They can be vague and ghost-like but we all occasionally see them. Afterimages are the hazy auras of things that are no longer there, and can be caused by bright lights fluctuating at night. For photographer AnnieLaurie Erickson they were an unsettling fact of life when, after a traffic accident, she began to see them all the time. Maddening at first, they became more intriguing as her symptoms eventually waned. She even invented a camera with a special sensor specifically to capture afterimages, and upon moving to Louisiana she discovered petrochemical refineries as perfect subjects for her new pursuit. Glowing like diabolical Christmas lights on a vast industrial scale, they became objects of fascination that she stalked and recorded despite occasional scrapes with the law. It seems that in the post-911 world no photos of such facilities were allowed, which only heightened her impression of them as "strange forbidden cities." The result was this Slow Light series of large color photographs that bend both the laws of optics and the Homeland Security statutes.
The images themselves are grainy and ominous yet sometimes almost jazzy. For instance, a Port Allen, LA, refinery, top, suggests a vintage science fiction illustration, or even a visual version of a rhapsodic sax riff from the bebop era. But that gaseous aura is less than reassuring, and in another Port Allen image a single smokestack pumping mystery vapors into a granular night sky is downright chilling, a postcard from an unnamed abyss. A view of some glowing scaffold-like refinery structures in Norco, above, looks infernal yet celebratory, as if the denizens of Hades built chemical bonfires to welcome the lord of the underworld. But Erickson's view is more philosophical: "For me, these images evoke both a presence and an absence. They are points along a continuum between strict representation and subjective abstraction, or between our immediate visual reality and the decaying, remembered imagery that subconsciously shapes our perception." It is a perspective she earned the hard way. ~D. Eric Bookhardt
Slow Light: Artificial Retina Photography by AnnieLaurie Erickson, through Aug. 4, Antenna Gallery, 3718 Saint Claude Ave., 250-7975
Is rap the new performance art? Mega-rapper Jay-Z recently punctuated New York's summer doldrums with his six hour Pace Gallery Picasso Baby performance featuring art world notables in conjunction with his new single, and accompanying video, of the same name. In a related vein, Nola native and ascendant New York art star Rashaad Newsome has been merging high and street culture in a trajectory that included the 2010 Whitney Biennial, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and now NOMA, where his King of Arms collages appear downstairs. His Herald video, top, appears upstairs amid historic French paintings including Vigee LeBrun's court portrait of Marie Antoinette. Newsome's prolific use of fleur-de-lis flourishes suggests he is either a Francophile or Saints fan or, most likely, both. What distinguishes him from other art star bling freaks like Japan's slyly hucksterish Takashi Murakami, is his focus on Olde Europe's medieval heraldry and baroque ornament, which he mashes up with rap's all-American, all consuming commodity fetish for flashy jewelry and even flashier babes and cars.
Rap's obsession with tacky status symbols sets it apart from local African-American roots culture like second lines, spiritual churches and Zulu, among other social aid and pleasure clubs, but Newsome says his flair for performance was profoundly influenced by his formative years in Nola, where parades just happen like the rain and baroque and medieval flourishes are pervasive. His collage sculpture Jungle Gardenia, left, is as baroquely ornamental as a Faberge egg, with a complex composition of gold filigree, bejeweled flowers and ornamental motifs that up close are revealed as flashy car wheels and grinning lips parted to display gold teeth. Duke of Nola, top left, is similar but features rapper Juvenile enshrined in a cornucopia of bling and tattooed limbs. In these works Newsome has us compare the status symbols of rap with the entrenched elegance of the European courts that once colonized the world in an age when the baddest gangstas of all wore crowns and wielded scepters.
King of Arms: Mixed Media by Rashaad Newsome, Through September 15, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100. Left: Jungle Gardenia (Detail)
Long before Louisiana struck "black gold" in the form of oil, there was a thriving "white gold" industry in the form of sugar. Both have sooty histories, but burning the cane fields at harvest time is a tradition that lingers because it is still the most efficient way to strip the stalks of their leaves on their way to the mill. Consequently, harvests can occasionally look almost apocalyptic, as we see in David Armentor's photographs. The New Iberia native's images contrast idyllic if minimal landscapes like Field at Dawn, below, with industrial views of mill facilities like Sugar House, above, as well as portraits of the cane workers themselves, a varied assortment of indigenous Cajuns and Creoles as well as more recent Hispanics. In his portraits, the workers appear in somewhat plutonic looking shrouds of cane smoke, as if the descendants of Longfellow's Evangeline had entered the realm of Dante's Inferno, reminding us that we live in a strange state where exquisite natural beauty coexists with industrial incursions. Amentor's images illustrate sugar's infernal, yet almost romantic, legacy.
Natural beauty appears unsullied in John Folsom's photographic mixed media images of the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia. These too are shrouded, but with mists rather than smoke, and the ethereal qualities of the landscape are enhanced by his meticulous and painterly finishes as moss draped bayous seem to disappear into the primordial vapors. The resulting images are minimal and meditative yet quietly vital as the reflective surfaces of the water intimate an otherworldly sense of mystery and wonder. Folsom says, "My new series, Creeper Lagoon, is an attempt to present the space of the swamp as a cultural construct. Devoid of indigenous life, the images presented here become a space of potential where the viewer's references and experiences fill in the gaps to create a personal narrative. My fascination with these spaces has grown with continued photographic exploration of the American coastal South." ~D. Eric Bookhardt
Sugar Mill Sessions: Photographs by David Armentor through August 10,
Cole Pratt Gallery, 3800 Magazine St., 891-6789; Creeper Lagoon: Mixed Media by John Folsom through July 27, Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518
In his 70 year journey that has taken him from the local housing project where he grew up, to some of the more hallowed halls of the New York art world, where his work was widely exhibited, and back to New Orleans again, Willie Birch has always been outspoken. Even so, his current Arthur Roger show can seem very quiet. Unlike his earlier 7th Ward street scenes, there are no second lines, stoop sitters or funerals in these big black and white works on paper, only stark vistas where ragged buildings and rickety fences initially suggest a social realist view of his hardscrabble neighborhood. But, like a back street Pompei, these scarred, unpeopled vistas have their own tales to tell, and if they lack local "charm" in the usual sense, they are not without dignity. Rendered with eloquent simplicity, they reveal through their subtle luminosity a resonant depth of presence. "It is what it is," they seem to say, but like the area's residents, there is clearly more to them than what is seen on the surface.
More street scenes appear in Eudora Welty's photographs at the Ogden. Famous for her fiction, she was a young writer and photographer when she went to work for the WPA during the dark days of the Great Depression. She excelled in bringing a whimsical narrative sensibility to her photos of her native Mississippi's city streets and rural byways as we see in Home Before Dark, below. This story telling quality is reinforced by excerpts from her writings on the walls, so rather than revealing vast impersonal forces, Welty takes us into her subjects' everyday lives. Like her stories, her photographs leave us feeling almost as if we know the cast of characters. On July 13th, the Ogden hosts a panel discussion and walk-through from 2pm - 4pm. ~D. Eric Bookhardt
Southern Gothic: An Insider's View: New Work by Willie Birch, through July 13, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999; ; Eudora Welty: Photographs from the 1930s and '40s by Eudora Welty, through July 14, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.
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