Sunday, May 21, 2017

Jim Sohr at New Orleans Art Center; Sean Starwars at Barrister's Gallery

One of the more enduring art world myths is that right wing presidents provoke a backlash of creative bohemianism. Dubious at best, it is doubly dicey if the president is weirder than than Salvador Dali and more nihilistic than the Dadaists. On the other hand, American gothic weirdness has long lurked in small towns like Waukesha, Wisconsin, from which a young misfit named Jim Sohr fled to Nola in the 1960s. Legal indiscretions landed him in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, where he took up art and became the visionary he is today. Some of his older works seen here reveal how only a modern Hieronymus Bosch from Green Bay Packers cheese-head country could have anticipated the madness we now face. Reflecting an aesthetic shaped more by Wurlitzer jukeboxes than Picasso, Plugs, top, previews a retro-futurist America where electronic aliens inhabit massive warehouses in a painting that predated and internet conspiracies about UFOs and the New World Order. In Birds and Ladies, lonely blonds with haunted eyes populate a scene that presaged white Middle American alienation. It's a sensibility that contrasts sharply with many residents' atavistic view of the upper Midwest as the kind of mythic Nordic Valhalla seen in Sohr's painting, Bathers, above left, and a far cry from 3 Greens, a scene in which pointy-eared space aliens have taken over grandma's bedroom, or Eep Snorp, below, which anticipated the tendency of digital technology to conflate everything including hearts and porn, insects and electrons, into a swirling vortex of out of control computer code. Once thought impossibly otherworldly, Sohr's visionary views have become increasingly, if disturbingly, familiar over time.

Laurel, Mississippi, artist laureate Sean Starwars' elaborate woodcut prints hark to the sensationalist sensibilities that, along with guns and Bibles, define much of the Middle American mindset. Now that all of the above have come raging to the forefront of the news cycle, his even more boldly lurid new prints like Robot, left, a demonic automaton from hell, seem more relevant than ever. His Single Mothers print with wolf-men ogling flirtatious rabbit-women is a sign of the times, while Toilet Devil captures Bible Belt America's freak show soul in psychedelic Mexican colors that are perfect for a period when anti-Hispanic politicians seem intent on turning America into a banana republic. ~Bookhardt /  The Artist's Muse: Jim Sohr Retrospective and Group Exhibition, Through June 3, New Orleans Art Center, 3330 St. Claude Ave. (707) 779-9317; Monstruos Diabolicos: Woodcut prints by Sean Starwars, Through June 3, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506.  

Lee, Davis, Beauregard: Now That They Are Down, Let's Remember Why...

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Another Show" at Boyd Satellite; "A State of Natural Abstraction:" Shawn Hall at Cole Pratt

The title could have said it all. Gallery group expos can showcase several artists at once, but most become just "another show," where they stand out as much as people in an elevator. But sometimes things click like a lively visual conversation as each piece brings out the best in the others. In this show, David Eddington's surreal Constructivist painting features some oversize, disembodied bones towering like obelisks in a hazy landscape that unexpectedly resonates with Pinkney Herbert's abstract Lines, above,  where darkly cryptic markings on a sand-toned expanse suggest an ancient Mesopotamian attempt at modernism. Likewise, a vibrant graffiti-esque wall mural by Wendo complements some meticulous Blake Boyd paintings, below,  that weave graffiti and pop themes into eloquent monuments to urban ephemera. Mass production, zombie robotics and industrial madness set the tone in works by Deborah Pelias, Trey Speegle and, especially, Iva Gueorguieva, whose complex abstraction, Machine Vision, functions as a postscript to her big, two person show with Regina Scully down the street at Octavia Gallery. In art as in life, context is not only important, it is what gives meaning to just about everything.

Shawn Hall's A State of Natural Abstraction expo lives up to its name in these latest of her ongoing techno-baroque explorations of the elemental world around us. Bigger and bolder than much of her past work, paintings like Pink Head in the Cumulus, left – a crimson, mauve and azure phantasm of clouds and sunspots swirling in a pastel sky – suggest whimsical natural forces at work in the cosmos. But Coy Nematode returns us to ground zero with an elegant take on those tiny worms who seem to be biding their time, awaiting the day when they inherit the earth after we render it unsuitable for human habitation. In Hall's view, Ma Nature – and her elegant sense of humor – inevitably win out in the end. ~Bookhardt / Another Show: Group Exhibition of Paintings and Mixed Media Works, Through June 29, Boyd Satellite Gallery, 440 Julia St., 899-4218; ; A State of Natural Abstraction: Paintings by Shawn Hall, Through May 27, Cole Pratt Gallery, 3800 Magazine St., 891-6789.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary art from Puerto Rico at the Newcomb Art Museum

Despite its huge influence on popular music, the Caribbean can seem rather removed from the mainstream art world. A few Cuban and Haitian artists have of course been very influential, but the communities that comprise the Caribbean mostly small and distant from the culture capitals. If this exhibition of work by five Puerto Rican artists (timed for the 100th anniversary of Puerto Rican-U.S. citizenship) seems reminiscent of much modernist art, a closer look reveals its Caribbean flavor. For instance, Zilia Sanchez's shaped canvas sculptures are minimal by any measure, but instead of the industrial minimalism for which American sculptors like Donald Judd are known, Sanchez's far more organic Amazonas, left (detail), mostly suggests thorns, while wryly hinting at those pointy conical bras that can still be seen in old 1950s movies.

Another minimalist, Julio Suarez, does recall Judd in a charcoal-hued canvas square composed of smaller gray rectangles -- the only truly austere minimalist piece in the show. More typical is Suarez's, OO (Infinito), two bouncy bright green canvas circles that seem to primly bump against each other like tentatively lascivious dancers at a Latin jazz club. But nothing is minimal or prim about Elsa Maria Melendez's mixed media light box Haber Sido Mas Perra ("If I had been More of a Bitch"),  above -- a lurid magenta phantasmagoria of wild dogs and wild women like a fever dream from the Caribbean unconscious – a classic example of her boisterous mixed media figures that seem to densely populate the gallery like a flash mob. But Arnoldo Roche Rabell's colorful paintings, while no less passionate, exist in a more hermetic psychic space that attains lyrical fluidity in tableaux like Isla Vacia, below, where the the intrusion of a ghostly cow skull amid overturned place settings suggest a brunch suddenly upset by poltergeists. Pedro Velez -- and a selection of activist artworks curated by Newcomb students in Puerto Rico earlier this year -- rather dreamily explore the visual ramifications of community and the social realm. In the Caribbean, as in Nola, the subconscious reigns supreme, and their best artists are the ones who utilize that precious gift to the fullest. ~Bookhardt

Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary art from Puerto Rico, Through July 9, Newcomb Art Museum, Tulane University, 865-5328.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Inner Journeys: Regina Scully and Edo Period Japanese Paintings at NOMA

Where does art come from? Art schools teach techniques, theories, trends and history, but most  artworks that survive over the ages have something intriguingly mysterious, or ineffable, about them that can't be taught in school. Such art transcends time and space: where did the Mona Lisa's elusively beatific smirk come from, and why does it affect us? Closer to home, there has always been something inexplicably Japanese about Regina Scully's lyrical yet mysterious abstract paintings, yet the University of New Orleans graduate never studied Japanese art and has no explanation for their oddly Asian tone. The recent acquisition of several of her canvases by the New Orleans Museum of Art inspired further interest in the parallels between her work and NOMA's stellar collection of 18th and 19th century Japanese paintings and drawings – parallels strong enough to inspire this unusual side-by-side expo.
Traditional Western art tried to be descriptive and was only incidentally ineffable. Traditional Japanese artists tried to convey the ineffable forces of nature, but often ended up being merely descriptive. Scully only began studying Japanese art last year, but the dreamy, calligraphic, floating qualities that even her older canvases share with these Edo period works is seen in paintings like Passage, 2012 (detail, top) with its floating, rhapsodic hints of aerial views of cities at the mercy of elemental forces.

Cosmographia, 2015, suggests forests, mountains, water spouts, flowers and clouds seemingly dancing across the canvas, in contrast to the dense clustering seen in Navigation, 2010 (detail, left), where crowded city streets seem to have become animated as if by an earthquake, or maybe something supernatural. In Mindscape 5, 2017, top left, colorful natural and man-made forms appear to levitate in a swirling vortex, yet as violent as a verbal description of that might sound, its visual effect is surprisingly buoyant -- not as serenely lyrical as Uragami Gyokudo's Drunken Landscape, right, but in that general direction. Both artists evoke the sublime and ineffable, but Scully resonates a more jazzy backbeat. ~Bookhardt / Inner Journeys: Regina Scully and Edo-period Japanese Paintings, Through Oct. 9, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Ruth Owens and Max Seckel at Barrister's

Families can be wonderful, but they are also mysterious. Complex truths often unfold slowly, especially where children are concerned. New Orleans plastic surgeon and artist Ruth Owens was born to a young German woman and a black American GI in Augsburg, Germany in 1959, and her new paintings were inspired by old childhood memories and photographs. Rendered in loosely fraught expressionistic brushstrokes, most evoke her  warm and supportive home life, yet ironic contrasts abound. In Eva and Skip, Augsburg, 1958, left, her parents out on a date, and while quite touching, it crackles with the 20th century psychic intensity of German movies directed by maestros like Josef von Sternberg and, especially, Rainer Fassbinder. In Eva, Ruth and Bubi, Augsburg, 1964, a confident blondish woman is walking a black dog with her cute, bronze-tone daughters — an ordinary scene rife with complexly resonant nuances. In Sarah, Fasching, 1980, a tawny little girl wearing a crown and a long white gown appears with two German-looking kids in a Bavarian carnival pageant, a scene as dreamlike as a fairy tale. Eva reappears with a pale, spindly hound, as a ghostly sculpture, The White Specter, Owens' most direct reference to race as a haunting, pervasive presence, a deeply human paradox that even the most accomplished must navigate.

Landscapes can seem like inert expanses, but our impressions of them are deeply personal, shaped by our unique life experiences. Max Seckel's paintings are buoyantly dystopian, like cross-sections of Nola's collective unconscious crammed with lost carnival beads, flood and hurricane chaos, litter left over from mournfully joyous jazz funerals, religious processions and frenzied street dancing rendered in colorfully cluttered compositions that reflect the scatterbrained joys and sorrows of human history so obliquely you have to look twice. Seckel's images, like Dana DeNoux's and Karie Cooper's colorfully dreamy canvases at the nearby UNO St. Claude Gallery, explore the secret life of landscapes to reveal  how subjectively personal our relationship with our environment really is. ~Bookhardt / Conspiracies: Paintings and Mixed Media Works by Ruth Owens; Surrounding Circumstances: Paintings and Drawings works by Max Seckel, Through May 6, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506.

Breaking: Lynda Benglis Receives International Sculpture Center's Lifetime Achievement Award








Read the Sculpture Magazine Cover Story:

Over the course of her long career, Lynda Benglis has defied easy categorization. From her earliest days in New York, where she moved after graduating from Newcomb College in New Orleans in 1964, her buoyantly outspoken personality and boundless curiosity made her a familiar figure in Manhattan’s transformative 1960s art scene. Her early circle of friends included Barnett and Annalee Newman, Carl Andre, Gordon Hart, Joan Mitchell, Eva Hesse, and Dan Flavin, as well as her occasional informal collaborator, Robert Morris, whom she met during a stint on the Hunter College faculty. Now, at 75 years old, she remains enthusiastic about the art and artists she first encountered during that rapidly evolving era, when the long reign of Abstract Expressionism finally yielded to Pop, Op, and Process art, colorfield painting, Minimalism, and Post-Minimalism. Yet, even though her life and work sometimes seem to reflect a dizzyingly eclectic array of associations, her elementally intuitive, process based approach has remained remarkably consistent. More >> 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

States of Incarceration at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art; Mutual Support at Gallery X

The ground level annex of the Ogden Museum for Southern art suggests either wide tunnel or a narrow basement. Its rugged, subway station aura works well for gritty subjects, and few subjects are grittier than prisons. States of Incarceration was produced by the Humanities Action Lab consortium of 20 universities, including the University of New Orleans’s Midlo Center. America jails more people than any nation, and Louisiana jails more than any state. This exhibition illustrates how colonialism, slavery, and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans forced to relocate to reservations, presaged the shift from slave plantations to prison plantations, as well as the internment of innocent Japanese-Americans in labor camps with convicts and captured combatants during World War II. The UNO segment focuses on Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola's early 20th century, slavery-like, “convict lease” system, and a student postcard exchange with current Angola inmates. Also on view are some haunting portraits, above, and masks by local students at Travis Hill youth detention center created under the direction of maestros like Nola street art avatar Brandan Odums (untitled, top) among others. 

As Is: Nick Cave in Shreveport, Louisiana

Shamanic, or “primitive,” cultures knew that visual art and music could heal fractured souls and sundered societies. Gallery X's Mutual Support expo explores leading art-world shaman Nick Cave's eight month project with Shreveport, Louisiana, residents including collaborative bead sculptures that represent the fabric of their lives, among other works featured in Evan Falbaum's AS IS documentary film, above. A quilt by Rachel Wallis extends the fabric metaphor to Chicago's victims of violence, while Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's portraits of her mother depict her soulful persona in ways that transcend her bipolar disorder. Saul Robbins' photographs document local clinical and spiritual healing spaces, but his adjacent, rear gallery, consulting room “installation,” left, is actually a free pop-up wellness center, staffed by professionals and open to the public on Saturdays. ~Bookhardt / States of Incarceration: Multimedia exhibit about mass incarceration in America, Through April 30, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600; Mutual Support: Multimedia Exhibit on Mental and Societal Health, Through April 23, Gallery X, 1612 O.C. Haley Blvd., 252-0136.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Katrina Andry and Michael Pajon at Ferrara

Have you ever felt nostalgic for nostalgia? Old movies, music and vintage objects open windows into our past while creatively nourishing the present, but lately a nostalgia for “good old days” that never were has morphed into a politicized pipe dream like an alternate reality. Nostalgia is at its best when the magic of the past is eloquently, insightfully, delineated, and Michael Pajon's An Appetite for Flesh, Bone, Lies and Cowardice collage is a poetic elegy for an old time horned devil. Inside his gaping, fang-festooned mouth is a hellish tableau of lost souls, executioners, fallen women and sows devouring corpses – a lovely reminder of vintage pop culture back in the days when hell had real showmanship. Nostalgia as a psychological mythology characterizes Oracle of Stars, (detail) top, a collage shaped like a Grecian urn adorned with a skinned centaur wielding a battle ax while carrying a 1920s flapper through fields of Trojan warriors, loose teeth and vintage pin-up girls as the astrological cosmos sparkles overhead. In Ophelia Beset by Suitors, a blond maiden arises from cobra-infested lilies amid an aureole of thorns, serpents, skulls and buzzards. Clearly, the past was a perilous place. In Tears of Blood Strengthen the Weak, above left, a commanding Allseeing Eye shining forth from a Christo-pagan Hand of Power imposes the equilibrium of antiquity on the chaos of the present. Cobbled from vintage ephemera, these sublime visions suggest that a cool head and stylistic savoir faire can overcome all perils. 

Katrina Andry has become known for her meticulous expressionistic woodcut prints that probe the old misunderstandings and societal dysfunctions that continue to plague modern life. Her new work incorporates monotype portraits of imperiled youth in chilling tableaux like Consequences of Being #2, left, where a black man's lifeless head festooned with flowers and handguns seems to almost melt into the earth.   It's About Hard Work, Not Crippling Handouts for the Poor celebrates entrepreneurship as a drug dealer plies his trade in a biting, reverse-mirror image of market-centric supply side consumerism. ~Bookhardt / Ex Libris: Collages and Drawings by Michael Pajon; Consequences of Being: Woodcut Prints by Katrina Andry, Through May 27, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Cecilia Vicuña at the Contemporary Arts Center

Art shows can be like people: some try to make up in drama what they lack in substance, while some other, quieter personalities may have more to say. Cecilia Vicuña's sprawling About to Happen expo at the Contemporary Arts Center falls into the latter category. A tribute to displaced people and things, her concoctions cobbled from twigs, bamboo and derelict objects suggest stuff a crow might have gathered, but actually reflect an alternate history of civilization. A poet and visual artist influenced by her native Chile's landscape and folk cultures, Vicuña has devoted her 70-plus years on earth to exploring her homeland's -- and the world's -- hidden truths. Her approach can also be applied locally: Balsa Snake Raft to Escape the Flood, below, is a poetic bunch of interwoven junk that could never float but suggests the loose ends that would be all that remained if sea level rise were to further inundate coastal cities like New Orleans, where these objects were found. Their interwoven quality harks to Chile's ancient native cultures' use of knotted cords called Quipus to record events, a theme illustrated here in a dramatic installation of hanging, knotted fabrics, above.

Her smaller works return us to the prosaic -- in bird or insect wings, seed pods and colored, sometimes knotted, threads and electrical wires in little cobbled concoctions that read like mini-poems evoking those prosaic yet meaningful events that make up our lives. Those pieces, called  Precarios because their fragility made their existence precarious, are part of a series she began as a teen in Chile in the 1960s, which proved oddly prophetic after Chile's democratically elected government was overthrown by the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet with support from the CIA. A deeply complex artist, Vicuña's life and works are further elucidated in some accompanying videos like La Noche de la Espcies, top. After a long and quietly productive career, her work will be featured in Europe's prestigious 2017 Documenta 14 expo in Germany and Greece this summer. This CAC show is her first major U.S. solo exhibition. ~Bookhardt / About to Happen: Mixed Media Installations by Cecilia Vicuña, Through June 18, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dan Tague & co's "State of Fear" at Barrister's; Peter Hoffman's "Terrarium" at Good Children

My  cousin, who has lived most of her life in the French Quarter, says she never crosses the river to the West Bank because “there's nothin' but weirdos over there.” But I have always liked their spirit, and Dan Tague, who curated this State of Fear show, is a proud son of Marrero. His large photo of his hand flipping the finger at General Robert E. Lee's statue illustrates his passion for... “repetition of form” -- an art theory concept here positing the formal relationship of one shaft to another. Simpatico passions pervade this dramatic and emphatic expo, in works like Rajko Radovanovic's graphics exploring the fetishization of power, or some chillingly Orwellian photographic light-boxes (like Red Riot, right) by trans-Atlantic duo Generic Art Solutions, depicting militarized urban police forces. A vibrant tapestry by Daphne
Loney and Ashley Robbins, left, evokes a labyrinthine contour map of a female body with “I Am Not an Object for Breeding” stitched over boldly colored thread. Brian St. Cyr's intricate, swastika-shaped rodent cage sculpture, The Banality of Evil, reminds us that neo-Nazis have felt empowered lately. Jessica Bizer's vividly ornamental poster, Time to Freak Out! says it all. Such times call for superheroes, but Chris Saucedo's Comic Book Diplomacy collage, top, reveals a bootleg foreign Superman lost in a maze of alien phrases--proof that undocumented superheroes pose an existential threat to America. 

Peter Hoffman's new work is surprising because expressionistic paintings of athletes are fairly rare. Yet, beyond their moments embodying the hopes and dreams of their communities, athletes are only human and their ego-driven foibles lend themselves to expressionist irony in scenes where brassy, Aryan looking women pump iron or strut their stuff in sleek swimsuits. Their human side resurfaces in some whimsical smaller images like Athlete with Aloe, left, where they blend into the background amid lush aloes, those languid, jade green succulents that eternally embody the delicate resilience of the flesh. ~Bookhardt / State of Fear: Group Show Curated by Dan Tague, Through April 1, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506; Terrarium: New Paintings by Peter Hoffman, Through April 2, Good Children Gallery, 4037 St. Claude Ave., 616-7427.

See Also: Why Dana Schutz's cynical, intentionally tone deaf portrait of Emmett Till in his coffin at the Whitney Biennial is a crime against human decency.

(Note: We respect Dana Schutz as a very good artist and oppose removing her Emmett Till death painting from the Whitney show -- but, we still regard it as a cynical publicity stunt that violates the age old tradition of respect for the dead, especially dead private citizens. Consequently, we regard click bait spectacle art as aesthetic Trumpism. Whitney Biennial curator Christopher Lew gives his take on it in an interview, but for us he blew the whistle on himself and Schutz with this line: "There’s been a huge reaction to Dana’s painting, of course... things have not slowed down since the show opened—we’re literally having lines around the block...")

Related: How the "Like" button made everyone dumber with every click and rapidly ruined the internet.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Gerson at LeMieux; Wendo at Boyd Satellite

Spring has sprung, and pollen, hormones and mayhem are in the air. Birds, bees and even beetles are doing their thing as flowers flirtatiously bloom everywhere. All that and more turns up in some lively shows on Julia Street.

Pop art was refreshing when it first appeared in the 1960s, but more recent postmodern pop caused rigor mortis to set in with a vengeance. Enter the emerging Nola artist Wendo, who fuses traditional comic book figuration with the digital ambiguities of modern life. Vvaves, top, features figures with histrionic, Mad Men-era EC comics- style flourishes set in swirls of paint that meld the frenetic electricity of Jackson Pollock with a graffiti - like insouciance. Maybe He'll Find Her features a Marvel comics - style superhero carrying off a modern tattooed maiden, but in You're No Longer the Man I Met Online, left, a retro, nifty late-1950s style couple experiences a desultory moment as the guy morphs into a nattily attired police dog. Not everything works quite so well, but Wendo's best pictures return us to timeless mythic narratives that are hardwired into the human psyche, and “pop” out at us with a disarming candor that makes for an impressive first Julia Street solo.

Deft Kafkaesque surrealist Alan Gerson has long painted cautionary canvases depicting the more unsettling aspects of earthly life. Here, nature's flair for deadly beauty appears in vivid images like Ancient Sea IV, above, where moray eels, crabs, carnivorous worms and starfish seem to rather casually devour each other. Similarly, his lushly painted Vietnam canvas depicts a densely impenetrable bamboo thicket stifling all life but for a few decorous bugs. But bugs rule in A Fondness for Beetles, where they gather like dense encrustations of shimmering, bejeweled predators massing for the vast territorial expansion promised by climate change. An accompanying wall text quotes the immortal words of geneticist J.B.S. Haldane: “The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” ~Bookhardt / Recent Works: Paintings and Sculpture by Alan Gerson, Through April 15, LeMieux Galleries, 332 Julia St., 522.5988; VVAVES: New Mixed Media Paintings and Prints by Wendo, Through March 28, Boyd Satellite Gallery, 440 Julia St., 899-4218.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On the Brink: Luis Cruz Azaceta at Arthur Roger

On the Brink seems an unusual title for a geometric abstract painting show. The crisp geometry of traditional art deco, op or minimalist design, like the sleek lines of modern architecture epitomize a optimistic kind of rationalism, but Luis Cruz Azaceta was forever marked by the chaos that characterized the Cuban revolution and his life as a youthful refugee. That pathos fueled his rise as a leading neo- expressionist painter in 1980s New York while instilling a deep empathy for outsiders and migrants. His new works infuse geometric compositions with the unsettled tone of the times in colorfully contrapuntal works defined by buoyantly slinky mambo-like rhythms that reflect an indelibly Cuban sensibility despite his over two decades in New Orleans and half-century in the U.S.
Like New Orleans, Cuba is a Creole blend of Euro and Afro - Caribbean cultures and Azaceta's wall size- canvas, The Big Easy, top, suggests a jazzy distillation of our diverse DNA via colorful wedges that evoke the bold patterning of African textiles -- and perhaps our crazy quilt street life -- in a progression of architectonic forms that recall Professor Longhair's tango-inflected R & B crescendos. Similarly oscillating stacks of brilliant, primary colored wedges in A Question of Color 666, top left, looks buoyant at first glance, but the dominant stacks of horizontal wedges are flanked by diagonal triangular slashes that seem pushed off to the side in a way that looks less stable and more vulnerable to the forces of gravity. Orlando seems alluringly vibrant, but is punctuated with unsettling splash patterns of black dots like bullet holes. Earlier Azaceta motifs are reprised in No Exit 2, an Orwellian maze of serpentine black and swirling caution- vest green forms that suggest the cat and mouse interplay of control and chaos that characterizes early 21st century life. But Blue Riot, left, while recent, harks to Azaceta's traditional neo-expressionsim in similarly swirling, maze-like tangles that suggest America's seemingly endless convolutions of societal dysfunction in an age when both black and blue lives matter but equitable resolution remains an elusive ideal. ~Bookhardt / On the Brink: Paintings by Luis Cruz Azaceta, Through April 22, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.
Related: Theaster Gates and the Art of Community.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Mickalene Thomas at Newcomb Art Museum

Things started to change in the 1970s. After decades of intense struggle, the black middle class became more visible, ushering in new attitudes, decor and music as the smooth sounds of Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, Tina Turner and George Benson reached new audiences. Locally, New Orleans East was becoming a black professional enclave at a time when Allen Toussaint and Patti Labelle's Lady Marmalade mega-hit ruled the city's airwaves via DJ's like WYLD FM's legendary Sister Love. Mickalene Thomas was born in New Jersey in 1971, but her work conveys black America's rapidly evolving 1970s notions of beauty, sexuality and female empowerment in ways that seem especially relevant today.

In this popular Newcomb Museum expo, her mixed media portraits evoke old Ebony magazine scenes that explore the lives of women who were reinventing themselves at a time when fulfillment and self-realization were new priorities. Here smooth- jazz decor mingles exoticism with baroque Americana in portraits like Shinique: Now I Know, above, where a svelte Afro- odalisque reclines in a sea of colorful pillows. Like a suburban seraglio furnished by Pier 1, it pulsates with cubist electricity as she gazes over her shoulder at us, though exactly what she knows remains elusive. Lovely Six Foota, left, is a view of a statuesque woman whose seductive comportment and regal demeanor amid her leopard print chairs and Diana Ross LPs convey a whimsical surety about who, and how, she is. Fast forward to the present, and her Thinking of You photo-collage portrait of Nola-based pop diva Solange, top, employs more cubist baroque motifs in an insightful view of a chanteuse who embodies a perfect fusion of edgy social commentary and Mona Lisa mystery. Even so, Thomas' glitteringly exuberant rhinestone-studded collage portraits excel at exploring her subjects' colorfully carnivalesque qualities of “otherness” in ways that ultimately reaffirm the universal feelings and aspirations that all people share. Her unique genius is seen in the way their buoyant candor and charisma have made so many people feel so unexpectedly at home in her world.~Bookhardt / Waiting on a Prime-Time Star: Mixed-media Portraiture by Mickalene Thomas, Through April 9, Newcomb Art Museum, Tulane University, 865-5328.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Life of Seduction: The Carnivalesque Venice of the 1700s at New Orleans Museum of Art

It was once among the richest cities on the continent, a home port for flotillas of  ships and a magnet for artists and entrepreneurs despite its floods and epidemics. It never fully recovered from being on the wrong side of a war, yet its elaborate architecture, music, culture and carnival rituals imbued it with a reputation for romantic hedonism that few cities could match. Descriptions of Venice often sound a lot like New Orleans, and this colorfully elegant exhibit of 18th century Venetian paintings only reiterates that impression of a surreal place where theatrical ambiance and non-stop joi de vivre prevailed in spite of – or perhaps because of – its perilous position as a low lying city surrounded by water.

Superbly curated by Giandomenico Romanelli, it provides a revealing look at how an ingrained carnival culture can lend a near mythic aura to aspects of civic affairs via a performance art quality of street life in visually operatic settings. Allegory of the Triumph of Venice, top, looks like the most opulent Mardi Gras float ever, a massive triple decker pulled by elephants and crammed with resplendent royals, knights, noblewomen, saints, angels and city officials. Attributed to Joseph Heintz the Younger, it was actually a history painting celebrating Venice's victory over the Turks in 1687 – but it blends seamlessly with Gabriel Bella's Fat Thursday Festivities in the Piazzetta, above, where costumed celebrants mingle with acrobats and performers in a theatrical urban setting. Venetians' flair for the carnivalesque was evident year round in commedia dell'arte street theater performances like the one in Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's great painting, The Minuet, above left, where an aristocratic beauty is surrounded by grotesque maskers. One of the New Orleans Museum of Art's longtime holdings, it finally appears in a context that elucidates its wild psychological intensity.

But as we see in Pietro Longhi's Il Ridotto, above, masquerade was a way of life in a city where illegal casinos proliferated and elegantly stylish masks were de rigueur for prominent citizens who preferred to remain anonymous. Originated by the New Orleans Museum of Art and organized by Contemporenea Progetti,  A Life of Seduction: Venice in the 1700s is on view through May 21, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100. ~Bookhardt

See Also: Designing Pandemonium:
An Art History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Mardi Gras has long existed as a multi-dimensional phenomenon that reflects both the street and the elite, the mainstream and the esoteric, dark and light, Apollonian and Dionysian--although with Mardi Gras, as with all carnival celebrations, the Dionysian has always held a distinct advantage... More>>

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Rob Hammer's Hoops Project at Boyd Satellite

No one can deny that sports in America have evolved into a big, multi-billion dollar spectacle – but, in the latter 20th century, sports also become a great, if imperfect, democratizing force where anyone with talent could succeed regardless of race color or creed. Although the multi-story "Equality" banners on the sides of the Benson Tower by the Superdome suggest a bit of satisfying civic schadenfreude (after the NBA moved its All Star game here in response to North Carolina's silly bathroom law), equality is also what makes America's democratic version of patriotism different from mere mean spirited nationalism. That ideal of equality, despite our deeply conflicted history, is as much a part of American exceptionalism as its imposing landscape. Both appear in Rob Hammer's Basketball Hoops Project that came to New Orleans along with the All Star game it celebrates.
Hammer is a Los Angeles sports photographer known for dramatic action shots, but these images are quietly meditative views of basketball hoops across America. No people are visible, but each resonates a human presence in landscapes rendered with a deft painterly flair for color and composition. In Barn, Utah, a rusty hoop protrudes from the weathered wooden husk of an old barn in a scene like a ghostly German expressionist take on Americana. Even more mysterious is Milk, New York, a bottomless milk crate on a weathered pole next to a shuttered gothic church with gnarly vines and dark shadows worthy of Hitchcock. Night, California, top, is a moonrise over a playground hoop that somehow unites the ordinary with the cosmic -- but Mars, Arizona, above left, is an otherworldly view of a metal folding chair and a basketball hoop rising from a red, sandy expanse like something NASA's Mars Rover might have transmitted from the red planet. But the most emblematic of all is America, New Mexico, above left, with its painted American flag backboard radiating a buoyant folk art evocation of a bright, shining and eternal American dream. ~Bookhardt / The Basketball Hoops Project: Photographs by Rob Hammer, Through March 1, Boyd Satellite Gallery, 440 Julia St., 899-4218;