Sunday, March 29, 2015

Kongo Over the Waters at NOMA

Ndunga Mask

Nkisi Nkondi Power Figure
The Kongo Kingdom ruled over a swath of west Africa for 500 years. The Kongo king and his nobles surrounded themselves with finely wrought artistic objects, and when Portuguese explorers arrived in 1483, trade relations were established. They exported commodities, crafts and slaves (captured tribal rivals) and imported Portuguese crafts, culture and religious icons. Many Kongo slaves ended up in New Orleans, gathering on Sundays in Congo Square to celebrate their traditional culture, legacies that eventually evolved into Creole cuisine, jazz and R&B. Their visual heritage is explored in this NOMA expo in the form of Kongo and African-American art ranging from antique to modern and contemporary works, all quite imaginative.

La Traversee by Eduard Duval-Carrie' (detail)

Scepter, Kongo Peoples, 19th century
Traditional African ritual masks and sculptural fetishes often suggest the European modernist styles they influenced. Some fine examples include a Nkisi Nkondi Power Figure--a carved wooden warrior who guards against evil influences. His fierce gaze and applied bodily adornments recall expressionism and assemblage sculpture. A Ndunga Mask, pictured, worn by priests to invoke the protective power of the ancestors, reflects the Kongo flair for highly stylized, yet eerily lifelike, carving that evokes surrealism's dreamlike visionary psychology. Those tendencies are reincarnated in contemporary works by Renée Stout, Radcliffe Bailey, Haitian-American Edouard Duval-Carrié, Cuban-American José Bedia and Congolese artist Steve Bandoma. Washington DC-based Stout, inspired by Marie Laveau, makes sculptural assemblages based on her updated "nkisi,"--psychically charged objects that comprise sculptures like her Self Portrait. Nkisi also figure strongly in paintings by Bedia, Bandoma and Bailey -- whose mixed media works augment his current show at the CAC. But Duval-Carrié's colorfully ghostly paintings are inspired by Haitian history, Kongo ancestors and voodoo spirits. Carnivalesque and Felliniesque, their aesthetic parallels to local Mardi Gras marching groups like the Société de Ste. Anne, and our secretive skull and bones gangs, suggest as yet unexplored connections between voodoo, surrealism and the pervasive, if subliminal, influence of Kongo culture on Louisiana's cultural life. ~Bookhardt / Kongo Across the Waters: Art of Central African and African American Cultures, Through May 25th, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

New Kinetic Sculpture by Lin Emery at Arthur Roger

Isadora Duncan
Sometimes the art world seems to be all about novelty. In New York, the New Museum has long been synonymous with trendiness, and now, at my former employer, the Museum of Modern Art, the pop-diva Bjork's massive exhibition has been widely panned for trying too hard to be cool, inadvertently inflicting collateral damage on all concerned. Such stunts beg the question: what is their opposite? Is there a more timeless sort of visual art that not only transcends trends but also bridges the divide between nature and technology, drama and subtlety, the sensual and the cerebral? Yes there is: Lin Emery's kinetic sculptures often epitomize that kind of timeless and finely tuned consistency. But, like the timeless, pristine miracles of the natural world on which they are based, routinely pristine works can be easy to take for granted. 
Garden of Earthly Delights
Unless, of course, something changes, as appears to be the case in her current Arthur Roger show. For Emery, whose local exhibitions began in the 1950s at The Orleans Gallery, this city's pioneering co-op space, most inconsistencies and rough edges were polished out long ago. Consequently, whimsical departures like her smallish, motorized work, Isadora Duncan, come as a surprise. It does a scarf dance like its namesake at the push of a button, but this robotic diva is more enigmatic than flamboyant, a reminder of  surrealism's prescient wariness of automata. Another surprise is her somewhat larger Garden of Earthly Delights, her abstract kinetic evocation of Hieronymus Bosch's darkly sensual masterpiece. Both are experimental, imperfect but daring. Also unexpected is  Suspended, a polished hanging sculpture that suggests an airborne version of her iconic, leafy, windswept and elemental forms. What they all have in common with classic Emery sculptures like Return--an elegantly interwoven cluster of glistening silver crescents--is a quality of motion in the form of a sweeping recursive cycle. Here the orbiting arcs of those gleaming silver crescents reflect the iconic patterning of this city, with its hints of things fragile yet eternal. ~Bookhardt, Abstract Kinetic Sculpture by Lin Emery, Through April 25, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Private Impressionist: Edgar Degas at Newcomb

Before the Race, 1895
Self Portrait, 1857
Perhaps more than any other impressionist, Edgar Degas continues to fascinate. But why? It may have to do with his signature mix of familiarity and mystery, qualities that describe both the personality and the art of this Paris-born, self-proclaimed "son of Louisiana." Anyone who attended art historian Marilyn Brown's recent lecture, Cotton and Global Capitalism, could infer as much as she eloquently explored the dynamics of his painting, The Cotton Office, as both a family portrait and a sign of the times, as his prominent local kin stoically struggled with the challenges they faced in 1870s New Orleans. The Cotton Office was the first impressionist painting to be purchased by a French museum, which made Degas an art star, but this Newcomb expo offers  nothing quite so epochal. Instead, these mostly small prints, drawings and occasional photographs, from the Robert Flynn Johnson collection, read almost like a visual diary of his everyday life as it was lived. Works by other artists in his circle reinforce an impression of personal mementos, memorabilia left behind by an esteemed, if eccentric, public figure.

Plough Horse, 1861
Achille Degas, 1853
In Degas' best known paintings, ballet dancers appear in an gauzy nimbus of pastel luminosity, but here they are more likely to be hanging out backstage. Similarly, some preoccupied figures on a beach seem oblivious to the sun and surf, and in a lithograph, Before the Race, 1895, top, the jockeys just seem to be "horsing around." Such scenes, typical of his prints, convey a candid view of everyday life in 19th century France. Some, like a self portrait, above left, reveal "X" marks, indicating a cancelled plate. Because his editions were so small, and demand persisted, prints from cancelled plates were an affordable option. His drawings are more minimal. In an early, 1853 portrait, his swarthy younger brother, Achille, slouches decorously as he gazes back at us. In a couple of later paintings, he looks distinctly Afro-Creole, and in fact Degas had many black local relatives--most notably Norbert Rillieux, the inventor of modern sugar refining. Diverse kinships were commonplace in 19th century New Orleans. Degas always tried to be true to his subjects, but few were more mysterious than his own aristocratic, yet exotic, family. ~Bookhardt

Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist: Works on paper by Degas and his Circle, Through May 17, Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, 865-5328. Left: Heads of a Man and a Woman, 1877-78.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Michael Pajon at Jonathan Ferrara

Hindsight has a way of offering a new view of human experience. Life in the moment can be a hustle, sometimes exhilarating but often oscillating between frantic and boring. Collage artists enjoy an Olympian perspective that enables them to utilize the symbols and icons of the past for their own purposes, and Michael Pajon excels at mining rich veins of vintage pop culture for any transcendent epiphanies they might contain. Like his old Chicago mentor, Tony Fitzpatrick, Pajon is big on vintage Americana fraught with euphemistic irony, but his metaphysical Hispanic DNA seems well adapted to the swampy voodoo vibe of his adopted hometown. In this aptly named Palimpsest series, his collages explore how the myths represented in vintage pop culture live on in the present.    

A Beat of the Heart, A flick of the Tongue, above, features the sort of high Victorian beauty who appeared as a kind of popular pin-up girl in places ranging from Storyville bordellos to the frontier saloons of the gold rush, sometimes juxtaposed with the American eagle as seductive symbols of Manifest Destiny. But beauty and strength were often elusive in the mad, death-defying, scramble to settle the old West, and here Pajon's beauty, flanked by a turkey buzzard and snakes, sports the tattoos of a circus or side show performer. Today deadly crossings of barren desert wastes are still undertaken, but the new pioneers are mainly undocumented migrants fleeing dystopian homelands ruled by armed gangs and drug cartels. In Hands Remember What the Heart Forgets, top, the so-called "Hand of Power"--that near-universal mojo symbol for the sudden quantum, death defying leap of faith or luck--appears pierced with a dagger and with flames flaring from its fingernails. Emerging from a serpent infested flower labeled "Love," and flanked by horseshoes, crescent moons, spiders and songbirds, it is a reminder that despite all the technology with which we now surround ourselves, life and love are are still mysterious, and destiny remains a roll of the dice. ~Bookhardt

Palimpsest: Collage Drawings by Michael Pajon, Through March 28, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The International Shrine of Marie Laveau

While the legend and myth of the Vodou Queen is impressive, Marie Laveau the woman was even more remarkable than the stories that surround her.  The undisputed Vodou Queen of New Orleans in the first half of the 1800s, she was also a devout Catholic, an advocate for women and African American families, and a figure of extraordinary social authority, in a time when women of color had no power at all.  Marie used her sharp wit to ensure a future for her children and others like them, and to help free slaves.  She fostered an incredible sense of community among slaves and free people of color that continued for decades. In response to the vandalism at the famous Laveau Tomb in St Louis Cemetery I, visiting hours have been reduced and visitors will soon be able to enter the cemetery only with a licensed tour guide. The statue of Marie Laveau in the New Orleans Healing Center (a gift from talented local artist Ricardo Pustanio) very quickly became something of a replacement, with visitors leaving flowers and and lighting candles.  In order to build upon this start, the New Orleans Healing Center is establishing a public shrine to Marie Laveau, which will be open to tourists and locals alike, so that they may leave offerings, ask for blessings and leave the traditional ‘X’ markings on the shrine. More >>

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"The Horizon Tries:" New Mixed Media by Lana Cmajcanin, Fokus Grupa, Curated by Lala Rascic

Is there "a secret harmony that exists between the earth and humanity" that we ignore at our own  peril? The 19th century French geographer, anarchist and animal rights activist, Elisee Reclus, thought so, and during his over two year sojourn in Louisiana, starting in 1853, he was shocked by the rampant way our  wilderness areas were plundered for their resources. His belief, "Whatever we do to nature, we inevitably do to ourselves," became prophetic in retrospect as our industry-ravaged wetlands increasingly lost their capacity to protect us from hurricanes. Although his presence in this show is most obvious in a reliquary exhibit, top (detail), including books, publications and even a bottle of wine from his family vinyard, his views are often echoed in works by Bosnian and Croatian artists in this exhibition organized by Sarajevo, Zagreb and New Orleans-based artist-curator, Lala Rascic.

Into the Dusk Charged Air, above left, Rascic's reverse painting on glass, depicts all of the rivers cited by John Ashbery in his poem of the same name as a meandering maze of lines--a tangle of tides appearing as a kind of geographical Gordian Knot, above. Rivers often denote borders in regions that can throb with the competing claims of rival national cultures, and Bosnian artist Lana Cmajcanin's Geometry of Time, above, is a vintage map of Europe with every change of national boundaries recorded in a vortex of overlapping lines that collectively all but obscure the Balkan region. The Croatian collective, Fokus Grupa, takes on the old European conundrum of nature and nationalism in a video that intimates how even serene national park scenes can embody underlying geopolitical tensions. This returns us to the realm of Reclus, and on March 7 at 6 pm, his translator, John Clark, presents a lecture, Elisee Reclus & the Apocalyptic Social Geography of New Orleans, followed on March 8 at 4 pm by an artist talk, Abstraction and Landscape, featuring Jessica Bizer and Brian Guidry. ~Bookhardt   

The Horizon Tries: Mixed Media by Lala Rascic, Fokus Grupa and Lana Cmajcanin, Through March 8, Good Children Gallery, 4037 St. Claude Ave., 616-7427.