Eric Bookhardt

Seeing Beyond the Ordinary: Photography by Joshua Dudley Greer, Laura Noel and Susan Worsham, through Sept. 22, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600. Left: Waterproof, Louisiana, photograph by Joshua Dudley Greer