Sunday, January 25, 2015

Exhibit BE in Algiers and Alan Gerson at LeMieux

It was the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who famously said, "Every wall is a door." But for 21st century New Orleans artist Brandan Odums, walls are more like windows that reveal familiar people and scenes transformed into dreams, critiques, commemorations, ironic ruminations, you name it. All were seen in Exhibit BE, the sprawling, five story tall, block long, former DeGaulle Manor apartment complex in Algiers, now abandoned and covered top to bottom with imagery by Odums and his merry band of grafitti artists. Prospect New Orleans sometimes compares its evolution to Jazzfest, but it was Exhibit BE, a P.3+ satellite site, that resembled Jazzfest last week as huge Martin Luther King Day crowds, attracted partly by Trombone Shorty and Erykah Badu performances, jammed the site beneath towering images of King, Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X and other, more fantastical figures. Because it had been mostly inaccessible in the past, the music only heightened the excitement around what site developer Sean Cummings called "the largest street art exhibit in the South."

Alan Gerson's sculptures and bas reliefs are visionary, but small. By replicating vintage brick and mortar architecture in miniature, Gerson gives us claustrophobic Kafkaesque tableaux that suggest haunted tenement buildings, or the totalitarian habit of transforming entire neighborhoods into detention camps. His maze-like wall sculpture, No Entry (above), is emblematic. Suggesting a nightmare vision of lower Manhattan in the old days, this visual rhapsody of stone walls with bricked-in windows and high-rise structures with jagged facades reads like a mini-monument to 20th century urban angst--a human equivalent of sadistic rat maze experiments rendered as architecture in painted plaster.  Some mini-mannequin forms sculpted to resemble stone blocks invoke surrealism in the visionary vein of Rene Magritte; but another series--plaster sculptures of ancient Hebrew legends that he repaired after being damaged when his studio flooded in 2005--imbues the show with a spooky aura, as if the history of civilization was a strange science fiction experiment in which we are all unwitting participants. ~Bookhardt; Excavations and Monuments: Works in Plaster by Alan Gerson, Through Feb. 28, LeMieux Galleries, 332 Julia St., 522.5988     

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Deciphering Monir Farmanfarmaian and Prospect.3

Now that it's almost over, Prospect.3's defining qualities are starting to seem a little clearer, but there is still an aura of mystery about it. If Prospect.1 brought a lot of global art world glitz to a city still reeling from a deadly storm, P.3 is more complex, contemplative and multicultural. At its best, it harks to some obscure facets of local history that are often overlooked, reminding us that Nola was a global city when it became part of the U.S. Take, for instance, the army that won the Battle of New Orleans--a wild assortment of French Creoles, free people of color, pirates, Choctaw Indians, Haitian refugees, slaves and miscellaneous mismatched infantry from the surrounding states. Yet those multicultural misfits defeated what was by any measure a vastly superior British force.

Based on questions of identity raised by Paul Gauguin's paintings and Walker Percy's novel, The Moviegoer, P.3 often seemed more concerned with the inner life of exotic places than with the clever  spectacles more typical of international art biennials today--a strategy that made it interesting for some art cognoscenti, if challenging for others. Its most mysterious artist is Monir Farmanfarmaian, a 90 year old Iranian who had been active in the old New York avant garde of Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, but returned to Iran to pursue her flair for fusing  modern abstraction and ancient Sufi mysticism. The result is the dazzling mirrored geometry seen in works like Octagon Sculpture 2013, top. It looks modern but its mirrored surfaces employ an ancient Iranian glass mosaic technique, so it can seem coolly elusive even as the viewer's reflection appears in a multifaceted new form, resulting in an odd sense of recognition. A related sense of recognition regarding P.3 itself may be shaping up in global art media. For instance, when listed its 50 "most exciting" global artists' exhibitions of 2014, ten percent were in New Orleans. NOMA's Mel Chin retrospective, below, made the cut; the rest, including Tavares Strachan, Andrea Fraser (above left), Glenn Kaino and Lucia Koch (above),  were all components of Prospect.3. ~Bookhardt

Prospect.3: Monir Farmanfarmaian, Through Jan 25, Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, 865-5328.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Is New York Doomed?

As a marketing and museum capital it is obviously as formidable as ever. But as a creative epicenter of new art and art movements, it's been dead for over two decades. Now even New Yorkers starting to notice... 

by Ben Davis

This is an article about art and gentrification, the inescapable topic. I have something new to add—that I think we may be coming to the end of a period where being an artist was synonymous with being urban, unless we are willing to fight for it—but before I start it, let me say that I have mixed feelings about my own conclusions.

On the one hand, I like New York, and I think that artists should fight for their place in it. I believe that this would take some serious coalition building and some effort to break out of the shoe-gazing, white-guilt bottleneck where the conversation always gets stuck.

It would not be impossible to do so. If you read Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan's “The Fine Art of Gentrification" essay from 1987 about struggles in the East Village, you can see that there was a time when political consciousness was acute enough within the arts community in New York that taking a stand against “artists housing" was actually the commonsense radical thing to do. Artists clearly saw that they were being used by real estate interests to drive out poor communities and communities of color, and put their future with a larger struggle to change urban priorities. Of course, those struggles failed to stop the gentrification of the East Village... More>>

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Shawne Major at Callan Contemporary

When Hew Locke, a British artist from the culturally Caribbean nation of Guyana in South America, first came to New Orleans to install his carnival-inspired work in Prospect.3, he didn't expect to feel at home here. He had heard about our carnival but didn't think a North American Mardi Gras could rival the Caribbean-style festivities of his native land. But when he saw all the beads dangling from trees all over town, he changed his mind and realized that our Mardi Gras must be the real deal after all. That same giddy, anarchic energy that we associate with random clusters of carnival beads also defines Shawne Major's densely abstract tapestries cobbled from beads, buttons, baubles and trinkets stitched together into very precise yet random looking wall hangings. They resonate a certain vibratory contrast because even though abstraction has historically been associated with some of the most serious art and artists--and Major comes across as quite serious herself--her mixed media wall hangings are crafted from some of the most ephemeral objects in popular culture. So even though the New Iberia native's works are not explicitly about carnival, the parallels are so pronounced that they provide a sense of what abstract art might have looked like had it originated in south Louisiana.

Fascia, top, is especially carnivalesque because of the way its dense strands of beads seem to almost spin like a vortex of baubles, faux turquoise and plastic flowers in motion. Twin Flame is darker and denser and evokes a slower sort of movement as patterns of beads, buttons and purple faux pearls seem to almost ooze like an elegantly bejeweled lava flow. But Bower, left, suggests a vestment, perhaps the remains of a royal tunic from a lost civilization that communicated via coded sequences of beads. Others are shaped like animal pelts, but all of these fantastical concoctions exude a psychotropic joie de vivre, the inexplicable electricity of small, shimmering objects that were once in motion, and only recently came to rest. ~Bookhardt  Collective Memory: New Works by Shawne Major, Through Jan. 31, Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518;

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Prospect.3 at the Contemporary Arts Center

Welcome to the world! There is often a National Geographic quality about much of Prospect.3, which  offers many windows on the far corners of the planet. The Contemporary Arts Center epitomizes this perspective with works by two dozen artists that are often more meditational than sensational yet, despite all that,  the nuances of Douglas Bourgeois' paintings can be startling as the maestro of Saint Amant, LA, finds no dearth of exotica on his own home turf. His Twilight High Yearbook painting--a grid of swarthy, grinning adolescents like a U.N. sampler of ethnicities and hair styles -- epitomizes the exotic aura seen in later works like A New Place to Dwell, below, an evocation of the interplay of pop culture and the exalted that defines so much of the local cultural landscape. It's a great selection of some of Bourgeois' best that that Art News said was "worth the trip to New Orleans" by itself. Sophie Lvoff's photographs of street scenes and interiors  initially suggest social realist views of Nola bars, cafes and banged up cars, but up close they look more whimsical and otherworldly, like scenes from a carnivalesque parallel universe governed by the laws of chance.
Click Graphic for Douglas Bourgeois Interview
Japanese-American artist Glenn Kaino's tanks of corals in seawater, top, resemble a strangely beautiful science project, but a wall text says the corals are growing on replicas of the military hardware the army dumps into the ocean, and those lovely corals are actually locked in a fierce battle over territory. Theaster Gates makes art from ordinary objects like old fire hoses, but his minimalist black on black tar paintings resonate a special aura--perhaps because his father was a roofer. Many of the works from the most remote places on the planet defy easy assessment, but some can be surprisingly familiar. Entang Wiharso's Double Happiness aluminum wall sculptures evoke demonic Hieronymus Bosch figures but may actually be more about his native Indonesia's complex history of globalization, just as Chinese artist Jun-Fei Ji's dioramic scroll  paintings deploy ancient Chinese ghosts to depict evoke and environmental displacement. Both artists feature figures oddly reminiscent of 19th century Carnival illustrations, a reminder that east Asia profoundly influenced the Western art and design of that time. ~Bookhardt

Prospect.3: Douglas Bourgeois, Sophie Lvoff and Two Dozen International Artists, Through January 25, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805.