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.
A new book, The Oblivion Atlas, features seven short stories by Michael Allen Zell illustrated with photographs by the artist duo, Louviere + Vanessa. Although tightly interwoven with Zell's text in the book, the photographs easily stand on their own here and, like the stories, segue through various private and public spaces about town where the ordinary and the fantastical routinely trade places. A photo of a very large German shepherd, pictured, is from a story about a band of ambulatory literary nihilists called the League of Odd Volumes. Led by their dog, Garamond, they wander the streets savoring the intriguing vibrations of various places that they proceed to rename after their favorite literary figures, discreetly inscribed in blood on wooden markers. It sounds bizarre, but the book and the exhibition create their own complex reality based on dreams and memories interwoven with the everyday world around us in an audacious undertaking that becomes eerily convincing in the hands of these artists.
More Louviere + Vanessa images appear in nearby selection from Inventing Reality: New Orleans Visionary Photography, based on a new book of the same name produced by Luna Press in conjunction with the PhotoNOLA photography extravaganza. What separates these works from most of the surreal, dreamlike photographs now in vogue all over America is that the images in the book, while often fantastical, are all based on the ethereal yet gritty realities of south Louisiana life. In many ways they reflect the more subjective side of New Orleans' identity as the cultural capital of a swampy region defined by relentless forces of nature that somehow contribute to our wildly imaginative local culture. Read John D'Addario's eloquently illuminating review in the New Orleans daily Advocate, here.
Although somewhat edgy, Louviere + Vanessa's images are far more labor intensive than most traditional photographs, resulting in work comprised of materials like gold leaf, hand made papers or even blood. This emphasis on hand craftsmanship suggests an unexpected parallel with the spectacular vintage Newcomb pottery and jewelry expo at the Newcomb Gallery. Now considered staid, Newcomb pottery was originally an outgrowth of 19th century feminism and considered quite radical at the time. It was also influenced by art nouveau and the British Arts and Crafts movement, a hippie-like group of utopian nature loving artists who created hand made objects as an antidote to the industrial manufacturing techniques they despised. Despite its radical provenance, Newcomb pottery was embraced by affluent collectors all over America and retains its appeal today--a pot sold for over $24,000 at a New Jersey auction in 2010. Newcomb's idealistic founders would have been shocked. ~D. Eric Bookhardt
Artists' studios have long inspired a certain fascination among the general population as well as other artists. Like historic house tours, they are often organized into a kind of pilgrimage, but unlike the work spaces of writers or musicians, art studios tell us much about a visual artist's creative process, and can be very personal, even psychological. Tina Freeman's photograph of George Dureau's studio, above, is both poetic and poignant. Gorgeously cluttered with symbolic, if often prosaic, objects that in his hands became magical, it no longer exists because Dureau, now 82, suffers from various maladies that confine him to a nursing facility. Ersy's studio similarly resembles a workshop where elves assemble magical dreams, while proto-postmodernist Bob Tannen's repurposed manufactured objects and natural forms take over his living and work spaces like mushrooms after a rain. Here Freeman's photographs are lovingly crafted art objects that also contribute to our collective memory as a community.
Elizabeth Kleinveld and Epaul Julien's photographic versions of paintings from art history reflect their concerns about the ethnic stereotyping seen in some news reports after Hurricane Katrina, but they lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Here all races and orientations are reflected in remakes of European masterpieces like Manet's Picnic on the Grass, David's Death of Marat, and Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding, pictured, in images that avoid trite multicultural moralizing by being so beautifully and wittily crafted that they invite us to see the world anew, without the stereotypical expectations that attend notions of race, gender or ethnicity--concepts already put through the Creole blender that is Julien and Kleinveld's native New Orleans.
Other mind bending works in this year's PhotoNOLA expos include Wallace Merritt's meditative views of Paris made even more timeless by the absence of people or automobiles, at Cole Pratt, below, and Brooke Shaden's buoyantly otherworldly series of female figures seemingly transported into a realm of daydreams made real, left, at Soren Christensen.
Close to Home: Photographs by Tina Freeman, The Art of Empathy: Photographs by E2 (Elizabeth Kleinveld & Epaul Julien), through Dec. 28 Octavia Art Gallery, 4532 Magazine St., 309-4249. Wallace Merritt at Cole Pratt through Dec 28; Brooke Shaden at Soren Christensen through Dec. 31.
The Great Picture, below, on view at the CAC, is billed as the biggest
photograph ever made. How big? At over 107 feet wide and over 31 feet
tall, its total of 3,375 square feet is a number more associated with
buildings than photographs. In fact, it was made in an aircraft hanger
that was turned into a giant pin hole camera and darkroom for the
occasion. The image itself is a stark military airport rendered as a
vast black and white negative on photo-sensitive cloth. Dark and
ghostly, it recalls photography's early days, when most photos were
dark and ghostly, but it took almost two more centuries to make one this
big, a final salute, perhaps, to the old darkroom photography process
in an overwhelmingly digital age.
This exhibition of the world's biggest photograph coincides with the annual December PhotoNOLA festival, which gets bigger each year. Founded by the New Orleans Photo Alliance in the dark days of 2006 when the survival of the city itself was still uncertain, PhotoNola was featuring workshops and portfolio reviews by 2007, and since then local galleries and museums have increasingly participated with their own photo exhibitions in conjunction with the event's official offerings. Under the dedicated leadership of Jennifer Shaw, the scale of these events has increased dramatically as the number of related exhibitions has now reached staggering proportions with over 60 gallery and museum photo shows in addition to the Dec. 12--15 workshops and lectures. All this activity has turned PhotoNOLA into a national event, and how such a low key organization has managed to orchestrate it with mainly grass roots, volunteer support is one of those mysteries that make Nola one of the DIY capitals of the universe. This year's fund raising offerings include Josephine Sacabo's gorgeous limited edition print, Las Estrellas, top, and the new Luna Press book, Inventing Reality:New Orleans Visionary Photography. (See Below.)
The Great Picture: The World's Largest Photograph, Through Dec. 15, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805;8th Annual PhotoNOLA: Photography Festival, Workshops and Exhibitions, Through Dec. 31, Multiple Venues Throughout the City.
"I honestly cannot imagine a stronger collection of photographs coming out of any other city. I have known the work of some of these artists for years and even have images by some of them hanging in my home. I daily look at work by Josephine Sacabo and David Halliday, and I have long admired the work of Deborah Luster. But I found the work of artists I’d never heard of equally thrilling. Gus Bennett Jr.’s portraits are heart-stoppingly beautiful. Lisette de Boisblanc’s X-ray photographs of her grandmother’s storm-damaged dolls are amazing in so many way that it would take a full essay to do justice to them. They are like nothing else I’ve seen in X-ray art, and I’ve gone back to look at them again and again, mesmerized, curiously enough, by their strange sexuality. Meg Turner’s ruins of the Market Street Power Station are equally mesmerizing in their way and comparable to other great examples of industrial photography. And Deborah Luster, Josephine Sacabo, and David Halliday all have new work that can only be called thrilling. Every artist in the book is deserving of individual comments, and I regret that I do not have the space to do their rich visions justice.”
–– John Wood, Editor 21st Editions; co-editor Editions Galerie Vevais
Inventing Reality: New Orleans Visionary Photographers Book Signing and
Exhibition: Saturday Dec. 14 8--10pm, Gallery for Fine Photography, 241
Chartres St.; Inventing Reality Book Signing Sun. Dec 15, 4pm,
Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., and at the Octavia Gallery, 454
Julia St., Sat. December 21, 2013, 2:00am - 7:00pm
During Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address, he emphatically stated he had "...no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I have no inclination to do so." Honest Abe, faced with a budding rebellion by the slave states, was being "diplomatic." We all know how that turned out. In his memory, Will Ryman (minimalist maestro Robert Ryman's 43 year old son) created America, a life size gold resin replica of Lincoln's log cabin childhood home. Acquired for NOMA by Nola art godfather Sidney Besthoff, it features an interior where every surface is covered with neatly if obsessively ordered objects that arguably symbolize America's amazing history, ranging from corn and coal to iPads. Everything is real, and everything but the coal is finished in the same gold resin. A late bloomer, Will Ryman has been a bit of a dabbler, but in his most recent works he seems have to found his voice, and in this installation it is powerful.
In recent decades, the contemporary art world has been obsessed with irony, but irony that is clinical and lacking in emotional impact is impotent. No such complaint applies here. Seemingly anticipating Pope Francis' recent critique of oligarchical capitalism, Ryman's deft interweaving of bullets, Indian arrowheads and slave chains with railroad spikes, spark plugs, pills, pull tabs, candy and consumer electronics paints a picture of progress that came at a price. Their arrangement, reminiscent of Louise Nevelson's obsessive monochromatic taxonomies of found objects, is initially seductive, a metaphor for the Old World view of America as a gleaming land of gold, but the details are chilling. The global sweatshops that now produce our clothes and electronic gadgets are modern versions of the exploited slaves and immigrants who built America, and if some complain that such critiques are insufficiently patriotic, emotionally healthy nations, like sane individuals, understand that acknowledging our history is how we grow and become wiser as a people. In that sense, Ryman's America is profoundly patriotic. ~D. Eric Bookhardt
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