Sunday, December 31, 2017

Paul Deo and Phoebe Nesgos at Barristers

Paul Deo appears and disappears. He has done that for years, alternating between his native New York and extended New Orleans connections. Long intrigued by pop and mysticism, he intermingles his flair for murals and comic book illustration with artificial intelligence, mythology and black history. This aptly titled Voodeo show reflects all of the above in works that suggest what William Blake might have painted had he been a Spanish Harlem graffiti artist. His  Algorithms of Ali painting is a large phantasmagoria of serpentine gold and crimson swirls interwoven with weird biological forms spiraling into a kind of saintly aurora borealis emanating from a cameo of Muhammad Ali. This really should be an indigestible case of overkill yet it somehow works with an uncanny inner logic of its own. The smaller paintings mostly suggest an expressionist plutonic underworld of lost saints amid mask-like faces recalling Hell's Kitchen in the old days, or lower Decatur St. before gentrification. In his large painted fabric collages like Myndteam Angelita, top, visionary gestural flourishes reflect the schematics of his “Myndteam” artificial intelligence project to enable ordinary folks to utilize “all the global data in existence” via user-friendly algorithms... If his algorithms take people to the place occupied by Angelita in the painting, users might want to think twice before logging on, but kudos to Deo for going there and bringing us such inexplicably intriguing images.

More plutonic mysteries appear in Phoebe Nesgos' series of paintings inspired by the art of ancient Pompei, where the exotic lifestyles of the ancient Romans were preserved under volcanic ash. In these works their decadent antics continue on in a kind of posthumous Satyricon where lust knows no mortal bounds, as the forces of life and death party hearty in carnivalesque Dionysian fashion, a gesture sure to be well received by the Olympian deities – and at least some of our local Mardi Gras krewes who still celebrate them. ~Bookhardt / Voodeo: New works by Paul Deo; After the Tomb of the Diver: New Works by Phoebe Nesgos, Through Jan. 6, 2018, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Year in Review, 2017

Katy Red at Prospect.4 Artist Party at the Music Box

Some visitors recently asked if there were any local art shows they should see. I mentioned Prospect.4, with 73 international artists at various venues  -- and the PhotoNOLA international photography expo featuring over 60 exhibitions about town. Others include big institutional shows like the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's Solidary & Solitary expo of black abstract art from the Joyner/Giuffrida collection, and the pioneering Unfamiliar Again exhibit of contemporary women abstractionists at the Newcomb Art Museum, and of course the New Orleans Museum of Art's vast East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography exhibit featuring over 150 vintage images including some of the oldest ever made in America – enough to keep anyone busy for weeks.

Shinique Smith, Ogden Museum
On top of those mostly locally originated events, NOMA announced that it is doubling the size of its acclaimed sculpture garden, and the Contemporary Arts Center  has just completed a major renovation, so it has been a strikingly busy time for the arts here in America's 50th biggest city. All this has not gone unnoticed. Nola native turned New York art star Wayne Gonzales routinely returned to visit his elderly parents but he only recently got to participate in the local scene close up as a Prospect.4 featured artist. His take on it: “The creative energy of New Orleans is as exciting and diverse as I've ever seen it. There is a strong sense of community that crosses generations and disciplines, and there are opportunities to experiment in ways that just don't exist in bigger centers...” Similarly, Prospect.4 creative director Trevor Schoonmaker noted a “sense of shared community among the artists and visitors,” adding there is something about this city's “way of bringing people together” that he views as “important at this particular moment.”

The big story of 2017 is not simply that Nola has emerged as an increasingly high profile global art center, but has done so in a way characterized by widespread community involvement – a trend that dates to the wave of activism that arose in response to the challenges posed by hurricane Katrina over a decade ago. Not only did artists create a new arts district along St. Claude Ave., but many organizations including the The Music Box, the Community Print Shop, and the newer Art Klub, have all pointedly engaged under-served segments of society. More established institutions like the NOMA, the Ogden Museum and the CAC have all developed extensive community programming. This often involves a special kind of focus. As PhotoNOLA director Amy Dailey Williams put it, “The national photography community got involved early on, but we place a high priority on local communities, so we expanded our outreach into schools and institutions like Kingsley House.” One highly influential institution that, under the direction of Nola native Gia Hamilton, has had enviable success balancing mainstream visual arts and local community concerns is the Joan Mitchell Center, where accessible programs and a major artist residency center have enabled a new wave of artists from a variety of backgrounds make their presence felt locally and nationally. A longtime advocate for art as a tool for social healing and personal growth, Hamilton acts on her belief that, “all humans deserve the right to be creative, and need time, space and resources to help solve our society’s issues. What would happen if humans had more time to be creative -- imagine what problems we could solve together.” ~Bookhardt

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Stephen Paul Day at Arthur Roger Gallery; Audra Kohout at Soren Christensen Gallery

Christmas has a funny way of recalling the innocent joys of childhood even as the world around us looks less and less innocent. But was it ever innocent? Stephen Paul Day's magnificently crafted, yet totally weird, Queen of Mirth show features oversize recreations of actual vintage children's games and pop culture collectibles from the shadowy recesses of America's past. Day has always mixed nostalgia with nihilism, but never has his work so perfectly aligned with a time when the news consists of incoherent incendiary tweets mingled with a nutty nostalgia for a fairy tale past that never was.
Some of it is almost innocent. The title piece, Queen of Mirth, top, is a vastly oversize replica of a match box with a top-hatted chorus girl tossing party favors to tiny, fawning bon vivants, a scene set off by protruding red match tips. Maybe people were just as nutty a century ago, but at least they had better style. Things take a creepier turn in an oversize replica of a 1950s children's game, Hook-a-Crook, featuring profiles of sketchy looking guys whose features suggest suspicious foreigners. Another children's game illustrated with figures from minstrel shows is decorous yet distinctly sinister.  Day's devious craftsmanship shines in two identical cast iron busts of Abraham Lincoln positioned so they appear to be kissing. The sheer whimsy and craftsmanship of such works make this show visually engaging and aesthetically intriguing – yet it is also a tad unsettling considering that there is obviously no equivalence between Abe Lincoln and any prominent contemporary political narcissists!   

A more reassuring treatment of vintage objects appears in a mini-exhibit of Audra Kohout's sculptures at Soren Christensen. Here castaway objects are reborn as fantastical waifs who seem to dwell in a magical corner of the Victorian imagination – and redemption takes the form of a cast iron music box shaped like a woman with a glass bauble in her belly where butterflies flutter to the accompaniment of tinny, yet ethereal, tunes from the past. Queen of Mirth: New Works by Stephen Paul Day, Through Dec. 23, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Batture: Jeff Whetstone at UNO St. Claude

If you had to name a single thing that defined this city, you'd be out of luck. But if you could name two, the river and the people might get you within striking distance. Both profoundly influence each other in a place where nature is an inescapable presence. Photographer Jeff Whetstone explores that lingering wild world in his Batture series focused on that shape-shifting sliver along the river where land and water change places with the seasons. As an unlikely urban wilderness that co-exists with massive industrial compounds and ships as big as tallest skyscrapers, the batture provides a haven for the fishermen and solitary wanderers whose presence blends seamlessly with its swampy foliage.

Batture fishermen are as varied as the city's neighborhoods, and many of Whetstone's subjects are  Vietnamese who might look at home on the Mekong Delta. In Eastern Hope, top, a man waste deep in water clutches a net as a massive ship, the “Eastern Hope,” plies the twilight waters amid the eerie glow of a nearby industrial compex. Here a solitary human looks puny and fragile against the vast river and its mechanical behemoths. Fish Pile is a night scene of a fisherman from the waste down as he stands over his haul of freshly caught catfish. Bathed in electric light, his grimy camouflage shorts and serpentine leg tattoos mimic the baroque foliage of the forest in the surrounding shadows. In another photo, Catfish, the remnants of a gutted, filleted catfish appear on a driftwood plank used as an impromptu cutting board. Not long dead, its open eyes and dozens of iridescent green bottle flies lend the scene the bejeweled presence of a Dutch baroque vanitas painting. That portentous, allegorical sensibility is elaborated in Snake, above, a view of a man clutching a snake by its head as its long, slender body coils around his lower arm. A Tennessee native trained in zoology, Whetstone illuminates the improbable mysteries of the batture as a kind of urban forest primeval. Further emphasizing the wildness theme, the walls of the gallery have been covered in a batture-based wallpaper that effectively makes the space an extension of the fringe of river forest that coexists with the city. ~Bookhardt / The Batture: Photographs by Jeff Whetstone (Prospect.4), Through Feb 25th, UNO St. Claude Gallery, 2429 St. Claude Ave., 280-6493.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

PhotoNOLA: Over 60 Venues through December

When Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans uninhabitable in 2005, many questioned if it would survive. Would its residents, including its legendary creative community, ever return? Artists responded with schemes that sounded like pipe dreams, but today both the Prospect New Orleans Triennial, and the New Orleans Photo Alliance's annual PhotoNOLA photography expo, are globally celebrated events. Both meander like loopy bon vivants at a city-wide Easter egg hunt, and sometimes even intersect: PhotoNOLA's opening event was headlined by Prospect.4 art star Xaviera Simmons at her New Orleans Museum of Art exhibit. While many of Prospect's 73 artists utilize photography, PhotoNOLA's ever-expanding roster features a diverse army of photographers  exhibited at over 60 venues ranging from our best known museums and galleries to the most obscure pop-up spaces.

Among the former, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, despite featuring an array of P.4 stuff, also hosts PhotoNOLA's Currents 2017 expo of work by 17 Photo Alliance members, including several like Aline Smithson (photo: Lisa, from the Fugue State, left )based in other cities. Other prominent local art spaces include A Gallery for Fine Photography, where P.4 artist Michel Varisco's surreal photos of Nola as a modern Atlantis, above, are featured, as well as colorfully focused group shows at the Front on St. Claude Ave., and at the Soren Christensen Gallery on Julia St. But PhotoNOLA shines a special light on exotic fare like Celia and Jose Fernandes' Insentient Objects exhibit at Gallery Eight One Eight on Royal St., or noted curator Richard McCabe's Land Star show of his recent photographs created with vintage Polaroid cameras on view at the obscure Little Shotgun House gallery on Maurepas St. But even St. Claude Avenue still surprises with places like the Grand Maltese Gallery, where the surreal Catharsis exhibit of work by Lauren Simonutti, Cornelia Hediger and Brittany Markert probes an exotic psychic terrain where All Soul's day meets the swamp, for instance, in  Markert's Menage a Trois, top. Like its namesake city, PhotoNOLA 2017 is no slouch when it comes to encounters with the unexpected. ~Bookhardt / PhotoNOLA 2017: Citywide Photography Exhibitions, Through Dec. 31; New Orleans Photo Alliance, 1111 St. Mary Street, 513-8030.