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.