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 almost everything else that has appeared in print ever since. Gutenberg's old technology lives on today in the letterpress and other laborious, yet 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? The recent 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 -- all on their letterpress in the French Quarter in the 1960s. 
The result of a collaboration between Atlanta's Dashboard U.S. and local New Orleans 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. Rather like 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 for the often quirky needs of artists working with paper as a medium – but even here some vintage equipment on which the legendary Gosserand Printers produced classic bold face posters for the old Nola R&B music 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 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 Kandinsky'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.