Graffiti is one of those inescapable facets of urban life that can be either annoying or inspiring. New York in the 1970s was a classic example of that syndrome as graffiti-slathered subway cars seemed to signify a great city's descent into decrepitude and blight — but that same milieu launched the careers of epochal artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat back when graffiti was a visual analog of the hip-hop and punk music of the era. Today Haring and Basquiat are dead and glitz has replaced grime in Manhattan even as graffiti lives on around the world as a democratizing force that sometimes lives up to its potential. Locally, Brandan Odums' vast aerosol spectacles covering blighted housing complexes and huge warehouses were compelling evocations of black history painted with a narrative sense that bordered on the Biblical, but most graffiti here as elsewhere is more enigmatic, like so many aggressively cryptic squiggles glimpsed briefly in passing.
This Top Mob show is a mostly local mash-up that amounts to an art historical survey of graffiti taggers dating back to the 1980s. Perhaps fittingly, it is exhibited in the Ogden's tunnel-like ground level annex, lending it an “underground” aura as physical as it is metaphorical. Here large numbers of small documentary photographs mingle with a series of street art paintings in elaborate baroque frames including some by familiar names like Lionel Milton, a conjurer of stylized back street romanticism who was originally known for lyrically edgy graffiti signed “ELLEONE” (top left). Some have reacted to the befuddling complexity of 21st century life by becoming agents of one-word branding--for instance “HARSH” is both this local artist's message and his signature, while “READ” appeared out of nowhere in 2006 with monosyllabic exhortations that turned up everywhere ever since. Works that elaborate the idiom's painterly potential include Go Fast, an aerosol pop expressionist canvas by Atlanta's “Dr. DAX,” above left, and King Cake and Sex, top, Los Angeles maestro Kelley “RISK” Graval's lush aerosol evocation of local sensuality. Top Mob: New Orleans Graffiti Collective Top Mob Retrospective, Through Nov. 6, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.
Global cities have always been places where old cultures and ethnicities collide and synthesize into new hybrid communities. The often complicated processes of adjustment are epitomized in California, home to America's largest Asian population. In this Koko's Love expo, above, Los Angeles artist Yoshie Sakai provides a colorful look at the unexpected results of encounters between Asian traditions and Western pop culture in an immersive setting that resembles an old time low-budget TV game show set. In melodramatic snippets inspired by Korean and Asian-American soap operas shown on monitors and projection screens in gaudy alcoves throughout the gallery, Sakai plays each character in a Japanese-American family, whose patriarch is a Los Angeles liquor store owner who insists on having a male heir for his business even though he only has one child: his daughter. Sakai's pointedly melodramatic and kitschy narrative sequences amount to an anarchic tale of assimilation in a mass media universe where sushi coexists with Wonder Bread, and like any visit to a large multi-ethnic city, the competing narratives and psychodramatic babble can seem overwhelming. Sakai says she uses “soap opera tropes to challenge the myth of the 'model minority' and to reveal complexities that underlie the guise of superficial “perfection” of being both Asian-American and a woman.”
The installations at The Front are arguably more conventional — at least, if your idea of conventional includes being stared at by the officious owl in Stephen Rooney's lyrical swampscapes, or confronting Claire Rau's wall of sculpted chicken parts, or Madeleine Wieand's dreamlike graphical excursions through the architecture of memory. But Vanessa Centeno's wall sculptures take us to an abstract wilderness of neon-hued consumer culture reduced to Freudian recesses and protrusions that taunt the viewer like visceral digital click bait: seemingly lurid secrets that intrigue yet are never revealed. ~Bookhardt / Koko's Love: A Soap Opera Tale of One Family multimedia exhibition by Yoshie Sakai, Through Aug. 7, Antenna Gallery, 3718 Saint Claude Ave., 250-7975; Summer Crush: New Work by Vanessa Centeno, Stephen Rooney, Claire Rau and Madeleine Wieand, Through Aug. 7, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980.
This month's Second Saturday scene on St. Claude had everything from insouciance to gravitas, and on that deliriously hot and steamy evening the sight of a nude lady nonchalantly mingling with the crowd at the New Orleans Art Center initially seemed more pragmatic than provocative. But she was actually a burlesque dancer from a just-concluded performance, an event topped off with an impromptu German opera aria sung by tenor Joseph Fedor, which complemented the diverse, yet cohesively buoyant, and mostly affordable work on the walls. Bob Dylan once said that in New Orleans you could “almost see other dimensions,” and Ann Hornback's dreamy paintings of women interacting with—or morphing into—oddly undulating beasts seemed to bear that out, as did Brad Dupuy's interwoven baroque nudes Britney Penouilh's deft juxtapositions of human female and crystalline mineral forms and Sergio Alferez's painterly explorations of fantastical visionary ecosystems.
Meanwhile at Good Children, the Y'all Don't Want to Hear Us, You Just Want to Dance performance might have easily been mistaken for the hopping scene that it mostly was, as slinky dance moves fueled by DJ Sissy Elliot's steady stream of pulsating beats held sway. But at 10 pm sharp the music suddenly went dead, replaced by flashing blue police lights and a deafening silence as a procession of 27 ghostly, umbrella-wielding figures filed solemnly through and out of the gallery in memory of the 24 unarmed black men killed by police so far this year. Currently 79 umbrellas occupy the gallery floor and ceiling, top, in memory of the 79 unarmed black men killed by police in 2015. Organized by Kevin Brisco in collaboration with Marta Maleck and Ashley Teamer, the performance and installation poetically underscored the week's deadly events, leaving the question of how we came to this point hanging wordlessly in the air. ~Bookhardt / Y'all Don't Want to Hear Us, You Just Want to Dance, Through July, Good Children Gallery, 4037 St. Claude Ave., 616-7427; Of Myth, Fun & Folly: Group Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture and Mixed Media Works, Through July, New Orleans Art Center, 3330 St. Claude Ave., 707-779-9317.
Good old modernism. For much of the 20th century people debated whether stark, geometric modernist designs were sleek or severe, but now styles from the Mad Men era can seem nostalgic, even timeless, as classical modernism attains eternal life in contemporary furnishings by Ikea or Herman Miller. Arising from origins as varied as the mystical geometry of Piet Mondrian's paintings and the industrial utopianism of the German Bauhaus designers, 20th century modernism was based on the idea that form should follow function and everything should be reduced to its essence. At its best, that philosophy gave us the elegant simplicity that characterizes most of the work in this The Essence of Things exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Organized by Basel, Germany's Vitra Design Museum, the exhibition is a mixture of the familiar and the exotic. Some designs like an art deco aluminum espresso maker designed by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, or steel and fiberglass stackable chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1954, are so familiar we don't even notice them anymore. But a 1926 table lamp by Seybold van Ravestein, above left, is so minimally retro that it looks almost steam punk, and a scale model of one of a rare 1940s Eames brothers modular house suggests a vintage abstract Mondrian composition expanded into 3-D. Among the more exotic items is a clear acrylic chair by Noato Fukasawa, top left, amid some more conventional designs including a clear polycarbonate chair by Philippe Starck, all of which elaborate on the see-through furniture motifs of the 1970s. Behind them is an assortment of posters ranging from an elegant composition by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to a playful pictograph of the IBM logo, and even a stark red clenched fist, all reflecting the efficient minimalism of modernist poster design. But the most curious item in the show would have to be Andrea Zittel's Escape Vehicle, an inhabitable metal packing case for people who need a sleek human cocoon where they can curl up and escape the manic madness of modern times. ~Bookhardt / The Essence of Things: 100 years of Modern Design, Through Sept. 11, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.
These days New Orleans' shared history with Haiti is much better known than its Spanish Caribbean heritage, so it may come as a surprise that when Louisiana was a Spanish colony we were governed by officials in Havana, Cuba, not Spain. That Hispanic island history came to mind when viewing Antonio Carreño’s abstract paintings at Stella Jones. A native of the Dominican Republic, Haiti's Hispanic neighbor, Carreño infuses his work with something of their shared island's mystical aura, as seen in Senses, top left. Here cryptic markings reminiscent of voodoo and other religious symbols punctuate crimson blood and hibiscus swatches radiating out from verdant green glades and deep azure pools amid a misty veil of atmospheric slate and gold in a composition that recalls both tropical nature and the turbulent history of the Caribbean. Amid the somewhat more subdued hues of works like Endless Night, left, are related motifs that not only evoke indigenous mysticism but also the Afro-Caribbean rhythms that define our musical heritage from Louis Moreau Gottschalk to Mardi Gras Indians and Allen Toussaint.
Also on view is a selection of works by New Orleans native and pioneer abstract expressionist Ed Clark, who along with Norman Lewis came to symbolize black America's contribution to an idiom viewed by many as a kind of visual version of modern jazz. These among other iconic works are part of the lead-up to the Stella Jones Gallery's 20th Anniversary show in August featuring classic paintings and sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Richard Dempsey as well as some of the younger artists they inspired. Twenty years is a stellar art world milestone by any measure!
Speaking of milestones and visual jazz, after years if semi-nomadic existence, the internationally celebrated Music Box Village of musical shanties now has a permanent Bywater home. A production of the non-profit NGO, New Orleans Airlift, the Music Box project still relies on Kickstarter campaigns for its funding, but its new permanent address will finally provide it with a foundation to build on. ~Bookhardt / Raw: Mixed-media Paintings by Antonio Carreño, Through July 31, Stella Jones Gallery, 201 St. Charles Ave., Suite 132, 568-9050.
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