Sunday, May 31, 2015

David Bates at Arthur Roger

David Bates is a paradox. Based in landlocked Dallas, he appears focused on the mysteries associated with bodies of water. In an area not known for modesty, he is very low profile. His paintings reflect an eclectic mingling of styles, yet come off as boldly natural. As New York Times critic, Roberta Smith, who is as baffled by him as I am, once wrote, his canvases "bristle like carpentered objects" and "press forward with every molecule..." At a time when soulless, allegedly "cutting edge" paintings known as "zombie abstraction" are in fashion, Bates is a Texas troglodyte who once described his style as "Cro-Magnon." There may be something to that; the way he deploys his eclectic talents suggests he operates intuitively, with the instincts of a folk artist unconcerned with trends or art history. I don't know him, but by all accounts he is guided by two lifelong passions: fishing and fooling around with paint.

Preoccupied with lakes, swamps and the Gulf of Mexico around the Louisiana and Texas coast, he serves up emblematic works like The Fisherman, top left. Here we see a tropical Ernest Hemingway character, but rather than just a pictorial, or "retinal," image, something inexplicably elemental, yet subliminal, engages the senses; you can almost smell the briny air and fishy cargo. Levee Pump House, left, depicts a weathered wooden hut atop a spidery timber trestle, and the creosote is almost palpable. Some hombres tending crab traps in Port Sulphur seem fashioned from similar stuff, yet recall Orozco's gritty 1930s Mexican murals. If Bates' people and places, say, Point a la Hache, left, suggest "carpentered" layers of paint, his colorful still lifes like Mums and Lilies hark to Matisse's florid south of France period, but with more depth. Yet his simplicity can be Zen-like. In Storm, above, the ominously darkening sky, the gulls hovering close to shore, and a solitary sailboat tacking against the wind are rendered with simple, gracefully sweeping blue, gray and white arcs of pigment that evoke damp, turbulent gusts with a hints of ozone from distant lightning beyond the far horizon. ~Bookhardt / Coastal Paintings: New Works by David Bates, Through July 25, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Final Week--Ends June 7: EN MAS: Carnival and the Performance Art of the Caribbean at the CAC

Have you ever had a dream where you came home and everything was in its usual place, but all the furnishings, even the clothes in the closet and the food in the refrigerator, were totally unfamiliar? This EN MAS: Carnival and Performance Art of The Caribbean show at the Contemporary Arts Center may induce a similar sense of disorientation. Featuring performance art staged in six Caribbean countries during the 2014 Carnival season, EN MAS explores new Caribbean art incorporating social or political content mingled with the familiar Carnival masked revelry we know so well. Even the title is a play on the familiar phrase "en masse," substituting "Mas," the Caribbean slang term for Carnival. 
Conceived by New Orleans-based, Guadeloupe-born curator Claire Tancons and produced in collaboration with art historian Krista Thompson, En Mas was initially inspired by an unusual synthesis of Carnival and modern art that arose in Trinidad, where artists like Marlon Griffith became famous for issue-based performance art like his Positions + Power installation at the CAC, top. Based on the domestic spying apparatus of the modern surveillance state, and augmented by sinister props, the installation's eerie video projections suggest Afro-futurist science fiction. A local, Krewe du Vieux version might seem more nihilistically obscene, but here Griffith conveys a sleekly creepy vision of a techno-futurist dystopia.

A related vibe defines Guyana-born, London-based artist Hew Locke's Give and Take performance piece, above, inspired by the Notting Hill Carnival. Notting Hill has long been the epicenter of London's Afro-Caribbean community, and its Carnival defied local racism, but residents are now being displaced by gentrification. At the invitation of Britain's Tate Modern museum, Tancons worked with Locke and architect Gia Wolff to create a performance with maskers as anti-gentrification crusaders carrying shields depicting Notting Hill row houses as they march to the beat of traditional Caribbean drumming in the Tate's imposing Turbine Hall where Marlon Griffith's, Tancons produced, No Black in the Union Jack, was co-featured. Wolff also designed this CAC exhibit, its most elaborate installation in decades.
The Jamaica-based works have a funkier quality while retaining an eerie edge. Ebony Patterson is known for her floridly patterned paintings, but here her procession of 80 marchers carrying colorful fabric coffins makes a statement about not only Jamaica's bouts of police brutality, but also the gaudy "bling funerals" that follow in their wake. Charles Campbell's Fractal Engagement involves luring upper class Jamaicans to "dangerous"
neighborhoods where they confront unexpected performances that blur the boundaries of class, fantasy, reality and fractal physics. Theatrically sociological in tone, Fractal Engagements unexpectedly parallels Dominican Republic artist Nicolas Dumit Estevez's C-Room installation in which everyday objects become charged with the transformational power of the voodoo spirits during a protracted ritual, and then released into the streets during Carnival.

A more somber spookiness pervades Afro-futurist Cauleen Smith's video, H-E-L-L-O, above, featuring New Orleans musicians playing solos of the five note greeting tones associated with space aliens in the 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Performed at abandoned local sites, they invoke the spirit of the Katrina evacuees who are still absent while extending an otherworldly invitation to return. Martinique-born composer Christophe Chassol's expansive video tone poem, Big Sun is more buoyant, reflecting the quiet carnivalesque magic that permeates his French West Indies homeland.

These and other works in the show are all pieces of a larger mosaic, an evolving art movement that parallels this city's synergies of art and carnival, but with issue-oriented works that sometimes echo the radical gravitas of this year's politically-charged Venice Biennial. En Mas is a groundbreaking survey that explores the possibilities of celebration and protest, of Afro-futurism, fractal physics and voodoo, in a new amalgam of Carnival and performance art now percolating across the Caribbean. ~Bookhardt / EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, Through June 7, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805. More:  Reporting from EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Happy Dogs at Chaisson; Etchynpufe at Foundation

Who doesn't love dogs? They're the only creatures who actually like the earth's most deadly predators: humans. So we treat them like family and celebrate them in art works by George Rodrigue, William Wegman--and now Nola photographer, West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran, J.T. Blatty. This show features her dog, Cuba, whose "love of life" inspires her to produce twilight landscapes like Walking the Dead, pictured, in which an illuminated canine in motion appears as a colorful abstraction of light rays in a cemetery. I love animals but often find dog art baffling, and here I thought of  voodoo spirits--but that's unlikely since only cats, not dogs, ordinarily double as voodoo spirits, so let's take Blatty's word that these images reflect "the freedom within all of us." Note also that Basset Hound and German Shepherd rescue missions receive 10% of sales proceeds.

The Foundation Gallery has a dual mission to promote innovative art while financially supporting   social activism with the proceeds. This charmingly quirky Etchynpufe show curated by What Editions features copperplate etchings by four artists including Music Box collaborator Andrew Schrock--who makes sculptures from those very same copper etching plates, welding the seams and inflating them with compressed air so they puff up like pillows. Here an etching by Hugo Girl of a demonic flip-phone encircled by a serpent is echoed by Schrock's puffed copper sculpture Hydroform 2. Other works like Schrock's own etching of hands gesturing with cryptically tattooed fingers, or Summer Sandstorm's hallucinogenic, glitter-speckled etching of a pensive woman morphing into a diabolical clown, left, are no less intriguing. Perhaps most surprising
is Sarrah Danziger's stony-textured series of stricken, slack-jawed female facial expressions, left, and osseous looking male body parts. Etchynpufe is a wonderfully surprising show, and 25% of sale proceeds go to the New Orleans Community Print Shop's excellent Youth Program. ~Bookhardt /Happy Dogs: Photographs by J.T. Blatty, Through May 30, Martine Chaisson Gallery, 727 Camp St., 302-7942;  Etchynpufe: Work by Andrew Schrock, Hugo Girl, Sarrah Danziger and Spring Sandstorm, Through May 31, The Foundation Gallery, 1109 Royal St., 568-0955. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Navigating Futures Past at the 2015 Venice Biennale

Is it all just too much? Or is Okwui Enwezor's all-encompassing, globally taxonomic theater of Neo-liberal capitalist excess and its Marx-critical discontents simply a way of saying something that needed to be said in an age when an art auction can bring down a billion bucks while fast food workers survive on food stamps? The Guardian's insightfully entertaining Adrian Searle has no direct answers but his perambulations are instructive. FYI: The "ditch digging convicts" mentioned in the second paragraph of the print review are by New Orleans photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, and the central pavillion auditorium, site of the Das Kapital readings, was designed by David Adjaye, the architect of our Bywater-Marigny riverfront Crescent Park. Read the print article in the Guardian: Here.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Buckingham, Fein & MRSA at Jonathan Ferrara

Once, back when postmodernism was trendy, everything was considered a "text," and artists even made paintings that were just sequences of words. Recent word art by David Buckingham, Skylar Fein and MRSA, is more resonant, perhaps because they deploy time more like a color or a context. New York born, New Orleans-based Skylar Fein is known for monumental, often gay-centric, works like his 2008 Prospect.1 installation Remember the Upstairs Lounge, but this Giant Metal Matchbooks series of oversize matchbooks complete with matches with realistic rubber tips--are classic examples of traditional pop art.

Hinting at pop's roots in surrealism, these nostalgia-tinged icons of throwaway incandescence advertise consumer goods ranging from Budweiser Beer and Seven-Up to "Marlin Long 22 Rifles" as they ironically, yet lovingly, illustrate how traditional American commerce can morph into culture over time. Fein's collaborations with local graffiti artist, MRSA, on this Children of the Night series, is more complex, with wood relief wall pieces incorporating a crazy quilt of sliced and diced words embedded with iconic forms like product logos or even a Confederate flag. Here geometry provides the only formal order in what amounts to a view of history as jabberwocky, in which words of wisdom and derangement battle for supremacy.

Nola born, Los Angeles resident David Buckingham scrounges L.A.'s peripheries for colorful scrap metal like the bits he once cut from the Charlie Manson family's long abandoned school bus. A  former ad writer, words come naturally to him, but are now rendered as, sometimes ambiguous, commentaries in cut steel. Here rust-tinged, colorfully enameled letters spelling MEH!  suggest indifference as a kind of
spectacle; and a cheerfully colorful cross cobbled from metal letters says "Vanilla" if read vertically, but spells "Kinky" when read horizontally. If this seems nihilistic, his background with a cabal of anarchist welders may have influenced his acerbic outlook--a quality especially obvious in a piece that features multicolored dots that spell out a rude message, and another that functions as a parting shot: Shut Up! ~Bookhardt / Strike Anywhere: Giant Metal Matchbooks by Skylar Fein; Strong Medicine: Metal sculpture by David Buckingham; Children of the Night: Collaborative Paintings by Skylar Fein and MRSA; Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Debbie Fleming Caffery at Octavia Gallery

Ventriloquist, 2013

Gerald's Truck, 1999
Growing up in south Louisiana's sugar cane country, Debbie Fleming Caffery was immersed in the area's annual harvest rituals. Although increasingly mechanized, sugar cane farming still features events like the pre-harvest burning of the fields to remove leaves from the stalks prior to processing. Seen from above, swaths of Acadiana resemble a fiery apocalypse. Up close, plumes of ash and smoke obscure the sun. Like a Burning Man ritual on a vast scale, this is a routine fact of life for the region's traditional Cajun and Afro-Creole communities, so it may come as no surprise that much of Caffery's work is imbued with a heightened sense of mystery and drama. Over the course of decades, her mythopoetic vision has encompassed not only those eerie cane country rituals, but also the lyrical and mysterious qualities of life as it is lived in places like rural Mexico and, more recently, the stark expanses of the rural Mississippi countryside. If the title, Southern Work, suggests particular places, the dreamy and otherworldly nature of her images evokes a more psychological realm where the ordinary boundaries between the heart, the psyche and the land sometimes seem to have dissolved.
Church Steeple and Cornfield, 2011
Junior, 2014
In Gerald's Truck, 1999, a white pickup roaring down a road reflects rays of sun breaking through a soot black sky as smoke belching from distant mills and burning cane fields turns day into night.  In Church Steeple and Cornfield, 2011, thunderheads gather over a horizontal landscape as a dislocated church steeple sits like an exclamation mark on a road flanked by cornfields. Far from the bustle of the city, things inexplicable and incidental can assume a portentous aura. Caffery's human subjects are no less mysterious. Junior, 2014, features a black man sitting stoically in the shadows like a carved ebony saint fringed with snow white hair. But her most symbolic figure may be Ventriloquist, 2013. Like a mythic trickster in a mirror, he reminds us that the world of appearances isn't always what it seems. ~Bookhardt / Southern Work: Photography by Debbie Fleming Caffery, Through May 23, Octavia Art Gallery, 454 Julia Street St., 309-4249.