Sunday, August 30, 2015

Schooler, Juran, Farrington & co. at Nola Art Center

Summer group shows are rarely very noteworthy, but this New Orleans Art Center expo is far from typical. This newest and biggest of St. Claude galleries is huge--over 6,000 square feet--and  reminiscent of the early Contemporary Arts Center. It also features some artists whose best works are rarely seen these days. I'd been to Jon Schooler's gallery-studio on Oak St. where his more serious work was mixed with stuff he'd painted for the tourist market, which made for a schizoid viewing experience. But gallery director Tina Juran has a good eye, and her selection of his idiosyncratic major works cast a spell that carries the space's cavernous confines. Self-taught, Schooler displays a deft touch for mixing liquid pigments into concoctions like exotic layered cocktails that he coaxes into psychedelic marbleized swirl patterns in works like Yellow Couch Nude Dog, or the compositionally similar but tonally different, Reclining Blue Nude (top)--works that not only convey the eccentric life of his subjects, but hint at shimmering, spinning molecules in much the way Vincent Van Gogh's landscapes seem to breathe with an electric life of their own. Even his architectural subjects like Maple Leaf Bar, left, exude a carnivalesque animism.

Similarly, Adam Farrington's sculptures almost amount to an informal "best of" selection that shows off his flair for whimsical mechanical concoctions that suggest exhibits from a museum of lost or forgotten inventions, objects that imply strange and curious detours from the history of technology. Conversely, Wally Warren dissects mainstream technology to create intricate miniature cityscapes (above) from computer parts deployed like Lego bricks in busy, map-like compositions. And Tina Juran's Wild Sunflowers painting, left, reads like a latter-day feminine reply to Van Gogh's visionary vistas. Throw in some intense, promising emerging artists like Darel Joseph--aka "Infinity"--and old timers like Ray Cole, and the result is a show that epitomizes this city's curious alchemical gumbo of continuity within change. ~Bookhardt / NOLA Proud: 10 Years Post-Katrina: Group Exhibition of Gallery Artists, Through Sept. 6; New Orleans Art Center, 3330 St. Claude Ave., 707-338-8478

Sunday, August 23, 2015

New Orleans Art 10 Years After Katrina

This city's resilience, and its determination in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, have attained legendary status over the past decade, and its art community is a case in point. For instance, no one before the storm ever dreamed it would be home to America's only large scale international art biennial, Prospect New Orleans, or that St. Claude Avenue would ever be known as much for art galleries as it was for dive bars. Or that the Joan Mitchell Center--the multi-million dollar visual arts complex that grew out of the New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation's efforts on behalf of  local artists after the storm--would take root here as the the Foundation's only satellite facility outside of New York City. Just as there are now more local restaurants than were before, there are also more artists and a bigger, more diverse and experimental art scene despite the city's somewhat smaller population. 
 But the changes may go deeper than the numbers suggest. There has long been a utopian yet rarely acknowledged undercurrent to life here in America's first multicultural city, and its transformation would not have been nearly as dramatic if not for the way ordinary folks, and artists alike, came to suddenly and forcefully understand that community is more than just hanging out with friends, and that creativity is more than just making something that looks cool. Those things are important, but Katrina taught us that a crisis can serve as a catalyst for the innovation needed to take things to the next level. One of the post-storm visitors who encouraged such transformational changes was the New York-based artist-activist Paul Chan. Known for his adaptation of Samuel Becket's play, Waiting For Godot, in the Lower 9th Ward, Chan also conducted community-oriented workshops that helped inspire the creation of co-op galleries like The Front. As Chan wrote in an essay in the art journal e-flux: "The emergence of The Front and other groups is a testament to the will of the people to self-organize against the wake of a disaster slowly turning into a societal tragedy already precipitated by political inertia, poverty, and racism. What matters here is not how directly these groups confront or try to bring about an end to the wrongs, though this is a vital concern. Rather, it is significant that they choose to risk interrupting the entropic drift of things by organizing against the current."

We have long had a "culture of celebration," but celebration can be mindless. Today this city is far more known for its creativity than it was in the past. Mayor Landrieu's speeches hint at utopian ideals with lines like, “We are not just rebuilding the city that we once were, but are creating the city that we always should have been.” In a recent New York Times article, former Time Magazine editor and native New Orleanian Walter Isaacson quoted novelist Walker Percy on how hurricanes sometimes temporarily alleviate the tedious "malaise" of everyday life. Ordinarily, life soon returns to normal, but Katrina was no ordinary hurricane. According to Isaacson, "It jolted New Orleans so brutally that even a decade after the waters receded, the malaise has not crept back. Instead... something better continues to keep people engaged and connected." And while New Orleans is still very much New Orleans, something really does seem different--perhaps because, as Isaacson put it, "there’s an edgy creativity that comes from the shared aftertaste of danger..."  +++

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Bowers at Barrister's; Levitsky at The Front

Most modern art galleries are tidy, well lighted spaces. Sometimes known as "white cubes," they show art in orderly arrangements that contrast with the messy processes that occur in the studios where they were made. But in the experimental galleries on St. Claude, where artists often hang their own shows, the lines between studio and gallery are sometimes blurred.    

 Susan Bowers' Modern Swamp expo at Barrister's lives up to its name. A kind of melange of clay sculpture, paintings and photographs, the show suggests assortments of colored clay and pigments that took on a life of their own in the swampy backwaters of the subconscious. Some gothic, Anti-Oedipus Heads oozing weird colored glazes from their eyes and accompanied by plates of food rendered in clay are especially spooky--as is Marie Antoinette and her Executioner, above, in which two severed heads appear in loopy, carnivalesque colors surrounded by, equally hallucinatory, ceramic slices of cake. The heads recall Belgian artist James Ensor's proto-expressionist mask paintings while the pastry dishes evoke Claes Oldenburg's oozy-woozy food sculptures, but the results are pure Bowers, an ultra-low key artist whose quietly intense labors over the years have been consistently startling and worthy of greater recognition.

 At The Front, Maria Levitsky's large black and white prints of architectural subjects are pristinely presented at the outset, but the next room can be disconcerting as similar subject matter appears in strategically cluttered arrangements that evoke the contents of an obsessive photographer's attic, or maybe afterimages stashed in the back of the brain. Most compositions are boldly abstract, sometimes featuring montages that highlight the underlying geometry of urban environments in ironical ways, but some are presented like oversize snapshots with serrated edges, or interspersed with boxes of old camera parts and other ephemera that highlight the nature of photographs as ongoing processes of perception rather than as static, or precious, objects. ~Bookhardt /  Lightfall/For Display Only: Photography by Maria Levitsky, Through Sept. 6, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980; Modern Swamp: Ceramic Sculpture, Paintings and Photography by Susan Bowers, Through Sept. 3, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Noted Architect Fred B. Bookhardt 1934 - 2015

What do you say in response to the passing of someone who not only disliked funerals, but also memorial services or even obituaries? In fact, there have been those among us who were so charismatic, who made such lasting impressions on all they met and whose departure leaves such a void that their passing cannot go unremarked upon because, despite their own "gentle journey into the good night," it is the rest of us who are left to "rage against the dying of the light."  

What can you say about one so paradoxical, so mentally ambidextrous that he was equally talented at visual art, math and design as well as the spoken word through his sharp wit and gifts as a raconteur. An artist by instinct, Fred Barringer Bookhardt began drawing and painting as a child and by his late teens was creating convincing knock-offs of Degas and Picasso pastels. He could have made a mint as an art forger, but studied architecture, first at Tulane in his native New Orleans and then at U. of  Pennsylvania under the great 20th century maestro, Louis Kahn, whose words and maxims seemed to guide his life as much for their intrinsic philosophical merit as for their professional verities. But it was the philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell who perhaps inspired him the most, as much for his rhetorical analytical ability to cut to the quick as for his robust contributions to mathematics, physics and symbolic logic. He appreciated Russell's skill at crafting logical sequences of words into something akin to Zen riddles, and while never religious in the formal sense, he had an intuitive understanding of the infinite ether that lies just beyond every syllogism taken to its logical conclusion, even as he continued to pursue his art work in the form of collages that distilled visual poetry from the banalities and mysteries of the world around us. He was utterly fearless in his final hours, as if he saw the vast, expansive cosmos as a serene homeland with which he would soon be reunited. He was one of a kind, and this bountiful blue, green and umber planet seems less vibrant with his passing.

As an architect, his clients ranged from Henry Mancini and certain members of the Kennedy clan to Anwar Sadat and the government of Egypt, and while he managed to create surprisingly stylish structures for such stolid clients as the New Haven courts, he was best known for his design of the American Museum of Natural History's Hall of Minerals and Gems (above), which proved that intricately detailed, high-style design can be a crowd pleaser for visitors of all ages.  More: Finding the Essence: An Interview with Fred Bookhardt by Amy Mackie (Pelican Bomb).

Shopoff at Ferrara; Bruvel, Chauvin & Wilkes at Octavia

The new art season always officially started with "Art for Art's Sake" in the first week of October, but that official seasonal rebirth has long been eclipsed by the August anomaly known as "White Linen Night" which, like so many iconic events, inspires speculation. Viewing art shows at such times can be like searching tea leaves for omens, and this year the portentous signs assume angular configurations. In Marna Shopoff's paintings and drawings at Ferrara, the inherently mysterious interaction of light and space creates an architectural quality that is inviting yet elusive, as if living spaces had appeared within mirages of colliding rays of refracted light that Shopoff had flash frozen. Like latter day deco mashups that meld vintage modernism and nano-technology, some usher us into existential antechambers from which there is no obvious escape, while others--like her three panel 5 by 9 foot painting, Layered, top-- suggest rhapsodic futurist constructions composed entirely of laser light. Shopoff says growing up behind her parents' drive-in restaurant may have affected her, but her best works are lucid explorations of how certain shapes, colors and spaces affect our perceptions of place.

Urbane geometry is the order of the day at Octavia where Leslie Wilkes' geometric paintings evoke a kind of kaleidoscopic sensibility employing opaquely vibrant colors reminiscent of jade, amethyst, sandstone, and the like. If their aura is urbane, with hints of Kandinsky filtered through the formal neo- Platonism of the Bauhaus, their tonalities hark to the turquoise and amethyst and primordial mesas of the desert Southwest, not far from Wilkes' studio in Marfa, Texas. The curving, serpentine ligaments that comprise Gil Bruvel's
sculptures reflect a uniquely French extension of surrealism that appeals to the popular imagination, while Stephen Chauvin's pristine geometric chairs and domestic items appear to provide the ideal furnishings for the colorfully ethereal castles of light that Wilkes's and Shopoff's paintings imply. ~Bookhardt / Usual Places, Unusual Spaces: Abstract Paintings and Drawings by Marna Shopoff, through Aug. 29, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471; Symmetric Equivalence: New Work by Gil Bruvel, Stephen Chauvin and Leslie Wilkes, Through Aug. 29,Octavia Art Gallery, 454 Julia Street St., 309-4249 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Melinda Rose: Photographs of Isle de Jean Charles

"They are trying to wash us away..." was the most haunting refrain in Randy Newman's mid-1970s, Louisiana-centric album, Good Old Boys, a lyric made all the more haunting by the hurricanes and floods of recent decades. Nowhere has the saga of the wholesale collapse of Louisiana's coast been more dramatic than in the tiny Chitimacha Indian community of Isle de Jean Charles on the lacy coastal fringes of Terrebonne Parish. Once a cozy fishing village on ground high enough to raise crops or graze cattle, it has all but vanished as ever expanding networks of oil company canals became pathways for salt water to kill the trees and grasses that kept the land from washing away. In old WPA photographs, its inhabitants lived in ground level huts with palmetto-thatch roofs under shady, moss draped trees, but in these photographs made by Melinda Rose between 2005 and 2015, wooden camps on pilings appear amid the ruins of storm-ravaged former homes as skeletal as the dead trees that dot the landscape. For Rose, the tone is set by the young and the elderly in this starkest, most watery setting imaginable.

In Song 'n Dance Girl, top, a grinning, pixie-like ingénue stands on a pier leading to a cabin on a desolate expanse that bears little resemblance to the lush, tree shaded grasslands depicted in old photos, and only the timeless joys of childhood relieve the storm and salt-scoured landscape. The role of the elderly in perpetuating cultural memory is seen in Lil Tune for the Wife as a courtly gent strums a song on his guitar for his approving spouse. Jordan, the Road Home, is a head shot of a striking young woman framed by a long, thin road with expanses of water lapping at both sides, while From Island Road: Approaching Storm, is a minimalist view of a broad horizon darkened by looming turbulence roiling in the Gulf, a reminder of our sinking coast's fateful, and mostly man-made, vulnerabilities. ~Bookhardt / Of the Rising Tide: A Photo Essay on Isle de Jean Charles by Melinda Rose, Through September, Scott Edwards Gallery, 2109 Decatur St., 610-0581.