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; 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Jeanine Michna-Bales at New Orleans Photo Alliance; Debra Howell at LeMieux

In 19th century America, secret trails dubbed “the Underground Railroad” spanned this continent's vast spaces as runaway slaves migrated north toward freedom in the dead on night. Assisted by sympathizers who sheltered them in churches, homes and barns called “depots,” it was a journey that has spanned time in words and images. Jeanine Michna-Bales's photographs explore that legacy in nocturnal landscapes like Decision to Leave, above, a dimly visible plantation cabin that exudes something deeply primordial while evoking the emotionally fraught nature of the quest. Even more primordial is a Southern Pine Forest view of the dense, inky tangles of a moonlit glade typical of the migrants' obscure trails and shrouded paths where the sight of a glowing lamp in a farmhouse window, above right, could signify either shelter or shattered dreams. The preternatural darkness of the images harks to the perilous migrations that have forever defined humanity's eternal quest for a better life, an aspiration eloquently affirmed in America's foundational promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

Debra Howell's surreal photographs focus on our turbulent relationship with  nature expressed in dreamlike images that convey our experience with climate change as a watery  apocalypse. Acipenser, above, is emblematic, a flood-ravaged home where salvaged objects are ritualistically arranged on a muddy floor. The view through the window reveals a distant river bank studded with industrial relics, as well as a water line below which a sturgeon (genus: Acipenser) is faintly visible in the murk beyond the window panes. Beyond postdeluvian Creole cottage interiors, others include antique stereoscopes stranded on mud flats in Stereoscope 2: Yangtze, above left, with glowing dual images of idyllic landscapes. Water and dreams are united in their fluidity, and Howell invokes notions of home and vintage technology to frame broader questions about how we adapt, or not, to a natural world that seems be losing patience with us. ~Bookhardt / Through Darkness to Light: Photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales, Through March 19, New Orleans Photo Alliance, 1111 St. Mary Street, 513-8030; Adaptations: Photographs by Debra Howell, Through Feb. 24, LeMieux Galleries, 332 Julia St., 522.5988.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Menage: Rashaad Newsome at the CAC

In the 1981 classic cult film, Escape from New York, Manhattan is a maximum security prison ruled by a self- proclaimed "Duke" (Isaac Hayes) who patrols his lair in a big, blinged out Cadillac festooned with ornate baroque candelabras. Rashaad Newsome's 2013 New Orleans Museum of Art expo harked to the Duke with herald-like works that bridged the gap between gangs, hip-hop and medieval warlords. His new Contemporary Art Center show, Melange, is also baroquely dystopian, but features a Funkadelic futurist aesthetic that shares DNA with Mothership Connection-era George Clinton or Bootsy Collins as well as German expressionists like Hannah Höch and Richard Lindner.
Is this a glimpse into our future? Newsome's visual mash-ups reflect digital technology's relentless spawning of new forms and hybrids that turbocharge disruptive innovation while unsettling many who suffer from that common American malady: ossified resilience syndrome. But our carnival culture was creating bizarre hybrids way before digital, and Newsome's Creole Nola heritage continues to inspire. 1st Place, top left, is as ambitious as its name, a mutant hip-hop earth mother in fishnet stockings who spans art history from Bosch to Wangechi Mutu. Look Back at It (detail view), above right, is more anatomical, with time and gender-bending vogue dancers affirming Newsome's role as a “cultural re-mix artist” who sees collage, dance and video as a single seamless aesthetic. The choreography and special effects of his adjacent vogue dance video, FIVE SFMOMA, bears that out while adding an extra dimension to a collage show that employs techniques pioneered by Europe's surrealists a century ago. Surrealism -- that most carnivalesque of art movements – evolved from the fantastical visions of great Belle Époque French Symbolist painters like Odilon Redon, whose Louisiana parentage came full circle via his long distance influence on Nola's 19th century carnival float, costume and ball designers. Some of Newsome's collages like Grand Prize, top, a pastiche of eyes, legs, lips, incendiary smoke and gaudy bling, suggest dystopian Mardi Gras ball invitations from a post - apocalyptic future. It is darkly beautiful, but we can only hope it is not prophetic as well. Bookhardt / Melange: Films, Works on Paper and Vogue Performance by Rashaad Newsome, Through Feb. 12, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805.