Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hale Woodruff's Murals & Kara Walker's Critics

The 1930s was a banner decade for mural painting in America. The hardships of the Great Depression  heightened popular interest in the kinds of heroic struggles that murals often depict, and in 1938 Talladega College commissioned Hale Woodruff to paint a series illustrating decisive moments in the fight against racial oppression. The six murals at New Orleans Museum of Art, on loan from Atlanta's High Museum, are among his most iconic, but it helps to see them in person; his Mutiny on the Amistad, above, portraying an uprising on a ship carrying slaves to a Cuban sugar plantation in 1839, is strikingly more powerful than any reproduction can convey. Others show the mutineers on trial after their escape to New York and their eventual repatriation to Africa after the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Painted in a romantic realist style, Woodruff's work endures because it eloquently reflects the  longing for freedom, justice and dignity that all people share. 

He was 79 when he died in 1980, so we can only wonder what he might have thought about the latest American art trends. He may have liked Antenna's recent multicultural Mixed Messages IV show where hooded Klansmen are seen fleeing an angry Godzilla, but, like many veterans of the civil rights struggle, he might have been taken aback by Kara Walker (included in the CAC's stellar 30 Americans show), whose anti-heroic views of plantation slaves (think Uncle Tom's Cabin perversely illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley), suggest a kinky kind of psychodrama where depravity reigns supreme and human dignity is all but nonexistent.

An artist of immense talent whose quiet charisma almost masks her visceral flair for publicity, Walker courts controversy with titillating spectacles, most recently A Subtlety (above), her three story tall, anatomically explicit, mammy-sphinx sculpture rendered in sugar at a defunct Domino refinery in Brooklyn. An amazing accomplishment, it is vastly more interesting than the work of many better known spectacle artists. Still, her approach raises no end of Questions about Kara: Why is it never noted that she based her sugar sphinx's body, including elongated buttocks over pigeon-toed feet, on Ernst Fuchs' twentieth century Austrian Ur-Sphinx (above left)? How surprising is it, really, that her most ardent supporters are mostly white and her most passionate critics mostly black? Why was anyone surprised that A Subtlety provoked "tasteless Instagram photos from people clearly missing the point of the work"? (Left) Were they really missing the point of the work??? Was Carol Diehl's Dirty Sugar commentary right to compare her work to Nazi porn or to suggest that her depiction of blacks as "passive victims of slavery engaged in psycho-sexual drama... reinforces the stereotypes that whites imposed on blacks to justify racism?" What was that all about? S&M has long been seen in surrealism and expressionism, but isn't her psychosexual fetishism way too personally convoluted to conflate with black history? Or is this really all about Kara? Kara Walker appears to have the makings of a great artist, but why have leading art critics stuck to press release talking points and not raised any deeper questions about her work in print? ~Bookhardt  

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College, Through Sept. 14, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100

Related: Jeff Koons, The Art World's Great White Hope

Sunday, June 22, 2014

James Flynn at Callan Contemporary

William Blake once opined that it is possible to "...see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour..." In his poem, Auguries of Innocence, he harked to the sages of antiquity who saw the repeating patterns of the natural world as a kind of sacred geometry that contained the secrets of the universe. But Blake's contemporaries were often more likely to see the natural world as fodder for smoke belching factories. In more recent times, physicists in  have rediscovered that nature's geometric patterning actually does contain the secrets of the universe after all, and that ongoing counterpoint between technology and metaphysics is reflected in James Flynn's seamlessly pristine, yet near-hallucinatory, paintings.

Comprised of intricate, symmetrically patterned lines rendered in richly hued pigments, they range from austerely minimal compositions to dazzling visual puzzles that trick the eye into seeing luminous depth where only flat surfaces actually exist. Consequently, they often resemble holograms that change in color and form when viewed from different angles. Olam Atzilut, (a Kabbalist term for emanation, above) is a shimmering arrangement of concentric circles like a bulls-eye in burnished brass but is actually just a painted panel. Concentric circles become even more illusionistic in Sysygy (a celestial navigation term for alignment, left), where their overlapping forms seem to shimmer like a virtual reality rendition of a soap bubble floating in space. Flynn's most visionary work, The Pareidolic Dream of the Lion, top, makes extensive use of obsessively painted moire patterns deployed as a kind of Rorschach that turns the viewer's gaze inward. The human need to make sense of ambiguity causes the subjective nature of our imagination and preoccupations to influence how we interpret what we see (as the term "pareidolic" suggests). In this uniquely surprising exhibition, Flynn takes us to the far horizons of perception, returning us to that sublime metaphysical realm where art, science and magic are united and cohesive once again. ~Bookhardt

Qualia: Geometric Paintings by James Flynn, Through July 25, Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518. Left: The Oracle of Blessed Friedeberg by James Flynn, dedicated to Mexican artist Pedro Friedeberg. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Early Modern Faces at Newcomb Gallery

The people pictures we see all around us today usually look far removed from renaissance old master portraits, yet both can reflect "modern" ideas. Even though this Early Modern Faces expo at Newcomb hews to the renaissance and related traditions, traces of modernity often lurk beneath the surface. Paolo Veronese's circa 1580 Portrait of a Woman as Saint Agnes, left, becomes almost mind boggling as we realize that the lady in question is a flashy blond decked out in opulent gold brocade, silk and lace. She looks more flirtatious than pious, and there is no way to know if that little tome in her hand is a prayer book or something spicier. Even the little white lamb in her lap--a symbol of sainthood--looks curiously like a pet poodle. Further investigation reveals that many young, soon to be wed, ladies of renaissance Italy had their portraits painted as saints to emphasize their purported "purity," even if they ended up looking more like renaissance versions of Vogue glamour shots.

While there is no shortage of virtuoso brushwork by vintage art stars here, these masterworks are sometimes startlingly simpatico with both antique and avant-garde styles. Paul van Somer's 1620 Elizabeth, Vicountess Faulkland, (top) reveals a smirking noblewoman in an outrageous Peruvian Colonial looking outfit, but her hairdo is even wilder, a kind of medieval bouffant with a filigree of flowers and lace. An extravaganza worthy of Max Ernst, this somehow recalls both Frida Kahlo and The Bride of Frankenstein, left. And Henry VIII, Mary I and Will Somers the Jester, above, an anonymous mid-16th century court painting of imposingly outfitted royals looking like they're plotting palace intrigue as a sinister jester skulks grimly in the shadows, is also improbably cinematic. Curated by Newcomb art historian Anne Dunlop, and featuring works loaned by Houston's stellar Blaffer Collection, this old master portrait show suggests that, rather than a fixed period of time, the aesthetic meaning of "modern" may  involve a certain, psychologically expressive, state of mind. ~Bookhardt

Early Modern Faces, European Portraits, 1480-1780: Paintings and Prints by Old Masters, Through June 29, Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, 865-5328

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Richard Sexton's Creole World at HNOC Williams Center

Classical Revival in Santiago, Cuba, above, and Restored 
Esplanade Ridge homes, New Orleans, below left.

It's a fascinating show based on a truly great book--one of the best ever about this city's architecture. Richard Sexton's Creole World is spectacular not only for the quality of his photographs of antique buildings here and in the Caribbean and related portions of Latin America, but also for the seamless way those images relate to each other as a kind of architectural family album that reveals their common cultural DNA. Culled from the book's over two hundred color photographs, the images in the show are presented so that some of the older structures of the tropical Americas are clustered with some of Nola's local landmarks and obscure gems to reveal their striking cohesion. Those same similarities become almost disorienting on the more intimate pages of the book as scenes that initially look local turn out to be located in places like Havana, Cuba, Cap-Hatien, Haiti, or Cartegena, Columbia.

Cap-Hatien Architecture Identical to French Quarter   

Sometimes those views transport us in both time and space. A splendid old neoclassical home with a fine front porch rudely converted into a truck loading dock, top, is in Santiago, Cuba, but evokes scenes once common in this city before  preservationists transformed them into specimens like those on Esplanade Ridge in the photo just below. Similarly, a street scene in Cap-Haitian, above, is startlingly like the French Quarter buildings along N. Peters Street, while a Panama City scene, left, could almost be in Treme. Even a spooky Port-au-Prince Victorian in Haiti, bottom, is clearly related to certain of its New Orleans Creole cousins.  With insightful essays by John Lawrence and Jay D. Edwards, the book allows us to look deeply into the soul of this city through its expanded overview of the colors, flora and design similarities we share with our tropical kin--affinities that extend to the minutest details of artist studios, living spaces, shops, bars and music clubs. A perfect complement to his landmark tome of two decades ago, New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence, Sexton's Creole World is more than just a reminder of who we are as a city, it's a manifesto celebrating the cultures for whom the art of living is the greatest art form of all. ~Bookhardt

Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere by Richard Sexton, Through Dec. 7, Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St. 523-4662

Jester King Jindal Bows to Big Oil, Sentences Louisiana to Death by Drowning: Dead Men File No Lawsuits

Oil and Gas Canals, Jefferson Parish

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has signed Senate Bill 469, legislation blocking a lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies for their damage to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. The suit, brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East, was intended to restore wetlands necessary to protect coastal communities from flooding, storm surges, and hurricanes. The legislation has been criticized by over 80 legal scholars for impacting claims against BP for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the state attorney general recommended a veto. More>>

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Joseph Rossano at the Delgado Art Gallery

Over 800 years ago, a new Douglas fir tree pushed its way through the cool, moist soil of the Pacific Northwest. It grew tall and mighty before dying decades ago, but remained standing until it was finally felled. Cross-sections of it now appear in Joseph Rossano's Whitewashed expo. Visually minimal yet elaborate in scope, Whitewashed probes the mysteries of life, death and extinction. The Basking Shark (top) is an ancient vegetarian shark that can grow big as a yacht. Slaughtered for their fins--for soup--they face the same mindless destruction that wiped out The Great Auk (left) and other extinct species. Like most Rossano creatures, the shark is rendered in tar and juxtaposed with a cross-section of the fir tree, whose rings are nature's time markers. Though both are whitewashed, the tar bleeds through like a darkly viscous afterimage: even whited-out species leave an imprint. A drawer on the side holds a color graph like a minimalist composition that is actually the shark's DNA code. Rossano avoids sentimentality, so these works are stark reminders of what people have done, and we can only wonder what mortal implications those deeds portend.

The Siberian Tiger, below, like most large Asian and African mammals faces extinction because humans value its body parts as collectibles. Like the other wall sculptures, this piece has drawers and supplemental information via cell phone QR links, and the show also features video explorations of color DNA codes as well as television's history of depicting nature as a sentimental commodity. But it was those mute creatures facing, or lost to, extinction that made me suddenly realize how closely connected our lives are to the faraway Polar Bear, above, whose icy habitat is rapidly melting. Like them, we live in a place that is washing away beneath our feet due to destructive industrial activities, and we are only slowly realizing that the same bell that tolls for them increasingly tolls for south Louisiana as well. ~Bookhardt

Whitewashed: Mixed Media by Joseph Rossano, Through Aug. 28 (Monday - Thursday, 9am - 5pm) Delgado Art Gallery, 615 City Park Ave., 671-6377.