Sunday, December 30, 2018

Labor Studies: Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick at the Contemporary Arts Center

The legendary local jazz patriarch, Ellis Marsalis, is often quoted as saying that in New Orleans culture “bubbles up from the streets.” Probably no photographers are more aware of that than Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, lifelong Lower 9th Ward residents who documented those streets for nearly forty years. This “Labor Studies” expo explores the lives of ordinary working folk as once plentiful longshoreman jobs were supplanted by hotel and restaurant work even as farm workers lost their livelihood to machines all over America. As witnesses to those changes, Calhoun and McCormick compiled, over decades, a vast photographic archive that amounted to an impressive life's work. Then, in 2005, most of it was inundated by hurricane Katrina's floodwaters.

Much of what we see is what could be scanned from moldy prints, negatives and slides kept frozen to preserve what was left of them. Despite the damage, many assumed a surreal second life due to eerie chemical changes in their emulsion, while those that remained intact live on as windows into the past and present. McCormick's portrait of Joyce Priestly, a sugarcane cutter at the Bessie K plantation, dates from the 1980s, but nothing seems to have changed since the 1780s. Machines now do those jobs – except at the former plantation now known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where photos from the early 1980s to the recent past reveal that most work is still performed by human labor, as we see in a view of a pair of mules with shirtless inmates tilling the soil with hand tools in the background. Despite being featured in every major art publication, and at every major local art museum as well as at international venues like the Whitney Museum in New York in 2016, and the 2015 Venice Biennale, Calhoun and McCormick have remained almost as below the radar as many of their subjects – for instance, the boy playing a horn on a street corner in a waterlogged image noted in their interview with the New Yorker magazine in 2010. His name was Winton Marsalis. ~Bookhardt / Labor Studies: Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Through Feb. 10, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805;      

Sunday, December 23, 2018

2018: The Year in Review

Monument to Latino Workers
When 2018 began, it had the makings of a monumental year. It was this city's' 300th anniversary, after all, and some monumental art news – for instance, the New Orleans Museum of Art's planned 6 acre expansion of its popular sculpture garden – only added to the celebratory aura. But the protracted controversy over the city's removal of Confederate monuments from their prominent locations last year raised lingering questions about the actual meaning and purpose of monuments that, after months of debate, crystallized into one fundamental question for both the city and its art community: which versions of history should we commemorate and how should we go about that process? In true New Orleans fashion, what happened was a mix of planning and surprise, deliberation and unexpected grass roots serendipity. 

Any city's tricentennial celebration might reasonably inspire art exhibitions involving elements of grandeur, and in that sense the New Orleans Museum of Art's spectacular “Orleans Collection” exhibit of masterworks from the 18th century collection of Nola's namesake, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, did not disappoint. Random references to the old European colonial powers also turned up in the Newcomb Art Museum's “Empire” expo that referenced New Orleans' history as a French and Spanish colony while celebrating the cultural contributions the ordinary local folk who made this city what it is. In a surprising twist, those working class heroes, whether famous or anonymous, emerged as a quiet but consistent presence that defined many of our most intriguing 2018 art events, in museums such as the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, for instance, in Elizabeth Bick's streetscape, above right, among any number of widely varied local venues.  

In the monumental vein, New Orleans maestro Franco Alessandrini's bronze and marble “Tribute to Latin American Workers,” top, was unveiled in Crescent Park on November 10th. Commissioned by retired New Orleans physician Dr. Juan Gershanik, the Creole-constructivist statue is dedicated to the Hispanic laborers who facilitated the city's rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina unexpectedly hinted at the revolutionary worker murals by Diego Rivera who, with his wife Frida Kahlo, is celebrated in a dual portrait exhibit at the  Mexican Cultural Institute. Topically related socially conscious art, such as Brandan Odum's mural of local civil rights leader A. P. Turaud and his wife Lucille in the lobby of the newly renovated Pythian Temple building, was unexpected augmented by a series of posters celebrating events like the successful 1867 protests to New Orleans streetcars that the Paper Monuments organization pasted on unoccupied buildings about town. The power of works on paper to immortalize the workers whose contributions are so often overlooked is exemplified by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormic's “Labor Studies” documentary photo expo, above, at the Contemporary Arts Center, a survey of the Lower 9th Ward natives' views of traditional Louisiana farm, dock and restaurant workers salvaged from their vast 40 year archive, much of which was lost to Hurricane Katrina. Curated by the CAC's Andrea Andersson, “Labor Studies” complements CAC exhibits by William Monaghan and Zarouie Abdalian that she says collectively reflect the “fragile and often invisible laboring community” that sustains so much of what we take for granted.

This year's most widely celebrated local monument to the laborers who built much of this state and nation was Kara Walker's massive working steam calliope sculpture, “Katastwóf Karavan,” above, dedicated to the memory of the African slaves held at Algiers Point before being sold. Walker's performance ended Prospect.4, “The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” on a high note when it closed on February 25th after a three month run that attracted over 100,000 visitors to view work by over 70 contemporary artists from the Caribbean, Africa and the Americas -- a number that Prospect's new director, Nick Stillman, says augers well for Prospect.5, slated to open in fall of 2020 under the creative direction of curators Naima Keith and Diana Nawi. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, it also named Christopher Alfieri as its new president and board chairman. The role played by Prospect New Orleans, since its spectacular inaugural Prospect.1 in 2008/2009, should never be underestimated. As the city changed, in many ways for the better, Prospect New Orleans was the catalyst and the challenge that caused so many artists to rise to the occasion, resulting in new experimental arts communities, most notably along the St. Claude corridor. Other changes at the top include Contemporary Arts Center Director Neil Barclay, who after ushering in new energy and focus is stepping down later this month as CAC veteran M.K Wegmann returns as Interim Director; and Gia Hamilton, who left her post as Director of the Joan Mitchell Center last August, has been named the new Director of the African American Museum, where where her plans include collaborations with cutting edge art organizations such as Independent Curators International among others similarly focused on collaborative innovation. Hamilton's flair for outreach was what successfully enabled the Joan Mitchell Center to become a vital part of the life of the city in ways that made everyone feel welcome and involved, and we look forward to seeing her do as much for the New Orleans African American Museum. +++  

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Production: Zarouhie Abdalian at the CAC

How did we get here? We are now at a point where a weird alchemy of digital and financial technology has created a massive identity crisis for much of America as resilient cities adapt to rapid change while some rural and industrial areas seem left behind due to challenges posed by automation and robotics. Our traditional notions of work, self-worth and wealth are explored in this “Production” exhibit of New Orleans native Zarouhie Abdalian's sculpture inspired by hand tools in particular and labor in general. Here she celebrates humble objects by reducing them to their essence, for instance in “Joint IX,” where a drafting compass, box wrench and industrial shears appear in a conical, Zen-like arrangement held in place by gravity. Their mirror finishes radiate an ethereal quality of light that evokes the aura of self-worth that once ennobled workers who now often feel sidelined by widespread workplace changes. 

The sheer weight of material objects lent gravitas to the labor required to work with them and the imprint of that labor is seen in a series of bas reliefs reflecting the force of the extraction tools used at a Mississippi chalk mine. Each is a contemplative aesthetic object as well as a mini-monument to the miners whose work exposed them to dire health hazards. In “Hull,” top, a ballast stone once used to stabilize the weight distribution of sailing merchant ships is ensconced on a gold plated square of sheet metal with upthrust corners that suggest delicate lotus petals as well as the impact of collisions involving heavy objects. Nearby, barely visible stitching on a wall-size “Banner” reads, “Let living labor live / Let dead labor die,” an oddly poetic quote from Karl Marx who never anticipated the zombie labor of modern digital robotics. A low key yet widely exhibited local artist whose work has appeared in the Whitney, Berlin, Shanghai, Moscow and Istanbul biennials, Abdalian brings a subtly expansive perspective to the paradoxes of our time as we try to cope with rapidly evolving technologies that often appear mired in seemingly endless unintended consequences. ~Bookhardt / Production: Mixed Media Sculpture by Zarouhie Abdalian, Through Feb 10, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Big" Works from the Ogden Museum Collection

In art as in life, things are not always what they seem. Art museums are often assumed to exhibit the best of the best, but lofty goals can be constrained by logistical considerations. This "Big" expo at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art lives up to its name with quite large works from its collection that are billed as "typically hidden from public view" due to their "grand scale." But does size alone make for a cohesive art show? Fortunately, these works also reflect some unique trends that motivated collectors and museum patrons to acquire outstanding regional art over several decades, works that suggest a kind of cultural cross section of unique local sensibilities that were shared by artists and collectors alike.
What stands out is how fresh many of these works still look decades after they were made. The late Robert Gordy was an iconic local artist until his death in 1986, and while most of his work crackled with a vibrant psychotropic electricity, figurative works like his 1972 “Two Faced” view of juxtaposed female heads (pictured, left) presaged America's current psychosexual gender controversies. Similarly, the late Clyde Connell's 1987 canvas, “Creatures of the Hot Humid Earth,” anticipated AfroFuturism via her deftly strategic use of mystical Egyptian, Ethiopian and Coptic symbolism. The sounds of New Orleans streets visually come alive in late local artist Jeffrey Cook's vibrant wall sculpture, “Makin' of a Melody,” where found objects and Caribbean colors resonate a silent hymn to the soul of our city. Much local painting featured an intuitive fusion of imagism and expressionism into a kind of Creole magic realism.

The legacy of imagism lives on in  Alabama-born Roger Brown's 1988  canvas “The Seven Last Plagues,” a haunting reminder of the not so distant past, even as North Shore artist Charles Blank's expressionistic 2001 “Pink Bombs” canvas, right, presaged America's perpetual Middle East warfare state – two representative examples in a varied yet surprisingly consistent expo featuring often timeless works by legendary area artists including Willie Birch, Nicole Charbonnet, Justin Forbes, Kendall Shaw, Fred Trenchard and Pat Trivigno ("Dancers of Delphi #2," 1986, above), among others. ~Bookhardt / "BIG" Works from  the Ogden Museum of Southern Art Collection, Through Feb. 17th, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp Street, 539-9600.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Mildred Thompson at NOMA

Lately, the New Orleans Museum of Art is a study in contrasts. Even as the "Orléans Collection" of Old Master works originally assembled by Nola's namesake, Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans, overwhelms the eye, this more modest "Against the Grain" expo of works by late abstract artist Mildred Thompson, top, manages to evoke the subtle magic of the ordinary while remaining far more down to earth. Part of a generation of great, but often overlooked, black 20th century female modern artists, Thompson and her peers were often ahead of their time for the way their universal vision set the stage for the 21st century's global perspective. Thompson may have been the most eclectic and experimental of the lot, and this exhibition, co-curated by Katie Pfohl and Melissa Messina, and organized around a nucleus of starkly yet lyrically emblematic works acquired through NOMA's Leah Chase Fund, is her first solo museum show in 30 years. 

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1936 Thompson, as a black female artist in the 1950s and 1960s, was ignored in New York but found success in Europe, where most of these “Against the Grain” works were made.  “Wood Picture,” 1972, right, suggests nothing and everything as homely wooden planks part to reveal a flash of royal purple in a composition that makes distinct visual sense while eluding didactic conceptual analysis. “Wood Picture,” 1966, above, a white on white composition of tautly arranged wooden rectangles, resonates a haunting silent music like a Bauhaus take on a Diddley Bow composition. A silkscreen print, “Untitled (# 111),” may initially suggest pristine European abstraction, but look again and it recalls African patterning, like a wildebeest reduced to its abstract essence. Thompson's range of associations reminds us that all humans are products of diverse cultural legacies built on DNA derived from global migrations that ultimately originated in Africa. As she put it: “There are recordings in our genes that remember Africa. If they are strong enough and we are free of false denials, they will surface and appear without deliberation no matter what we do." ~Bookhardt / Mildred Thompson: “Against the Grain” Through Aug 31st, 2019, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Duke of Orleans Collection at NOMA

What's in a name? Because Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, was the interim French Regent standing in for France's boy king, Louis XV, who was just 8 years old in 1718 when Nola was founded, he was ripe for having a city named after him. But who was he, really, and what did he have to do with us? The 40 masterworks from his “Orleans” collection may initially remind us that piety and royal pomposity were the dominant themes of his time, but numerous picaresque scenes of mythic deities acting out their all too human intrigues provide lots of quirky counterpoint. Antoine Dieu's “Allegory of Philippe, duc d'Orléans,” right, portrait of him surrounded by mythic deities astride a world globe evokes a vintage carnival ball invitation while reassuringly complementing works where familiar figures like Bacchus share space with stuffy French royals and tortured martyrs. Close inspection reveals that Philippe was a collector with an unusually finely honed personal aesthetic. He even studied painting, and his artistic flair affected not only what he chose to collect, but also his curatorial vision, providing a sense of how our city's namesake might really be a long lost relation after all.

Rather than arranging his collection in the formal topical manner of his time, he apparently hung work according to his own unique visual instincts, so a somber religious tableau might share space with a suggestive nude scene like Alessandro Alori's "Venus Disarming Cupid," above -– a sensibility replicated in our local street schemes where Piety and Desire coexist in close proximity. Similarly, Nicolas Poussain's “Ecstasy of St. Paul” view of the holy martyr ascending to the heavens might also pass for a disoriented Greek deity struggling to find his way back Mt. Olympus. Organized by NOMA’s Senior Research Curator of European Art, Vanessa Schmid, these masterworks, loaned by leading museums across Europe and America, reflect the essence of a unique sensibility that influenced the future direction of European art and collecting. It is a complicated sensibility that unexpectedly resonates with the unconventional spirit of the American city that bears his name. ~Bookhardt / “The Orleans Collection:” Forty Masterworks from the Duke of Orleans Collection, Through Jan. 27th, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

"New Southern Photography" at the Ogden

Touted as as “the largest photography exhibition at the Ogden Museum to date,” this sprawling “New Southern Photography” show, curated by Richard McCabe, features diverse yet cohesive selections by 25 emerging and mid-career Southern artists. Presented as a series of photographic essays reflecting the contemporary cultural paradoxes that define the old former Confederate states, the works on view pick up where the often deeply psychological pioneers of New South photographic modernism like William Eggleston, Sally Mann and William Christenberry left off.

For instance, Alabama native Celestia Morgan's “Redline” series employs familiar postmodern socio-economic tropes via juxtaposing geometric map-like shapes in the sky with photographs of crumbling old houses in neighborhoods that were “redlined”-- deemed off limits for loans by banks that saw them as risky credit ghettos. If that sounds clinical, many of Morgan's house portraits evoke an elegiac pathos that recalls the poignant aura of abandonment of 1930s social documentary classics by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange. Postmodern sociology of a more didactic-ironic sort appears in Nancy Newberry's portraits of stereotypical Texans in cowboy hats, Mexicans in sombreros, and flashy marching band majorettes, all of whom portray the self-conscious social constructs of times and places that tend to confuse style with character. Elizabeth Bick's more distinctly formal views of pedestrians navigating Houston's austere architectural canyons appear as figures in a complicated visual “Street Ballet,” above right, recalling the stark musical geometry of classical Bauhaus compositions as well as Harry Callahan's meticulously rhythmic urban industrial photographic streetscapes.  

Andrew Moore's “Zydeco Zinger” view of a ravaged carousel in the post-Katrina ruins of the Six Flags Theme Park in New Orleans East, top, recalls the eerie sense of wonder that characterized much Victorian travelogue photography -– but a similarly near-preternatural quality of presence seen in the photographic portraits of that era when extended exposure times were the norm, resurfaces in Susan Worsham's “Marine,” above left, an image so mysteriously simple yet fully realized that it seems timeless despite its recent, 2009, vintage.

Likewise, Louviere + Vanessa's  “Resonantia” series of musical notes rendered as gold leaf photo-mandalas, above, recall Nikola Tesla's 19th century cyclotron experiments in a vision of time where past and present are as interwoven as the interplay of dark and light in a photographic image. ~Bookhardt / “New Southern Photography: New Views of the Evolving American South," Through March 10, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600,

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Bishop and Pavy at Arthur Roger

Jacqueline Bishop's “Human Threads” series of paintings on linen, paper and vintage little girls' dresses reflect her ongoing exploration of how civilization and wild nature affect each other. In an age when natural disasters occur with increasing frequency as global warming continues unabated, works like “Peaceable Kingdom” depict our strained relationship with nature. Here a muddy mound of roses, pitcher plants, pelicans and viny tendrils smolder under a fiery sky where flocks of small birds ply smoky convection currents in an apocalyptic painterly crescendo in what amounts to a capsule history of a planet earth that has seen many beginnings and endings.

In an age of mass distraction it can often be hard to see the forest for the trees even as vast tracts of them burn out of control, but “Ginko,” a kind of camouflage pattern painted on a vintage cotton girl's dress, reminds us that this ancient tree species' resilience enabled it to survive over millions of years since the earth was young, a quality humans might do well to emulate. “Natural History,” top, offers a contrasting narrative in the form of a blue monolith like an iceberg in which the ghostly remains of extinct species are entombed just as Egyptian pharaohs were entombed in their pyramids. By extending linear notions of time and space into a mythic realm, as exemplified by "Black Bayou," above right, Bishop  imbues these works with a deja vu quality that suggests an evolving visionary ecology in its own right.

Francis X. Pavy's “36 Views of the Gulf South,” inspired by Hokusai’s similarly titled woodblock series based on Mount Fuji, effectively illustrates the way south Louisiana's lush tropical nature has inspired the lushness of its culture. Works like “The Moth Where Your Heart Should Be,” a simple yet mysterious composition of marsh grass, moths and hands with crossed fingers, illustrates the almost hieroglyphic fluency of Pavy's work as a kind of visual language that blends coastal ecology with the topography of the psyche in a place where, as Lafcadio Hearn once put it, “all things seem to dream.” ~Bookhardt / “Human Threads:” New Mixed Media Paintings by Jacqueline Bishop; “36 Views of the Gulf:” New Wood Cut Prints by Francis X. Pavy, Through Dec. 22, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

William Monaghan at the CAC

The homing instinct of certain creatures, for instance, swallows returning to Capistrano, is legendary, and Louisianians are no exception. Childhood impressions count, and New Orleans native William Monaghan was fascinated by the machinery where his father worked at Reily Coffee Company. After studying architecture and art at Harvard and Yale, his fascination with machinery endured through his years as a builder and a sculptor in the Northeast. He moved back to New Orleans five years ago, but his most dramatic visit was just after hurricane Katrina when he searched for his mother in waste-deep floodwaters. She survived, but many homes did not, so he founded the Build It Now nonprofit to help local residents build affordable, eco-friendly new homes based on traditional local designs.

His “I-Object” exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center harks to metal construction materials and the machinery that made them. Recalling the gritty found-object assemblage art of the 1960s, untitled works like a magenta rhapsody of twisted steel and metal mesh (detail, top) hark to the soulful aura of distressed and discarded machine parts that served us dutifully before ending up in a scrap pile. Mounted on wood, their monochromatic finishes emphasize ripples of light and shadow on flattened surfaces that resonate a rhythmic, painterly musicality while suggesting a fateful encounter of the Tin Man, from the Wizard of Oz, with a vintage Sherman tank. The sheer force used in the making of metal machine parts gives these works a silent inner pathos that we sense on a subliminal level.

The metal forms that comprise these compositions harks to the early 20th century futurist art movement that embraced disruptive industrialism as an ideal, but the ironic approach of the assemblage artists and found object sculptors of the 1960s anticipated post-industrialism and the decline of the Rust Belt, as we see in a series of Monaghan's prescient earlier works that neatly round out the vision of this Nola native who saw the past and future, not as opposites, but as an ongoing, organic continuum. ~Bookhardt / “I-Object:” Metal Sculpture by William Monaghan, Through Feb. 10, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805     

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Lina Iris Vikor at New Orleans Museum of Art

History just gets curiouser the more you look into it. To most of us, the antebellum slavery era that ended with the Civil War exists as a series of flashbacks to old text books, statues and movies, and some may also recall that the African nation of Liberia was intended to be a home for former slaves. British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor's work recalls its history as an offshoot of the American abolitionists' romantic vision of “the Libyan Sibyl” as a mythic prophetess of the slave trade, but in her large mixed media works, Viktor not only harks to the arcane mysteries of the past but, using herself as a model, morphs into modern time-transcending sibyl who embodies an Afro-futurist notion of boundless possibility. Civilization began in Africa, after all, and if Viktor's gilded baroque invocations of deeply personal possibility recall Austrian maestro Gustav Klimpt's use of gold as an elemental agent of timelessness, her imagery's roots in the Egyptian Book of the Dead suggest a vision in which time becomes an infinitely variable color on the artist's palette, a form of energy that transcends traditional limits through the sheer force of the artistic imagination.
Unfettered imagination and intuition were the babies that postmodernism threw out with the bathwater, but Viktor's exhibit of eleven large works in New Orleans Museum of Art's atrium lobby conveys a sense of boundless resourcefulness in works like “Eleventh,” top, where the artist's retro-Egyptian pose appears integrated into a Liberian tribal map where geographical forms meld seamlessly with the African fabrics she is wearing.

In “First” she reticently gazes backward at a floral grid like a trellis in which time appears as an organic efflorescence, but in “Fourth” reappears as a mythic being who merges the gilded formalism of ancient Egypt with the infinitely shimmering depths of the sub-Saharan world. As Crescent Park and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture lead architect, Sir David Adjaye, recently put it, her work “... crosses confidently across a landscape of science, technology, culture and identity with a timeless elegance and a casual defiance that is definitively modern.” ~Bookhardt / Lina Iris Viktor: “A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred,” Through Jan. 6, 2019, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.  See Also: Lina Iris Viktor and the Black Panther Video Controversy.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sacabo at A Gallery for Fine Photography

What if you came home one day and everything was almost, but not quite, exactly as you had left it? Small but pervasive changes can suddenly become disturbing when discovered.  Josephine Sacabo has lived in the French Quarter since the 1970s, but lately when she returned from stays at her retreat home in in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, she was jarred by the graffiti she encountered on her daily walks from her French Quarter home to her Marigny studio. She was struck by graffiti tags that seemed far more misogynistic then anything she had ever encountered in San Miguel. As an artist who spent much of her life exploring the poetics of the feminine with the French Quater as a backdrop, the pop-misogynist messaging of the grafitti stuck her as an affront, but because she is an artist motivated by curiosity she decided to transform what she saw into something new, a body of work that involved the direct confrontation of her feminine poetics with the graffiti she found so disorienting.

Although this Tagged series reflects one artist's experience, it also serves to remind us of how artists have historically responded to disorienting times by producing profoundly psychological work ranging from Hieronymus Bosch's disturbing 15th century allegories to Banksy's recent Girl with Baloon canvas that self-shredded upon being sold at auction a few weeks ago. Here one of Sacabo's pensive, poetic nudes appears with the word “Lewd” in large, gloppy grafitti lettering, while another ethereal nude appears with the message “Real Ho Git Down On Da Flo Like A Batch...” scrawled across her delicate skin. The fact that the gangsta rap-style message was likely the work of a white gutter punk subsidized by his family back in suburbia makes the cognitive dissonance all the more peculiar. Sulk, a visual tossed salad of a woman's face and hands assailed by assertive words and graphics recalls German expressionism, but Bigotry, top, completes the transformation of Sacabo's original vision into a new, street noise-inflected hybrid, a visual vortex that comments on the graffiti commentary in a quirky gesture of aesthetic role reversal. ~Bookhardt / Tagged: Photogravures by Josephine Sacabo, Through December, A Gallery For Fine Photography, 241 Chartres St., 568-1313.   

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Raine Bedsole at Callan Contemporary

“Jesus was a sailor, when he walked upon the water...  only drowning men could see him..” So opined Leonard Cohen in his epochal 1967 ballad, Suzanne. Similarly, the historical Buddha is often depicted serenely floating on a lotus flower. If spirituality is so closely linked with water, New Orleans may be the most spiritual city in America. If that sounds far fetched, this Passage expo extends Raine Bedsole's  long exploration of spirit vessels that, like New Orleans itself, can seem magically suspended in a sea of humidity. So what are we to make of this armada of welded bronze, copper, and steel pirogues that float in space in much the way deceased Egyptian pharaohs sailed across the night sky in buoyant Nile barques when they died. These are hardly uncharted waters for Bedsole, whose skeletal vessels have been a consistent theme, but each new iteration reveals new facets of her ongoing investigation via new tidal currents of connections. Here the spindly crosshatching of Lachesis blurs the  boundaries between Native American canoes and both the verdant veinous expanses of banana tree leaves and the gossamer wings of vintage airplanes. Likewise the swampy streamers dripping from the similarly skeletal Maia suggest bejeweled root systems that blur the boundaries between the earth and the sea in a sensibility that evokes a perspective beyond the all-consuming currents of techno-minutia that that the 21st century imposes upon us.

Indeed, contemporary techno-minutia is just the latest version of a very old story that was once succinctly summarized by a late lawyer friend of mine: “Life is a hustle.” But, as the Buddha, Jesus, Taoist sages and saints of all stripes all agreed, just beyond the latest hustle is a chill space where the connectivity far exceeds anything available on your cellphone. Those broader and more supportive currents are silently yet resonantly conveyed in Bedsole's Buddhas, top, as they seem to float on lotus petals amid climbing vines in a realm where addictive algorithms melt into the oceanic currents of the cosmos. Or as Bedsole herself puts it: “When I have dreams of flying, I am always in a boat.” ~Bookhardt / Passage: New Work by Raine Bedsole, Through Oct. 29th, Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518;

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Simon Gunning at Arthur Roger

Simon Gunning's paintings can be deceptive at first glance. His swamp scenes may recall the great 19th century tropical nature painters, but his vision is ultimately broader than mere pictorialism. In the past he faithfully recorded this region's gritty industrial complexes as well as its verdant natural habitat, and here we see how some modest human interventions can blend into the region's natural ecology. Anyone who has spent time around local wetlands has seen the remains of old boats rotting in shallow waters where they provide shelter for aquatic life, and these works suggest how man and nature can co-exist in a realm where birth and death, creation and decay, are all interwoven. For instance, The Haunted Wreck of Lady Pontchartrain, top, reveals a vintage, partially submerged fishing vessel with its wooden hull unraveling like a wicker basket as sea birds peer from the gaping holes in its cabin as if from box seats overlooking an aquatic opera in the murky gray waters below. An antique bridge arcs across the horizon like a rusty rainbow as storm clouds brew in the distance in a scene that reminds us why the once popular notion of “man's conquest of nature” never quite caught on here.

We live in a region where endless varieties of flora and fauna flourish in jungle-like profusion even as rot inevitably follows in close proximity. This can seem un-American but is distinctly picturesque. In Behind the Batture, a bedraggled old work boat has found a final resting place in the shallows as a blue heron stands sentry on its stern. Reeds and rush willows frame this moldering old industrial relic in a way that lends it an almost poetic dignity, while Baudelaire's Dream, above left, a kind of aquatic pauper's cemetery for the carcasses of moldering fishing boats, suggests a celebration of the beauty of decadence. This stands in marked contrast to overtly sublime works like Gunning's 11 feet wide magnum opus, The Majestic Swamp, a vision of moss-draped cypresses rising cathedral-like over rookeries of exotic birds in a timeless scene that suggests the birth of the world. This alternation between splendor and decadence paradoxically suggests how  unpredictability and impermanence can lend an unexpected sense of magic and meaning to life as it is lived. ~Bookhardt / Shipwrecks and the Atchafalaya: Paintings by Simon Gunning, Through Oct. 27, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.  

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Past, Present & Future: Photography at NOMA

 When the massive Looking Again: Photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art book came out last spring, many local art buffs were stunned by the scale and depth of a collection that had only been seen in little snips and snatches over the years. The book not only revealed that NOMA's photography shows had only barely touched the tip of the iceberg, but that NOMA had actually been an art photography pioneer for over a century. This Past, Present Future show revisits some of this forgotten history while providing a preview of the collection's future mingled with some colorful side trips along the way. Back in 1918, NOMA – then called the Delgado Museum of Art after its Jamaica-born founder, Isaac Delgado – staged an art photography show featuring work by the leading luminaries of the day. This exhibition includes a partial recreation of it with works by Alfred Stieglitz, Gertrude Kasebier, Laura Gilpin and Edward Steichen – including his legendary study of sculptor Auguste Rodin silhouetted next to his two most famous works, Le Penseur and his Monument to Victor Hugo.

This was heady stuff for a small local museum, and viewing these works today enables us to revisit the origins of photography's vintage avant garde worldview. Another series, The Present, features recently acquired works including Robert Mapplethorpe's portrait of his local mentor, George Dureau, and Joel Levinson's dramatic 1979 photo-montage, Fractions (pictured), which uses spliced TV images to predict the confusing, super-saturated digital media environment in which we find ourselves ensnared today. The Future includes some remarkable promised works from major local photography collectors including Tina Freeman and Dr. Russell Albright, among others whose generosity ensures that NOMA's photography collection will remain among the finest in the nation.

These works are complemented by a small separate expo featuring images by legendary Nola cameraman Dell Hall, whose Emmy-Award winning efforts remind us why local TV news teams, which often covered national and international events, were for decades considered among America's most dynamic and pioneering. ~Bookhardt / Past, Present, Future: Building Photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art; Best Seat in the House: Photographs by Dell Hall, Through Jan. 6, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Bizer at Good Children; Torres Tama at UNO

Amid all the celebratory hoopla surrounding this city's Tricentennial, it is easy to forget that autumn, 2018, marks the 10th anniversary of the St. Claude co-op gallery district that sprang up amid the community activism that followed in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Jessica Bizer is a longtime Good Children gallery artist who in many ways typifies the district's playfully experimental approach to art making. This Rainbow in the Dark series reflects her pop culture flair harnessed to the jagged psychic intensity of old time European expressionism in works like Energy Club and Vacation, among others that suggest a time-transcending collaboration of Vasily Kandinsky and David Lynch for the way they mingle suspenseful theatricality and formal dynamism. Bizer goes full tilt psychedelic with her wall size, 9 by 22 feet digital mural, Crystal Society (pictured), reminding us that psychedelic art is now not only a historic genre, but one that has recently attained new relevance with advances in the use of psychotropic substances by the medical community for treating PTSD and the like. Most mainstream galleries remain cautious, but St. Claude offers unlimited opportunities for experimentation.
New Orleans artist-activist Jose Torres Tama prefaces his drawings exhibit at UNO St. Claude with a reminder that this city's recovery from hurricane Katrina was built largely on the backs of thousands of often undocumented Hispanic workers who did the heavy grunt work with admirable efficiency. We owe them a great deal, but his drawings stylistically hark to the turbulent history of revolutionary labor movements as imagined by legendary Mexican and German artists,  and while conceptually relevant to  current controversies emanating from the White House, their rather melodramatic look flamboyantly merges art historical sensibilities with America's conflicted social subcurrents. So Hard Living is an interesting series of drawings that often reflects Torres Tama's ongoing historical obsessions as as much as the contemporary subjects that inspired them. ~Bookhardt / Rainbow in the Dark: New Work by Jessica Bizer, Through Oct. 7, Good Children Gallery, 4037 St. Claude Ave., 616-7427; Hard Living in the Big Easy: New Work by Jose Torres Tama, Through Oct. 6, UNO St. Claude Gallery, 2429 St. Claude Ave., 280-6493.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Ryn Wilson at The Front

Beyond inspiring major Mardi Gras parades like Bacchus, Proteus and Orpheus, the mythic deities of  antiquity remain fascinating today for the way they embody both cosmic powers and human foibles. They were a lot like us -- even goddesses had to deal with gender issues – which inspired Nola-based artist Ryn Wilson to create her own mythology that not only mingled antiquity and futurism, but did so from an eco-feminist perspective. The result is Mirroria, a kind of multi-media mirror world replete with its own mythic figures and tribes, and the dreams and challenges they embody. They resemble us for the way their lust for power, wealth and glory caused them to lose sight of the natural world until, one day, the nourishing waters they took for granted ran dry. As they withered, a heroine goddess named Jun saw that their grandiose hubris was the root cause of the drought, and used persuasion, magic and self-sacrifice to restore their place in the natural order.

It is an ambitious project that transforms the gallery into a kind of reliquary of artifacts from a parallel universe, including fashions, furnishings, rituals and lifestyles seen in a digital video Mirroria (still, top), while illustrating how a technologically adept society nearly destroyed itself before transforming into an ecological, femme-centric culture that remained rooted in ancient shamanic and nature-based traditions. Wilson is not the first to fuse elements of classical mythology and science fiction, but here she brings her cinematic flair to bear on works that illustrate the various tribes of Mirroria including the technocratic “Geometrics” administrative class as well as “Mystic Nomads,” “Tropic Warriors” (above) and the “Zodiacs.” Wilson says “Mirroria is a body of work” that “uses feminist ideas to transform the current cultural narrative” by challenging “the worldview that war, domination, and greed are necessary to run the world.” Although it can also be argued that powerful women have historically contributed to making our world the mess that it is today, Wilson's audacious and cohesive visual counter-narrative at least gives us something to think about at a time when mindless hubris seems more prevalent than ever. ~Bookhardt /  Mirroria: Mixed Media Installation by Ryn Wilson, Through Oct. 7th, The Front, 4100 St. Claude Ave., 920-3980;