Sunday, December 25, 2016

New Orleans Art: The Year in Review

There is a line in the great 1932 Greta Garbo movie, Grand Hotel, when a jaded habitué off-handedly says, “People come, people go, nothing ever happens here.” The irony of his remark is soon obvious as dramatic events, long bubbling below the surface, unfold on the silver screen. For the New Orleans art scene, 2016 was that kind of year, a time when it was easy to take everything for granted, at least until some big anniversaries caused us to look back and see how far things have come.

The Contemporary Arts Center's 40th anniversary is an amazing milestone. Now in the midst of its most significant renovation since the 1980s, including the expansion of its ground floor exhibition spaces, the CAC under the leadership of Neil Barclay has the feel on an institution coming more fully into its own. Not only is it among the oldest American alternative arts centers, it is also one of the few housed in its own building. Forty years is such a long time that many people have no recollection of how the CAC came about. It originated with an art show organized by Robert Tannen and James Lalande in an old church—a multi-media expo that inspired interest in the idea of an experimental art space with a permanent location. Tannen and journalist Jeanne Nathan staged a series of meetings with assistance from Clifton Webb, Jeanette Hardy and Emery Clark. Ultimately, it was gallerist Luba Glade who enlisted Sidney Besthoff, the K&B drugstore mogul, to make available the old warehouse building that still houses the CAC today. Although dozens of us met and discussed the idea, it was primrily those four individuals--Tannen, Nathan, Luba Glade and Sidney Besthoff--who actually made it happen, and set the stage for much of what has happened since. Of late, certain parties who played no  formative role in its inception have bizarrely claimed to be "founders," but at this point it is especially important to give credit where credit is due and distinguish between actual "founders" and interested bystanders. After over 40 years, the history of the CAC is more important than ever because it was a crucible of experimentation that presaged collaborative approaches now more associated with the St. Claude Arts District. This year, CAC curator Andrea Andersson's ultra-eclectic, Gordon Matta-Clark inspired Anarchitecture show paid tribute to that pioneering collaborative spirit with works like Jebney Lewis, Rick Snow and Christopher Staudinger's large metal sound map depicting New Orleans as a vast resonator, top.  
Among other significant anniversaries, the Stella Jones Gallery--New Orleans  premier African-American art gallery—which turned 20 this year, deserves special commendation. Featuring the most historic names in black American and Caribbean art, it has long doubled as a low profile educational facility as much as a gallery and incubator of local talent, and for this we are indebted to Dr. Jones' longstanding and seemingly indefatigable dedication.

But the biggest anniversary might be what I think of as the “Recovery Arts District,” which refers not to any official district but to the activist post-Katrina art transformation that began in 2006, most famously in the St. Claude area, but which now covers much of the city. The New Orleans Photo Alliance began that year as an attempt to preserve the local photography community but now has its own gallery space and produces an important national event, PhotoNOLA, with some 60 gallery and museum exhibitions spread all over town. The St. Claude Arts District began when Jeffrey Holmes installed some pointed ad hoc assemblages on the median outside his flooded gallery, and Kirsha Kaechele staged pioneering exhibitions in her St. Roch former bakery, but now features numerous co-op and collaborative art spaces and more events than anyone can possibly follow. That ad hoc "just do it" spirit also animates Michael Manjarris' Sculpture for New Orleans project featuring a wide array of work by major  regional and world artists like Jim Surls, above left, in prominent locations about town. European curators like the Rotterdam-based Delta Workers group have also made significant, if low key, contributions to the cultural life of the city. But when it comes to low key activists who have had a significant impact, the Joan Mitchell Center, above, under the direction of Gia Hamilton has subtly yet profoundly influenced this city's increasingly diverse and inclusive visual arts culture. It is all part of a citywide arts expansionist trend that is evident even in historically  underserved neighborhoods like Central City, where O.C. Haley Blvd. now features exciting new developments like Pelican Bomb's Gallery X and the Creative Alliance of New Orleans' Myrtle Banks gallery as community based art expands into a pervasive if not omnipresent citywide phenomenon. ~Bookhardt

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Thorne at the International House; Uttermohlen at the Second Story Gallery

Every December for the past four years, the International House has staged has staged a photo exhibit, Magdalena, inspired by the Biblical figure, Mary Magdalene. Her role as the most controversial Biblical saint underscored her stature as an icon of female mysticism, while the mystery surrounding her life afforded artists no end of poetic license in their depictions. The approach taken by Canadian photographer Stephen Thorne this year — somewhere between National Geographic and an anthropological Vogue fashion shoot — seems restrained compared to earlier Magdalena shows.  Focusing on the varieties of female charisma, his images range from the lush Sub-Saharan beauty of Muna, Ethiopia, top, to the gravitas of an Afghan War Widow age 33, whose gauntly chiseled features evoke stoic dignity in the face of unspeakable tragedy. It was, in fact, Thorne's own PTSD from his photojournalism that led him to explore the resilience of feminine charisma in war-torn corners of the world, in views of irrepressible children, svelte young women and aging matriarchs that unexpectedly return us to Magdalena as an icon of the eternal mysteries of human existence.

Revered by the Gnostic Christians as a saint who could directly induce divine experience, Mary Magdalene's legacy suffered from the Inquisition's witch hunts, and from church protocols banning female priests. But in New Orleans, self-professed Christians like Marie Laveau became priestesses of the Afro-Caribbean Catholicism known as Vodou. Mary Lou Uttermohlen's photos of La Source Ancienne Onfou, a contemporary Nola vodou society led by Sallie Ann Glassman, are eloquent documentary views of its ritual invocations of the ancestors, including a pantheon of vodou spirits that are closely associated with, and symbolized by, traditional Christian saints. Here images like St. John's Eve among other photos of vodou ceremonies, altars and regalia remind us that Magdalena's repressed, but resilient, legacy of feminine mysticism remains multifaceted and timeless. Magdalena: Photographs by Stephen Thorne, Through Jan. 5, International House Hotel, 221 Camp St. 553-9550; Spiritual Yaya: Vodou: Photographs by Mary Lou Uttermohlen, Through Jan. 7, Second Story Co-Op Gallery, 2372 St Claude Ave, 710-4506.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Antenna at Foundation; Johnson at Gallery X

Sometimes the most telling things are hiding in plain sight. One of the literally watershed moments in local history was the way diverse communities came together to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Artists were no exception, and a decade later that collaborative spirit is as strong as ever. The nonprofit Foundation Gallery devotes 25% of its proceeds to other community oriented nonprofits, so sales from its current show help support the nonprofit Antenna Gallery which, in turn, is now sponsoring Blights Out, an anti-blight arts nonprofit, via its Antenna Incubator program, in a striking example of collaboration taken to the next level. On the walls, St. Claude community art pioneer Meg Turner uses vintage 19th century techniques to portray this city's edgy alternative lifestyle milieu, and Zibby, above left, suggests a retro-futurist Carmen Miranda in a post-apocalyptic burlesque act. But Courtney Brooke Hall's Still Life, right, flips the script using digital magic to evoke a gorgeously gothic Dutch renaissance “vanitas” tableau replete with flowers, fruit and a sleekly stylish severed female head. If the show itself sometimes seems hyper-eclectic, the organizations behind it are cohesively focused on building a better and fairer city.

The Pelican Bomb nonprofit web site operates out of a rugged storefront on O. C. Haley Blvd. that also houses its exhibition space, Gallery X. Its current offerings by Erin Johnson include a haunting sound collage of interwoven British and Arabic sea songs digitally modulated by ever changing real time wave action in Chandeleur Sound in the Gulf of Mexico. Her Providence Canyon video provides an in-depth look at the complicated human story behind a Georgia canyon created by decades of cotton farming-induced erosion, while another video, Hole, explores Minnesota ice fishing as an allegory for how humans affect, and are affected by, the places we inhabit. The protean currents of Johnson's work assume a more psychological aspect in Parts of Your Body Are Scattered in Water All Over the Earth (video still, above) wherein Johnson "speaks on the phone with a former student as he walks along the floor of Providence Canyon, relaying his observations about the movement of soil across park boundaries by water..." The video takes its name from a passage in Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water, and although Johnson never physically returned to Providence Canyon she, in this video, addresses "the desire for shared experiences" as well as "the malleability of queer identity." Johnson's multimedia works are evocative ruminations on how nature and culture continue to remain inextricably interwoven. ~Bookhardt / Photos from the Flat File: A benefit for Antenna, Through Dec. 30, Foundation Gallery, 1109 Royal St., 568-0955; Of Moving and Being Moved: Video and Sound Works by Erin Johnson, Through Dec. 18, Gallery X, 1612 O.C. Haley Blvd., 252-0136.  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Beauty and Strangeness at the Ogden

The title of this new exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art sounded like overkill from the start. Profligate Beauty conjures up rapturous visions redolent of ad agency hype, fever dreams of glittering Swarovski crystals or grand ballrooms bursting with bejeweled Faberge eggs. Fortunately, this expo sprawling across the museum's third floor is mostly a quirky sampler of largely 20th century local and regional works that evoke Francis Bacon's great quote: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” A more accurately evocative title might have alluded to the sublime and tropical, yet often rather gothic, aspects of the works on view. 
Certainly Mamou, Louisiana, native Keith Sonnier's neon and glass Split Dyad, left, is sleekly and luminously sublime, but its seductive, sci-fi allure is really quite otherworldly. New Orleans artist Jacqueline Bishop's fantastical painting, From the Vine to the Vein, below left, portrays a humanoid, bird-headed tree standing defiantly in under a red sky like a specter from tribal mythology. Inspired by the widespread burning of the Amazon rainforest in the 1990s, it presaged the global warming-induced wildfires devouring much of America today. That sense of nature spirits living below the surface of our techno and money-obsessed modern world is seen in the late Shreveport savant Clyde Connell's richly mythic red clay, acrylic and graphite pictograph, Creatures from the Hot and Humid Earth, which melds ancient sensibilities with neo-expressionism.

Avery Island native Robert Gordy facilitated a merger between neo-deco and expressionism in his towering Untitled Male Head, top, an extraordinary sort of mixed-media primal scream that suggests a painterly premonition of our recent presidential election. There are also intriguing works by many less known Texas and Southeastern regional artists, but the one that perhaps best reflects the paradoxical evolution of latter day Dixie would have to be Alabama-born Clyde Broadway's colorful, gold framed acrylic painting of the modern Southern trinity: Elvis, Jesus and Robert E. Lee. ~Bookhardt / Profligate Beauty: Selections from the Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Through Sept. 30, 2017, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.