Sunday, October 26, 2014

Prospect.3: Basquiat and the Bayou at the Ogden

A roman candle whose arc over the New York art world blazed all too briefly, Jean-Michel Basquiat died from a heroin overdose when he was 27. The son of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, he came of age in the early 1980s when New York was still a center of creative ferment, and neoexpressionism  was ascendant. But Basquiat was also very affected by Southern folk art, as this resonant exhibition curated by Franklin Sirmans for Prospect.3 makes clear. Here his emotionally charged style may recall the inchoate fury of disturbed self taught visionary artists, but he was crazy like a fox, and the polar paradoxes found in his work--for instance, violence and the sublime--recall the Afro-Caribbean parables of his ancestors. Consequently, his interweaving of fierce emotional energies has as much in common with voodoo or jazz, as it does with the expressionist legacies of Europe and America.

Exu, a Macumba spirit of the crossroads, above left, is a vortex of eyes, spears and slashing yellow and crimson brush strokes within which we see the snarky demon himself leering amid the chaos. Dating from 1988, Exu is one of Basquiat's last works but recalls his early days as a grafitti artist. Zydeco, top, a vast, wall-size painting, is more lyrical and harks to Louisiana's Creole-Cajun heritage as an accordion-playing figure appears amidst an array of vintage audio-visual equipment that resonates a cryptic mythic significance. Also vast is King Zulu, his wall size 1986 opus featuring a grinning, tragicomic black-man-in-blackface mask floating in a field of blue flanked by horn playing jazz musicians, perhaps a reference to Louis Armstrong's reign as King Zulu in 1949. As iconic as Giocometti figures in shades and zoot suits, they seem to almost hover around the mask as we sense an invisible system at work. Similarly, his anatomical expressionist work, Back of the Neck, above, presents us with a visionary universe of symbols that may only be fathomed intuitively and never cerebrally, in what may amount to Basquiat's final, unspoken challenge to late 20th century culture. ~Bookhardt

Basquiat and the Bayou: Paintings and Works on Paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Through Jan. 25, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600. Left: Untitled (Cadmium), 1984, by Jean-Michel Basquiat.             

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Interview: Prospect.3 Artistic Director Franklin Sirmans

The third iteration of the international art biennial Prospect New Orleans opens Oct. 25 at museums, galleries and sites around the city. Prospect.3 is curated by Artistic Director Franklin Sirmans, who is the Curator of Contemporary Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). A native of Harlem in New York City, he became acquainted with the culture of the Gulf South during his previous experience as the head of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection in Houston, where he curated exhibitions such as his 2008 opus, NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith. A widely published writer, Sirmans is an authority on the late Caribbean-American art star, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and author of Basquiat and the Bayou, a scholarly exploration of Basquiat's Southern-themed paintings.

Bookhardt: Prospect.1 got rave reviews for its mix of outstanding international, American and local artists, and Prospect.2 also had some memorable moments despite appearing during a severe recession. Can you give us a sense of Prospect.3's similarities and differences compared to those earlier iterations organized by Prospect's founder, Dan Cameron?

Sirmans: We set some parameters immediately: There are no repeat artists, so Prospect.3's content is all different. And P.3 is not a (Hurricane) Katrina show. Prospect.1 was very much about coming out of that moment, P.2 less so, and P.3 will be even less so. Dan Cameron is a curator I admire greatly, so even though P.3 will be different, there will also be similarities because it will be a continuation of the Prospect lineage.

Prospect.3: Notes for Now, will be the first Prospect New Orleans international biennial inspired by a literary work, Walker Percy's homegrown existentialist novel, The Moviegoer. Could you tell us how the novel affected you and your approach to producing Prospect.3?

S: I gave myself a year during which I avoided putting in place any ideas, themes or structures, and instead just visited artists' studios, listened to the artists and tried to be aware of the changing world around us. In the course of one of those studio visits, an artist mentioned the book. I had never read it before, but I'm often inspired by literature, and a fiend for the writers Percy liked, so I got a copy and read it, then read it again, then one more time — and it was obvious: The book provided a structure for the initial ideas that were starting to shape up. In order for these kinds of shows to be successful, no matter where, they must be somewhat reflective of their location. I was already into Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, James Baldwin's Another Country and Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting — but The Moviegoer delivered us directly into the city of New Orleans. Like those books, it is really about the universe and not just the city in which it is geographically located.

  "Somewhere and not anywhere ..." is a phrase from the book, and that has been my experience in New Orleans. It is so distinct, and yet so reflective of a wider country, our America. And Prospect.3 is an American biennial that, at its core, is about its relation to other places. Which leads into the next part of the thesis: How do we see each other?   More>>

Lesley Dill, Troy Dugas, Dave Greber & Deborah Kass at the Arthur Roger Gallery

Pride of Samuel Adams by Troy Dugas
Big Heart Gown by Lesley Dill
Words are everywhere. They seemed to be taking over the art world not so very long ago, even replacing images in paintings as theory-crazed critics predicted the "end of art." Instead, visual art has thrived as the last refuge of "the ineffable" -- stuff that can't be stated verbally, and in this show words play significant, but mostly supporting, roles in the works of four artists. For instance, Lesley Dill has always utilized words in her sculptures based on the female form as expressed in her recreations of antique ball gowns rendered in fabric or metal. And sure enough, her new life size gown sculptures sport lacy filigrees of letters that, on the spectral or bird headed creatures who wear them, imbue their formal, Jane Austenesque elegance with a spooky, near incantatory vibe.   

Red/Passion 7,000 Day Candle by Dave Greber
Radiant Purple Flower by Troy Dugas
In the work of Troy Dugas, words turn up unexpectedly in formal compositions that resemble mandalas or semi-abstract portraits. Close examination reveals that they are made up of shredded product labels obsessively arranged into formal patterns, so the mystical mandala, The Pride of Sam Adams, top, is actually cobbled from countless Sam Adams beer labels. Dugas' portraits display a related visual dexterity as commercial byproducts morph into epiphanous objects. But elements of pop and mysticism are united in Dave Greber's 7000 Day Candle series of  altar boxes glowing in the dark, grotto-like video gallery. Red/Passion is typical, an altar box where images of hearts and slot machine cherries surround an eternal video candle with the magic words "Lover" and "Power" pulsating behind it, and it may only be a matter of before they appear in local botanicas. Words become emphatic in the work of Deborah Kass, for instance, in her sculptural "Y" and an "O" letters installed by a glass wall so they read either "YO" or "OY" depending on where you stand. Her canvases are also buoyant, but it is her neon sculpture that really has the final say: Enough Already. ~Bookhardt

Beautiful Dirt: Ballgowns of Lightness & Dark: Sculptures by Lesley Dill, Cut-paper Assemblages by Troy Dugas, 7,000-Day Candles: Video Installation by Dave Greber,
Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times: Mixed Media by Deborah Kass, Through Oct. 25, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999. Left: Enough Already by Deb Kass.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Guns in the Hands of Artists at Ferrara

A recent visit to the Guns in the Hands of Artists show at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery reminded me of the old saying: "From little acorns, mighty oak trees grow." Could the same be true of bullets? The first such Guns show premiered almost 20 years ago to modest fanfare, but if you google Guns in the Hands of Artists now, the list of newspapers, TV stations and major national networks covering the show goes on and on. The works on view really do give us something to think about while giving the artists -- who often live in sketchy areas -- a creative way to comment on senseless destruction. Sculptor Brian Borrello initiated the first such show in 1996, and returns this year with a modified Mac-10 automatic pistol fitted with a cartridge magazine so long that it circles back on itself, left. Its surreality recalls Ionesco's Absurdist play, The Rhinoceros, a parodic take on how extremist violence is a contagion that can increase exponentially and, like the play, this piece is both absurd and  insightful. Sculptor/ urban planner Robert Tannen extends the metaphor with his Four Barreled Handgun, a pistol that holds dozens of bullets but can never be fired without endangering the shooter. But H. Cole Wiley and Luke DuBois take it to another level with a plexiglass-encased pistol that fires a blank whenever a NOPD homicide report is posted.


Any murder map of New Orleans is necessarily a map of misguided revenge, collateral damage and mistaken identity, and Ron Bechet's murder map with victims' names written in smudgy red is perhaps best described by its title: Why? Here again, little bullets grow into a big, bloody mess. John Barnes takes this city's residential architecture literally in his evocative "shotgun house" sculpture, Marigny Warning, below, perhaps a reference to the shooting of an unarmed young black dude who broke into a fearful Marigny home owner's walled yard and got shot as he gazed upon his car. Unlikely works like Onegin, Nicholas Varney's gold and diamond bullet commodity fetish displayed with a decommissioned handgun, or Generic Art Solutions related Target: Audience bullet-filled gum ball machine, above left, plus a simpatico work by Dan Tague and a trove of talented others round out a very varied but mostly high impact show. ~Bookhardt

Guns in the Hands of Artists: Decommissioned Guns Repurposed as Art, Through Jan. 24, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471. Left: Marigny Warning by John Barnes          

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Raine Bedsole at Callan Contemporary

River Trees (Detail)
"To disappear into deep water or to disappear toward a far horizon, to be part of the depth of infinity, such is the destiny of man that finds its image in the destiny of water." So said Gaston Bachelard, that most poetic of French philosophers. His words may be taken literally--as some Miami residents whose streets now flood at high tide found out--or figuratively, as his book title, Water and Dreams, implies. Longtime Nola resident and coastal Alabama native Raine Bedsole is no stranger to flooding, but her water-inspired sculptures suggest vessels that connect the seas of primordial memory with the tides of the imagination. Life began in ancient seas and our bodies are mostly water, but civilization was our response to the elements, and therein lies a paradox, a puzzle for engineers and poets.

Engineers would not approve of the vessel Aeolus, top, a skeletal canoe that seems to hover in space as crystalline drops fall from its spindly ribs like vastly oversize tears. What it means will vary with the viewer but, like a ghost boat in magic realist fiction, it seems to ply etheric currents in a sea of dreams. Others look equally gossamer whether made from steel rods shaped like reeds or clad in paper as sheer as the lanterns Brazilians set float for All Saints Day. Imagined Islands suggests a spindly seed pod, but pages from antique books appear embedded in its silk fabric skin. The creations of man and nature are similarly interwoven in her works on paper, whimsical drawings of trees, structures and coral reefs on collaged backings of vintage book covers. Even her Tower of Babel, in this context, recalls the spiraling interior of a nautilus shell. Bedsole's bronzes are more substantial, but their repetition of iconic forms reinforces the subtle elemental subtext that underlies this show-- namely the way all things created by man and nature are ultimately interwoven, connected by subtle but imperishable bonds that can be bent but never be broken. ~Bookhardt

Imagined Shores: Sculptures by Raine Bedsole, Through Oct. 26,  Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518.
Left: Babel by Raine Bedsole