Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Paper Machine: Gutenberg in the 9th Ward

The ghost of Johannes Gutenberg haunts the Lower 9th Ward. The 15th century German inventor of movable type not only made the Bible widely available for the first time, but also everything else that has appeared in print ever since. Gutenberg's old technology lives on today in the letterpress and other laborious, but deeply personal, forms of printing favored by artists and eccentrics of all stripes. That said, the Paper Machine, a 5,000 square foot print shop for hand crafted printing on St. Claude Avenue in the lower 9th Ward, took people by surprise. What is it? But the recent grand opening of its Artist Book Collection put it all in context with a lecture by University of Alabama professor and author, Jeff Weddle, whose Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and the Loujon Press tells the story of how Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb crafted beat poetry classics like Charles Bukowski's first published book, as well as their own edgy, literary journal, The Outsider, and even a deluxe Henry Miller monograph on their letterpress in the French Quarter in the 1960s. 
The result of a collaboration between Atlanta's Dashboard U.S. and local Nola institutions Antenna and Southern Letterpress, the Paper Machine is housed in a two-story midcentury modern cement box transformed by Carl Joe Williams' vivid paint scheme into a kind of Afro-pop cubist mirage, top. In the lobby, a whimsical two story kinetic sculpture, Paper Machine, top left, by Chris Deris sets the tone. Suggesting an ad hoc monument to the spirit of invention, it becomes improbably operational as gears and pulleys whir into action, ultimately yielding unique artist prints. In the rear, the fully functional printshop operated by Southern Letterpress offers an extensive array of custom printing processes that lend themselves to the often quirky needs of artists working with paper as a medium – but even here some vintage equipment used by the legendary Gosserand Superior Printers that provided classic bold face posters for the old Nola R&B scene lends an aura of history to this relatively new facility that first opened its doors on November 29, 2017. The hand crafted artist books on view in the upstairs gallery add yet another dimension to this multidimensional space. ~Bookhardt / The Artist Book Collection at Paper Machine, Ongoing, The Paper Machine, 6330 St. Claude Ave., 264-8267.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Nola Tricentennial Black Art at Stella Jones

Comprised of over 60 works, this sprawling expo at Stella Jones offers a multifaceted view of centuries of history as interpreted by over two dozen black artists. The title is actually Made (in) Louisiana with the “in” scratched out to signify that these works reflect local sensibilities even if the artists are based  elsewhere. What we see reflects a range of subjective and objective views that fuse official histories with poetic sensibilities. In that sense, Nola aritst EPaul Julien's portrait of Toussaint L'Ouverture, above, is emblematic, not simply because he was Haiti's greatest revolutionary leader against French colonial rule, but also because France's savage response caused much of Haiti's Afro-Creole professional class to emigrate to Nola where they doubled the city's population by 1810, cementing our cultural identity as North America's most Caribbean city. Related history turns up in Jamaican painter Patrick Waldemar's portrait of the legendary Nola vodou priestess, Marie Laveau, whose husband, Jacques Paris, was a Haitian carpenter who fled his homeland's turmoil.

Revolution takes many forms and nola native Steve Prince's wildly expressionist block print Rosa Parks depicts the civil rights icon's powerfully peaceful resistance when told to give her seat to a white public bus passenger in 1955. But Keith Duncan somehow compresses decades of history into a single image in his colorfully evocative painting, Civil Rights Movement. The beat goes on today in various ways, for instance, in the gritty yet often celebratory scenes of African American life woven into the black and white stripes of an American flag collage by Cey Adams, above, whose graphics became part of hip hop history through his work for Def Jam Records. Closer to home, Nola sculptor Jean-Marcel St. Jacques' colorful wooden assemblage, left, made from the salvaged remains of old Treme homes evokes visions of Marie Laveau reborn as an abstract vodou modernist – a sensibility echoed in John Barnes' Field Slaves Locker Room sculpture, a kind of ad hoc spirit house on stilts. Although wildly eclectic and a tad uneven, this Stella Jones tricentennial extravaganza embodies the buoyant resilience of this region and its people in the face of sometimes daunting odds. Made Louisiana: New Orleans Tricentennial Group Exhibition, Through May 31, Stella Jones Gallery, 201 St. Charles Ave., Suite 132, 568-9050.      

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Ben Depp at A Gallery for Fine Photography

Have you ever dreamed you could fly like an eagle, gliding over remote places that we rarely ever see? Environmental photographer, Ben Depp, does that routinely in a flimsy motor-powered paraglider, soaring for hours above the surface of south Louisiana's swamps in search of vivid views of our changing coastline. The otherworldly and often devastatingly revealing, nature of these Bayou's End images betray no trace of the grueling endurance that went into their making; they simply appear as colorful visual revelations that fuse art and science into a new, poetically holistic kind of insight. The 19th century writer Lafcadio Hearn once described these regions as places where “all things seem to dream,” but that beauty has clearly taken a disturbing turn in vast swaths of marshlands so riddled with industrial canals that they resemble delicate green lace ripped to shreds, rapidly dissolving into open sea. Traces of the old beauty remain, but palpable signs of a once thriving, but now drowning, coast are an inescapable presence.

Depp's focus on environmental photojournalism for publications like Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic lend a real world depth to dreamy compositions like his Mother Cabrini view of a wrecked fishing trawler amid dead marsh grasses near Venice, Louisiana, top left. Here the striking view of a capsized vessel is so iconic that it could serve equally well as an illustration for a children's story or an annotated scientific thesis. American Bay is an idyllic vision of the misty, mirror-like sea lapping the shifting sands of Plaquemines Parish, but Retreating Shoreline resembles an ecological crime scene for the way Elmer's Island, off Jefferson Parish, appears ravaged by predatory human incursions. Depp's boldly graphical compositional flair defines works like Cameron Parish, above, where evenly spaced rock jetties transform Gulf waves into a baroque watery filigree lapping a fragile sandy shore. In Jeanerette, slashes of blue sky reflected from an inundated cane field suggest an ominous vision by a Cajun Anselm Kiefer, but Trees Recover after Flooding, top, is a vision of Vermillion Parish as fantastical as any Max Ernst landscape. In this Bayou's End show, Depp vividly illustrates that in Louisiana the boundaries between art and life are as shifting as the boundaries between the land and the sea. ~Bookhardt / Bayou’s End: Photographs of the South Louisiana Swamps by Ben Depp, Through June 30th, A Gallery For Fine Photography, 241 Chartres St., 568-1313.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Lee Friedlander at NOMA

Jazz and abstract modern art can almost seem to have been separated at birth, but such details tend to be lost on most art historians. Pioneer abstractionist Wassily Kandinsk's first non-objective paintings appeared around the same time New Orleans jazz burst on the scene in the early 20th century. Jazz was the first truly improvisational Western musical idiom and visual abstraction followed suit via the work of the dadaists surrealists, including the abstract photography of  Man Ray, among others. Fast forward to the 1960s and Lee Friedlander, long legendary for his photos of  musicians, attained international fame as a great American art photographer known for his paradoxical ability to render totally realistic images that read like stark deadpan abstraction.

How can that be? For starters, Friedlander discards the optical “single point perspective” that historically defined Western painting and photography in favor of compositions based on random patterns of peripheral perception. New Orleans, 1958, top, unites his prolific local jazz documentation with his visionary abstraction in a single, strikingly evocative, image. New Orleans, 1969, above, a composition centered on a car's rear view mirror, explodes Baronne street into a kaleidoscopic articulation of office towers, taxis, bars and theaters like a visual version of Brian Eno's ambient music. If Friedlander seems to be messing with our heads, what he is really giving us is his version of the raw visual data that our eyes see before our brains start  frantically trying to process it into views that fit our preconceived ideas about the world around us.
His photos of musicians ranging from mega-hit superstars to traditional jazz legends whose national fame extended mainly to the cognoscenti, were often no less quirky, as we see in an off-stage view of Ray Charles gesturing with his hands, expressing the unfathomable. In an emotionally seismic head shot of Aretha Franklin, left, the soul diva seems to express all the ecstasies and agonies that forged her sound and enabled her to speak for so many. Legendary boogie-woogie avatar and former boxer and Yellow Pocahontas “spy boy,” Champion Jack Dupree, appears as a rugged buccaneer of back street Nola musical genius as John Coltrane visually resonates the sleekly chill aura of a recording angel of mellifluous modern jazz. In these works, Friedlander's deeply psychological affinities and contrapuntal buoyancy are eloquently on view. As Preservation Hall Creative Director Ben Jaffe once described his approach:  “You have to understand the rhythm of life to document life.” ~ Bookhardt / Louisiana Roots and American Musicians: Photographs by Lee Friedlander, Through June 17, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Vessels of Mercy and Rath at Barrister's

Ocean currents travel in circles. Time is also a current, so here we are, contemplating our 300th year as an urban island just upriver from a restless sea that threatens our existence even as it nourishes our identity as a unique global city. It is a poetic paradox elaborated by 15 artists in this Vessels of Mercy, Vessels of Wrath expo curated by Nola Croatian, Serge Loncar. Sadly, the sea is deteriorating rapidly, acidifying and becoming choked with trash. Here Kristijan Murina's ship sculpture of a ghost freighter Leute Moj, cobbled from scrap metal and lost objects, suggests a vessel of commerce in a related state of dereliction. Nearby, a suspended skeletal boat by Raine Bedsole draped with cobalt blue streamers evokes the ethereal barques that ferried deceased pharaoh's on their journeys across the sky.

Our blood began as seawater before becoming flesh, including the hands that shaped the man-made devices that harnessed the forces of the watery deep. Sailor's knots are man-made loops that mimic the loop currents of the ocean as seen in Matthew Shain's knot photographs that focus our gaze on how even the most commonplace objects can contain hints of the eternal. The relentless sea requires resiliency on our part, a quality symbolized by the bobbing of buoys and bottles. Chris Saucedo's Self Portrait as Water Bottle Buoy sculpture features a torso-size water bottle linked with rope to an anchor in a visual paradox that contrasts human buoyancy with looming sea level rise. Robert Tannen's Stealth Sailboat is a high tech boat of last resort, but Serge Loncar's The Seventh Continent-- drawings and photographs of fantastical gargantuan container ships -- considers how a 21st century techno-Noah might respond to the potential deluge posed by relentless global warming.

Other standouts among the current exceptional array of St. Claude shows include Ruth Owens' dreamy Baby Love paintings (like Best Birthday, left) and videos at UNO St. Claude Gallery inspired by her German-African-American family's experiences navigating diverse circumstances, and Devin Reynolds' colorfully pithy Tyrone Don't Surf paintings at Antenna, a series like old time illustrated road signs contrasting modern American pastimes with the cultural cliches that surround traditional African American life. ~Bookhardt / Vessels of Mercy, Vessels of Wrath: Group Show Curated by Serge Loncar, Through May 5, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Rent Is Too Damn High: Group Exhibition at the Crescent City Boxing Gym

As a setting for an art event, the Crescent City Boxing Gym, located amid mostly drab warehouses in an obscure part of Central City, seems unusual. Inside its well lit expanse, Martin Payton's imposing steel sculptures, left, and a spiritually reclaimed abandoned mattress by Ayo Scott under Cecelia Givens' haunting ancestor portraits are complemented by a wide array of smaller works such as C + J Fernandes' Barricade, below, and K. D. Lewis's Where are We Going? ...Follow my Sinking Heart, below left -- all of which make for a colorful contrast with the desolation outside. That may be the point. The title, The Rent is Too Damn High, is a fair housing battle cry popularized by longtime New York community activist Jimmy McMillan, but here the event and its title reflect how local folk are being marginalized by escalating housing costs. Curated by Dr. Fari Nzinga in conjunction with the Color-Bloc organization of over 350 local artists of color, Rent eschews gallery glitz in favor of directing the transformative power of art to a neglected urban enclave.

If that sounds unrealistic, some may recall how an art show held long ago in a rundown warehouse in an area then known as “wino row” became the Contemporary Arts Center and changed the area. But revitalization without gentrification remains an elusive goal. At fateful junctures in our past, New Orleanians placed their faith in the legendary voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, whose spiritual potency would surely be welcome in the fight for fair housing today. In that vein, writer and performance artist Kristina Kay Robinson has invoked Laveau's legacy in her Temple of Color and Sound, top, a movable voodoo altar where she explores the potential of strategic voodoo shrines as a new form of community based arts activism. In fact, as an expression of the classic Creole synthesis of African, Native American and European spirituality that spontaneously arose among diverse peoples here and in the Caribbean, voodoo was the original spiritual performance art of the Gulf-Caribbean region. Unlike the sensationalism propagated by its critics, the true voodoo espoused by Marie Laveau was considered a sacred practice that united diverse generations of New Orleanians with the healing powers of nature. Hopefully her magic mojo can help heal our neighborhoods as well. ~Bookhardt / The Rent is Too Damn High: Mixed Media Art Exhibition (Tuesdays 12pm - 4pm; Thursdays 12pm - 4pm & 6pm - 8pm) Through May 6, Crescent City Boxing Gym, 3101 Erato St., 539-6344.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

James Blanchard at the Ogden Museum

Although people and buildings are buildings very different in almost every way, those differences are far less pronounced when reduced in two dimensions in a picture frame. Consequently, Jim Blanchard's mostly 19th century New Orleans architectural portraits neatly complement Josef Salazar's nearby 18th century portraits of prominent local citizens. Illustrating the distinctions between the architecturally muted but socially permissive Creole culture of the French Quarter (see circa 1722, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, bottom), and the sometimes architecturally extravagant yet socially more rigid “American Sector” just across Canal Street, (see the 19th century Burke Mansion, below) they reflect a contrast of civilizations in which Uptown Americans employed legendary architects to create their own unique urban aesthetic. Their efforts gave us not only the tropical grandeur of the Garden District, but also some less famous flights of fantasy that sometimes bordered the surreal.

The most obscure must surely be the old Sixth Precinct Jail, top, on Rousseau St. Once an imposing Egyptian Revival masterpiece, it's badly mutilated remains still stand as an usual warehouse graced with the arcane symbols of the pharaohs. More visible Egyptian Revival icons like the Customs House and Cypress Grove Cemetery fortunately fared better. Although the Anglo-Americans often tried to make the city more like the American South, its numerous international immigrants often had other ideas. Florence Luling, a rich German cotton broker, had James Gallier design his dream mansion as a 22 room Venetian palazzo with an acre of formal gardens facing Esplanade Ave. After it was completed   in 1865, his fortunes took a tragic turn; he sold it to the Jockey Club and returned to Germany. Here the Luling Mansion appears in the gussied up grandeur of his original fantasy, but today its weathered majesty despite its  diminished circumstances stands as Luling's greatest legacy. Many amazing structures grace this imposing installation, complete with architectural artifacts and text boxes that tell their colorful stories. Blanchard's architectural portraits are finely painted in gouache and watercolors like the archival renderings still found in city records, but they really amount to a family album of our beloved architectural ancestors, many of whom live on, well preserved and ever more charismatic with the passage of time. ~Bookhardt

A Precise Vision: Archival Architectural Watercolors by Jim Blanchard, Through Aug. 19, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Morris and Nordstrom at the CAC

New York-based British painter Sarah Morris says her Sawdust and Tinsel expo explores a “semiotics of capital and power structures... unapologetic appropriation of corporate iconography ... Warholian pop and minimalist seriality...”  Despite the dire retro jargon, her work is lively and engaging. A keen observer, Morris has distilled the formal chaos and colors of everyday urban life into a contrapuntal visual music based on the tones and rhythms of particular places. Her tersely angular Danuza Leao, left, and buoyantly bubbly Rio Atlantica, paintings reflect the contrasting dynamics of Rio de Janeiro, one of the world's most boisterously vivacious cities. But the tensely staggered expanses of her Abu Dhabi series reflect the destabilizing impact of global commerce on the traditional austerities of the Arabian cultural landscape. The best of Morris's geometric compositions insightfully reflect the interaction of natural and man-made forces all around us, as we see in February 2017, top, with its suggestions of Copernican diagrams of lunar and planetary cycles -- or maybe the inner workings of pinball machines.

The drawings and collages in Swedish mixed-media artist/musician Jockum Nordström's Why Is Everything A Rag? exhibit recall vintage weirdo art, from elegant old time Euro-kink to Henry Darger's otherworldly visions of feral children. Arranged in storyboard fashion, they hark to the way folklore and surrealism explored the darkly whimsical corners of the psyche common to us all. The title is from an old Swedish poem, but Nordstrom also relates his helter-skelter graphical sequences to the “ragged” syncopations of ragtime music. The exhibition's imposing title work is a darkened chamber where his drawn and collaged figures come eerily to life in a kind of animated shadow box projection that recalls the 19th century magic lantern animations that preceded modern movies. Here, as in his drawings and musical performances, Nordstom takes us to an uncharted territory of the imagination that, while you may not want to live there, can be an oddly intriguing place to visit. ~ Bookhardt / Sawdust and Tinsel: Paintings, Drawings and Film by Sarah Morris, Why Is Everything a Rag?: Drawings and Collages by Jockum Nordstrom, Through June 17, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Carlos Rolón at NOMA

Where did cities come from? Many seem to have just happened as travelers at crossroads began trading what they had for what they needed. Some stuck around and one thing led to another. Since then, that process has been infinitely repeated, especially in places with active street life like Latin America, the Caribbean and New Orleans. When Carlos Rolón's parents moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago, their living room became his mom's nail salon while his father taught boxing in the basement. Later, in his travels as a widely exhibited artist, Rolón noticed how much New Orleans reminded him of Puerto Rico, and this Outside/In mixed media installation explores what both places have in common, from  tropical plants and architecture to the enduring tradition of street vendors. In fact, his Nomadic Habitat – Hustleman (pictured) is a kind of 21st century pushcart outfitted with all of life's essentials – trays of street food, sunglasses, salsa or hip-hop CDs, memorial portraits of Prince, customizable ID cards, you name it. Designed to be interactive, it will feature ongoing contributions from local arts and community activists as well as tarot card readers, see NOMA's web site for details. 

Much of the show reminded me of the way the families of the Cuban refugee kids I grew up with turned living spaces and backyard cabanas into little mini-Havanas with touches like ornate iron latices and hanging baskets of flowers. Rolón also uses the decorative ironwork found on windows and doors in Nola and the Caribbean to fame mirrors so our reflections appear as time travelers traversing portals into the vestigial visual legacy of Spanish colonialism. Similarly, Creole Tiles, left, deploys jazzy tile patterns to evoke the creative mingling of ethnicities that characterize Creole cultures wherever they are found. A swirling maze of crescent shaped mirrors takes us through yet another reflective rabbit hole in the form of a wall sculpture, Maria, above, named for the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico like an even more apocalyptic version of Hurricane Katrina. Here again, the mirrors bring us into the picture, reminding us that climate change is what we inflicted on ourselves by placing dollar signs above the health and well being of the world that sustains us. Throughout this show, Rolón's mirrors allow us to see the true nature of “otherness” – and realize that it is us. ~Bookhardt / Outside/In: Mixed Media Works by Carlos Rolón, Through Aug. 26, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Lin Emery at Arthur Roger

The novelist, Milan Kundera, once wrote, “We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded...” and only in retrospect can we “find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.” Looking back at “modern art,” Lin Emery's sculptures seem as timeless as anything by Eero Saarinen, Alexander Calder or any of the great modern designers who infused the forces of nature into their creations. Like nature, creativity often just seems to happen and Emery, now 92, has always responded nimbly to its challenges. She was working as a newspaper reporter in Paris in 1949 when she interviewed sculptor Ossip Zadkine and found his studio so intriguing that she signed up for an art class there, and her life suddenly changed. Later, in New Orleans, her devotion to technique became legendary -- but she was washing dishes in her kitchen when her life took another turn as she noticed a spoon balanced on the edge of a cup rocking back and forth in response to droplets of water dripping from a faucet.
In retrospect, the modern design that survived the test of time often reflects elemental forces like the currents of air that gently animate the dance-like motion of Emery's kinetic concoctions, just as Frank Lloyd Wright's pioneering modernism harked to the way traditional Japanese design reduced natural forms to their essence. Hints of Asian calligraphy even appear in the flowing horizontal bands of her  polished aluminum Anole, top, the pristine mirror-like surfaces of which blend seamlessly into their surroundings as the chameleon lizard for which it was named. But air can be fickle, and the vortex of curving, blade-like forms of Triad reflects the elemental forces that aerodynamic leaves or wind-swept waves manifest in material form. In Tumbler, top left, an airy cluster of elongated vertical forms recalls the fluid upward flickering of a campfire as well as the delicate brushwork of a Zen drawing – yet all are variations of the same poetic serendipity embodied in the motions of a spoon dancing to wayward droplets of water from a dripping faucet in an artist's kitchen long ago. ~Bookhardt / Lin Emery: Recent Kinetic Metal Sculpture, Through April 28, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.    

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 province, 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.

Several of the figures on view provide us with 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.