Sunday, March 18, 2018

Josef Salazar y Mendoza: Portraits of Spanish Colonial New Orleans at the Ogden Museum

This city has always been complicated. Even the parts of its history that once seemed straightforward often spiral off in odd directions on close examination. Josef de Salazar y Mendoza's portraits of local socialites and grandees of all stripes reflect Spain's cultural values during the latter 18th century when New Orleans was a Spanish colony, but the Ogden's biographical text panels reveal all sorts of odd quirks and surprises.

Although his painting style was classically Spanish, Salazar was from  Merida, in Mexico's Mayan Yucatan provice, and his sitters were a similarly diverse lot. A Spanish colonial attorney general, Antonio Mendez, left, was a native of Havana, Cuba, the Spanish Caribbean capital that governed New Orleans like a distant suburb. In his portrait, he appears to be interacting with his quietly animated children as his intently focused features suggest someone used to facing unpredictable events with a stoic, if wary, resolve.

Some of the figures on view provide us with some faces to go with familiar local street names. Salazar's  portrait of philanthropist Don Andres Almonester reveals an imposing figure whose misspelled name now graces a local avenue, and Joseph Montegut's intriguing family portrait, above, reveals the prominent surgeon who was the namesake of a trendy Faubourg Marigny street. William Kenner looks every inch the proper Anglo-American planter that he was, but his wife, Mary Minor Kenner, conveys a European aura appropriate to the daughter of Louisiana's last Spanish governor. Ultimately, it was New Orleans' international and often exotic citizenry that made it such a rich milieu for portrait painters and nowhere is that more evident than in Salazar's portrait of Marianne Celeste Dragon, top, a Creole of French and Greek ancestry whose aristocratic demeanor epitomized the social mutability of this city's relatively large and affluent mixed race community. Swathed in fashionable blue silk and pearls, she lives on as a kind of Louisiana Mona Lisa – mysterious not for her coyness, but because she appears so completely at ease with who she was -- in a place and time unlike any other. Bookhardt / Portraits of Influence in Spanish New Orleans, 1785-1802: Paintings by Josef de Salazar y Mendoza, Through Sept. 2, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Tony Dagradi & Gina Phillips at Ferrara

Grammy winner Tony Dagradi is known for his silken modern jazz saxophone virtuosity, a mellifluous lyricism that reveals his mastery of an instrument with no end of potential rough edges. Less known are his sculptural collages. Featuring whimsical juxtapositions of images that read like improvisational visual riffs, they explore the unexpected relationships between moments in visual time in much the way jazz reveals serendipitous resonances between familiar notes and melodies to open up new experiences for the listener. In these works, Dagradi digs deeply, and quite literally, into old books, reworking their imagery to reveal the secret worlds they contain.

Ships and Snakes, above left, is a rhapsodic take on the old European “wanderlust” sensibility, a quest for wonder through exploring the exotica of foreign lands, here depicted via engravings of dinosaur skeletons and Egyptian pyramids, photographs of formidable snakes and flinty explorers, vast oceangoing ships and colorful foreigners in scenes that reflect the old European idea of the world as a frontier to be “civilized” by “advanced” Western peoples--a view that now seems quite quaint. Induction Motors is a maze of engravings of coils, armatures and archaic mechanisms from the early years of electrification. Looking lost among them is a solitary female figure dutifully tending to a mysteriously imposing mechanical device.  Her presence is prescient: then, as now, it is obvious that the machines are really in charge.

Gina Phillips is known for folksy paintings of rural scenes rendered in thread on fabric instead of paint on canvas. During a recent residency in France, where she was inspired by modern masters, she returned to pigments and canvas in a series of works painted on site. She also noticed unexpected parallels with the landscape of her native Kentucky, which resulted in this time and space transcending Crow Valley show exploring the common threads of nature and the human spirit that weave through both places. These gorgeous, often understated works suggest how much seemingly different people and places have in common if we only take a moment to quietly look with open eyes and minds. Books Transposed: Mixed Media Collages by Tony Dagradi; Crow Valley: Paintings and Fabric Works by Gina Phillips, Through March 30, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Adorned Archetypes at NOMA

Although Nola has long been an American epicenter when it comes to costuming, it was never much of a "haute couture” town -- so when the New Orleans Museum of Art announced that it was staging an artsy “fashion” exhibit I was skeptical. But a blurb by NOMA's decorative arts curator, Mel Buchanan, was intriguing: “This exhibition shows beauty, certainly, but also pain, humor, power, and weakness.” It also mentioned that it was divided into themes based on Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung's notions of “female archetypes.” All of which sounded a lot like costumes. In fact, this show not only blurs the boundaries between fashion and costumes, it is also an otherworldly environment in its own right. Much of it evokes props from Frederico Fellini's old psychedelic films like Juliet of the Spirits reworked into “socially conscious” outfits so outrageous that Nola may be the only place on the planet where people could actually get away with wearing them.
For instance, under the Mother Earth theme, a Sarah Burton/Alexander McQueen leafy black Floral Dress with manic multiple belt buckles, top left, looks perfect for a trip to the Rouses Market on Royal St. on a Saturday evening around Halloween, where it would fit right in. Ditto the albatross-like Charlie Le Mindu Berlin Syndrome winged headdress, top right. A Vivian Westwood Chelsea Coat, left, features a shoulder line that hangs from atop the wearer's head so it initially resembles a very tall headless female zombie -- ideal for lady restaurant workers walking home after midnight. The Explorer theme features items like Joanne Petit-Frere's Bishop Braid hair sculpture featuring a black nude model with braided hair woven into an ebony facsimile of an archbishop's hat. The Magician series features Iris van Herpen's spectacular Snake Dress, above left, with black acrylic reptilian coils that envelop the body from the lower jaw to the upper thigh like a writhing mass of pythons. Not everything is quite so carnivalesque, but, overall, this is a show that passes the Nola litmus test: it is engaging, eccentric and conducive to no end of entertaining conversational speculation. ~Bookhardt / Adorned Archetypes: Fantastical Fashions at NOMA, Through May, Through May 28, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Brisco, Broussard, Humble, Ratliff, Bizer, Loney

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the St. Claude Arts District. Founded amid in an outpouring of art community activism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, its mostly co-op galleries opened in tandem with the Prospect New Orleans international art exhibition's inaugural P.1 exposition in  2008. During this year's nearly three month run of its Prospect.4 interation, most St. Claude galleries hosted group exhibitions of "gallery artists" that often resembled Whitman Sampler assortments of aesthetic miscellany with occasional tasty morsels to reward the determined viewer. In this context, Antenna's current Part 4 show stands out as unexpectedly, almost shockingly, cohesive.

That may have to do with Horton Humble and Rontherin Ratliff, highly accomplished Nola native members of the Level Artist Collective, whose works set the tone. Humble's arresting Women of Indigo, above, suggests worlds arising within worlds, as if ancient Ashanti earth goddesses reappeared as a towering, yet ethereal, vision of transcendence hovering above clamorous city streets, His nearby Man Tree painting of a human head appears, up close, to be comprised of icons and artifacts from the history of civilization. Rontherin Ratliff riffs on related themes in his mixed media sculptures, strikingly stark concoctions of architectural relics somehow imbued with hints of human consciousness as if building  materials had absorbed something of the spirit of the people they once sheltered. Amelia Broussard's nearby graphical works suggest topographical maps of the obscure corners of the psyche. Kevin Brisco's pop-realist portrait of the wreck of his old high school Honda Prelude is an inexplicably gorgeous evocation of a rite of passage -- of teenage cars as symbols of liberation and its limits. It is a theme amplified by his pop realist portraits -- including his canvases at the Good Children Gallery down the street, where they share wall space with intriguing graphical abstractions by Jessica Bizer, above left, among others. But perhaps the final word on the pop mythology of freedom appears at Barrister's Gallery where Daphne Loney's Death of a Disco Dancer sculpture, top, a horse-size unicorn lying in extremis on the floor as reflections from a disco ball bathe it in a slow funerary dirge of refractory luminosity. ~Bookhardt / Antenna Part 4: Work by Kevin Brisco Jr., Amelia Broussard, Horton Humble and Rontherin Ratliff, Through March 4, Antenna Gallery 3718 Saint Claude Ave., 250-7975.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

John Akomfrah: Precarity at the Ogden Museum; Odili Donald Odita: 15 Flag Installations (P.4)

New Orleans is often described as “mysterious,” but much of that may have to do with the mystery surrounding some of its most influential figures. The sudden rise to fame of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the legendary “inventor” of jazz, whose supersonic wailing cornet blasted him out of the Storeyville bordellos and into the limelight as Nola's most popular musician was even more suddenly cut short in 1907 when he was, at age 30, institutionalized for schizophrenia.

He left only a few old photos and many vivid legends as his legacy. Despite that dearth of detail, John Akomfrah’s Precarity three-screen video is often cited as one of P.4's most emblematic works for the way it evokes Bolden's brief presence among us by immersing us in the sights and sounds of his New Orleans as he wanders amid vivid figures in period garb in scenes interwoven with vintage images of his old riverside haunts and modern views of the city. Accompanied by a ghostly voice-over based on his fragmented ruminations, Precarity functions as an extraordinary example of intuitive time travel by Akomfrah, the Ghana-born, London-based winner of Britain's 2017 Artes Mundi Prize.

Those of us who are New Orleans natives grew up amid the legacy of the Anglo-American South's attempts to redefine our Creole heritage via laws and monuments, but Creole sensibilities were always more welcoming. In Prospect.4, Nigeria native Odili Donald Odita articulates that inclusive sensibility in the form of flags where interwoven bands of color reflect the intermingling of gravitas and buoyancy that characterize Creole values here and elsewhere. Located at 15 historically fraught sites like the spot where Homer Plessy was arrested, the school first integrated by Ruby Bridges, and the ferry to Algiers, where African slaves were held before being sold, they reflect Odita's expansive philosophy of social aesthetics –  a vision of a world where flags celebrate the contributions of all ethnicities rather than simply marking off national boundaries in an endlessly futile game of defense and conquest. ~Bookhardt / Precarity: 3-Channel Video on the Life of Buddy Bolden by John Akomfrah, Through Feb. 25, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600; Indivisible and Invincible: 15 Installations of Flags Designed by Odili Donald Odita, Through Feb 25
15 New Orleans Sites, Prospect.4, 689.6091.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Genevieve Gaignard at Ace Hotel (Prospect.4), Queer Tropics at Gallery X

“Identity” has been a hot topic in much of America since at least the 1960s. Los Angeles-based artist Genevieve Gaignard's exploration of her bi-racial identity was inspired by her Creole father and white mother. Her two room installation in the Ace Hotel lobby is inviting and accessible: you can walk in and make yourself at home. One room, top, reflects her father’s family roots in Nola via a tidy vintage living room adorned with family photos, bowling trophies and a classic 1960s dual portrait of president John F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King flanking three modern photo portraits of Creole women wearing tignons, the once mandatory colonial-era head coverings that black women subversively transformed into chic fashion statements. Here the three women appear as icons of cultural memory, timeless observers whose wary gazes remind us that history is never entirely past, but lives on in an endless variety of ways. Another space with church pews, mirrors and Gaignard's self portraits as characters reflecting a range of racial, regional and cultural variations suggests an old time chapel reborn as a space for pondering the fluid, situational nature of identity, a theme Gaignard renders with a colorful mix of irony, humor and pathos.
Queer Tropics, curated by Charlie Tatum, illustrates how the way the Western world romanticizes  the tropics in many ways parallels how LGBT people have long been portrayed as “exotic” in the fever dreams of the Western imagination. Here the mythology of the tropics as a realm of abandon, lassitude and “southern decadence” infuses an array of works by eight artists including some intriguing videos by Carlos Motta examining the legacy of early the Spanish missionaries' encounters with indigenous peoples, as well as some strategically surreal graphical works by Joiri Minaya, Adrienne Elise Tarver and Victoria Martinez, whose colorful floor to ceiling tapestry inspired by her Mexican neighborhood in Chicago conveys something of America's own new found exoticism. ~Bookhardt / Grassroots: Photographs Exploring Biracial Identity by Genevieve Gaignard (Prospect.4), Through February 24, Ace Hotel, 600 Carondelet St., 900-1180; Queer Tropics: Group Exhibition Exploring Identity and the Tropics, Through Feb. 25, Gallery X, 1612 O.C. Haley Blvd., 252-0136.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Bror Anders Wikstrom at NOMA

Dragon by Bror Anders Wikstrom, Proteus, 1904

When I was an art student at the University of New Orleans, I would stare at the name Wikstrom on the frieze of the New Orleans Museum of Art and mutter, “what the...” I had never seen that name in any art history book. Only later, when researching Mardi Gras, did it become clear he was a float designer. That seemed weird, but when I later saw some of his wilder imagery I realized his name belonged there – as a father of surrealism. His design for a 1907 Proteus parade float bedecked with humanoid sea creatures in a kind of kelp forest initially seemed like a deja-vu. Why? Then one day I noticed its similarity to one of my favorite Max Ernst paintings at NOMA, his circa 1943 Everyone Here Speaks Latin, which was considered radical at the time. Who was this guy?

Proteus Parade Float, 1907

Proteus Costume 1907
Bror Anders Wikstrom was a Swedish émigré painter active in Paris and New Orleans, where he eventually became a chief designer for Rex and Proteus. What stands out is the extent to which his designs paralleled the avant garde imagery of the Parisian symbolist painters such as Gustave Moreau or Odilon Redon. His 1904 Proteus Dragon float design, top, looks fairy tale-ish at first, but look again and all the diabolical terrors of Moreau, Redon and Ernst -- not to mention Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo -- are quivering in the details.

Max Ernst: The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1945
Likewise, his 1898 Proteus float, Devil's Basket features renaissance bon vivants and a fair-faced version of the devil himself. All seem to be having a nice time, recalling Mark Twain's admonition: “Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.” It's all par for the course for an expo that includes twenty float plates from the 1904 Krewe of Proteus parade and a bound set of float designs for the 1910 Rex "Freaks of Fable" parade. While Wikstrom's legacy as the all time king of carnival designers is well deserved, some of his contemporaries were often equally surreal and sophisticated in ways that are, with notable exceptions, somewhat less prevalent today. ~Bookhardt/ Bror Anders Wikstrom: Bringing Fantasy to Carnival, Through April 1, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100. More>>

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Angela King's Wisdom of the Swamp Goddess and Kristin Meyers' Sanctity Extended

Although many unusual art events have coincided with the Prospect.4 international art triennial, few are quite as unexpected as this Wisdom of the Swamp Goddess (installation, pictured) where large sheet metal paleolithic Venus of Willendorf replicas appear on the facade of 826 Gravier St. in the heart of the business district. Framed by cascades of cypress bark and sacred symbols based on the archetypal female trinity of the maiden, the mother and the crone, they are the work of gallerist and arts activist Angela King and her spiritual artist sisters, Elizabeth Conway, Sus Corez, Elena Walker, Elizabeth Eckman, Janet Baus, Nancy Gonsalves and Julie Jacobs – women for whom goddess spirituality is the original “old time religion.” King says Prospect.4's Lotus in Spite of the Swamp title reminded her of the ancient cypress trees of the Talisheek swamp that she experiences as “powerful wise beings...” who always impel her to return, “to be there, among these ancient earth mothers.”

Kristin Meyers' Sanctity Extended expo is inspired by Europe's Ex-Voto Anatomici grottos, and local equivalents like our St. Roch Chapel -- places where body parts are immortalized as icons of healing.  Here Meyers' array of bound figurative and reliquary forms reflect her own personal archetypal trinity expressed as her Introspection, Resilience and Devotion  found object works. Introspection -- a white fabric and lace female torso with surreal anatomical protrusions affixed with gauzy white wrappings – is emblematic for its exploration of the ancient art of binding as a way of focusing spiritual energies. An adjacent grotto fashioned from the gallery building's antique brick walls recreates a sense of the ancient Roman Catholic catacombs where the bones of saints and well-connected mortals were preserved for posterity. Although Meyer's Sanctity exhibition, like King's Swamp Goddess installation, reflect traditions handed down from antiquity, both perfectly complement our carnival season's celebration of ancient deities like Bacchus, Proteus, Iris and the like. ~Bookhardt / Wisdom of the Swamp Goddess: Monumental Multimedia Installation at 826 Gravier St., Through Feb. 28, The Goddess Project, 826 Gravier St.; Sanctity Extended: Sculpture and Mixed Media Installation by Kristin Meyers, Through Feb. 3, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pedro Lasch: Reflections on Time at M.S. Rau

We think we know time, but we mostly get it backwards. Literally: we view time through the rear view mirror of its passing, a process Western civilization has obsessively measured down to the nanosecond. Mexican artist Pedro Lasch's Prospect.4 exhibition, Reflections on Time, at M.S. Rau Antiques takes a deeper look into the culture of time in an installation of ornately intricate antique clocks in a gallery chamber lined with dark mirrors. The clocks are installed facing the mirrors, so we view them from the rear in much the way we view time itself. Their intricately crafted fronts appear amid reflections from around the room so it takes a moment to notice the ghostly images from art history subtly imprinted in mirrors as dark as the recesses of deep space. The result is a conceptual allegory of how physicists now view time and space as an interwoven continuum — a view that actually originated with Mesoamerican astronomers thousands of years ago, as Lasch reminds us with his Bodies and Stars installation of a preColumbian stone statue of a woman viewing the interwoven figures of an Aztec calendar subtly glistening within a mirror like polished obsidian.

Although Europe's understanding of time lagged centuries behind the ancient Maya and Aztec peoples, European craftsmanship could be impressive as we see in a an 1885 “Perpetual Calendar Clock” by Thomas Muirhead facing a dark mirror with translucent figures from Jean François de Troy's 1733 allegory painting, Time Unveiling Truth, top. The precision of the clock maker's art is strikingly evident in a circa 1900 “Waterwheel Automaton Clock” by Plachon of Paris as it faces a freeze frame sequence of photographs of music and time theorist David Epstein conducting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Orchestra. Some of the clocks suggest precocious Victorian surrealism but, taken as a whole, Lasch's installation depicts, as he puts it, “unique representations of time across history...” in a way that “allows the viewer's image to merge with the mirrors, integrating stories across centuries and worldviews.” ~Bookhardt / Reflections on Time: Installation of Dark Mirrors and Antique Clocks by Pedro Lasch, Through Feb. 24, M.S. Rau Antiques, 630 Royal St., 523-5660.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Nkisi for Jeffrey Cook at Boyd Satellite

Years ago, at an informal art exhibit, I encountered some box sculptures that almost looked almost as if bits of old wood and wayward objects had arranged themselves into little spirit houses made from fragments of memories and traces of souls. The artist was Central City native Jeffrey Cook, whose career as a dancer had taken him around the world, but who remained fascinated by his grandma's hoodoo rituals that he experienced as a child. His life experiences made it easy to relate to both African art and surrealist sculpture, which he seamlessly incorporated into his found object assemblages. Over time, he became quite successful. His work was widely collected, and his future looked bright until hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. He survived, but his psyche was shattered by the death and destruction he found all around him.
He was 48 when he passed away in 2009, but his unique spirit enlivens this memorial retrospective exhibit comprised of works loaned by many devoted collectors including Andy Antippas, Ron Bechet, Pia Ehrhardt and Stella Jones. Many are untitled, but a large spirit vessel assemblage, top, invokes his vision via a melange of ropes, bones, gourds and fibers arrayed around a African hat like an anatomical appendage flanked by canoe oars on either side. Dangling below, and encased in the dark, waxy resins that give the piece its rich patina are a series of brooms that hark to his grandma's hoodoo spiritual purification rituals involving brooms and Florida water. Related themes appear in a series of “shield” sculptures including an Appreciation Shield for Ole George (dedicated to George Dureau), where a framework of dark poles support a fabric shroud inscribed with mysterious markings. Jacob's Ladder is a spare, modernist metal shield influenced by legendary Xavier University art professor John Scott. Amid all this, Cook's early box sculptures like Post Card Erratum, above left, seem even more iconic than they did when I first encountered them years ago, perhaps because they now stand as reliquaries housing the irrepressible Jeffrey Cook spirit that Xavier art professor Ron Bechet says “...keeps him alive: Jeffery was of – and is – New Orleans.” ~Bookhardt / A Nkisi for Jeffrey Cook: Memorial Exhibition of Jeffrey Cook Sculpture, Through Feb. 25, Boyd Satellite Gallery, 440 Julia St., 899-4218.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Cornelia Hediger, Brittany Markert and Lauren Simonutti at the Grand Maltese Gallery

They sound a lot alike yet seem very different. Psychology and photography both came of age in 19th century Europe, where photography evolved from a realistic recording medium to an art in which the real and the fantastical share the stage, even as psychology similarly came to deal in both statistical analyses and human problems and potentialities. This surreal Catharsis expo, curated by Brittany Markert, may be small in scale but conveys uncanny psychic depth in the work of three female photographers whose imagery is especially  appropriate at the start of carnival -- a tradition we thought was a local quirk, but which really functions as a vast civic reenactment of Carl Jung's notions of the collective unconscious, or Jacob Moreno's psychodrama theories of role playing as a way of working through fears while unlocking the creative potential of our dreams and aspirations.
Fears can be crippling, as illustrated by the late Lauren Simonutti, top left, who transformed the isolation of mental illness into unsettling images that suggest what Franz Kafka might have done had he been a female hipster who heard voices, saw visions and crafted them into eerily beautiful photographs. Cornelia Hediger is a photo-collage artist whose images look so convincing that you have to look twice to see that the two ladies having a smoke and a cup of tea at a table beneath a baroque crucifixion painting are really the same person. Here, ornate plates with severed pig limbs insinuate the incipient savagery that lies just below the veneer of civilization. Brittany Markert's fantastical dream scenes are pure psychodrama in the surreal tradition of Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, Clarence Laughlin, Duane Michals and others who used photography as a portal to the psyche and brought back images of what they found there. Markert's untitled photograph of a man reading a bedtime story to a baby doll cradled by the nude “babe” on his lap, top, is a visual Zen puzzle that scrambles our usual preconceptions so what we see, and how we see it, becomes a mirror for our own processes of perception. ~Bookhardt /  Catharsis: Photographs by Lauren Simonutti, Cornelia Hediger and Brittany Markert Through Jan. 13, Grand Maltese Gallery, 3040 St. Claude Avenue, 330-1051.