Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013: Divining the Signs and Trajectories

In the New Orleans art scene, as in the city itself, change is in the air. Anyone who drives can't help but notice all the construction zones that have turned city streets into obstacle courses. Now orange mesh caution fence even appears in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art, where a newly acquired Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, (Five Brushstrokes, top) is being installed. But most of this years' local art news has taken the form of incremental changes--new programs, plans and personnel--that  must be divined like tea leaves. What do they all portend? On close inspection, clues abound, and all the current signs and omens point to a deeper emphasis on local culture coupled with an expanded relationship with world at large.
Anyone wondering what that means need look no further than the preview of the Prospect.3 New Orleans Contemporary Art Biennial sketched out on Thursday, December 12th, by Creative Director Franklin Sirmans at Xavier University. Titled Notes for Now and inspired by Walker Percy's great novel, The Moviegoer, and its theme of how people come to understand themselves through others, Prospect.3 features over 50 artists from some 20 nations scattered across the globe. It's a colorfully diverse mix that includes a series of paintings by the late Haitian-American art star Jean-Michel Basquiat that focused on this region as the birthplace of jazz and other uniquely American cultural idioms. With an organizational structure based in New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles, it also reflects a degree of tri-coastal collaboration that would have been unthinkable in years past.

Local and global connections also appear in the ongoing collaborations between the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center, as seen earlier this year in the Brilliant Disguise mask show, and in the vast Water expo of monumental large scale photographs by Canadian master lensman Edward Burtynsky. Organized by NOMA photography curator Russell Lord, and up through January 19th, Water covers two floors of the CAC with images that graphically illustrate how the world's bodies of water affect us, as well as illustrating how the two arts institutions can pool their resources to create internationally acclaimed exhibitions. New CAC director Neil Barclay also recently announced the appointment of Claire Tancons as Guest Curator for a large scale multinational expo titled En Mas, slated to open in late 2014. A Guadeloupe-born, New Orleans-based curator of international biennials, Tancons says Mas (a Caribbean term for masking) "explores the intersections between contemporary art and historical masquerade" while revealing how carnival in Europe, the Caribbean and this city anticipated the evolution of modern performance art. Meanwhile, across town on Bayou Road, the Joan Mitchell Center (JMC) recently named New Orleans native Gia Hamilton as its new director. The only American satellite facility of the influential New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation, JMC recently hosted not only a national Artist Residency Program but also a New Orleans Black Indian Chief Retreat among other innovative programs.

In some ways, 2013 might be deemed the year of the curator. Former CAC visual arts director Amy Mackie recently returned to Nola to become co-director of the Parse Gallery in the CBD. Mackie says that in its new iteration, Parse is "all about bringing curators to New Orleans... who are engaged in dialog about contemporary art internationally," a direction also evidenced in the increasing number of  recent international art events about town. In September, the Mexican Consulate even opened its own gallery to highlight that nation's vibrant contemporary art scene. Throw in all the St. Claude art spaces that have hosted European artists over the past year and the trend lines are clear. Although the New Orleans art scene has been vibrant for decades, it was also somewhat insular. That is obviously no longer the case as a new paradigm of local and global arts collaborations increasingly takes shape.

Above Left: Cao Fei from the Cosplayers series at the CAC and NOMA's Brilliant Disguise expo organized by NOMA's Miranda Lash.