Sunday, August 26, 2018

10 Years. 10 Artists at Octavia

The parallels between visual art and music have always been hiding in plain sight, yet it is a topic that is rarely mentioned in most art history books. Like music, visual art can resonate harmonically, or not, and even some carefully curated art shows come across as tone deaf. Others maximize visual polyphony in ways that enhance how even the most diverse are experienced, as we see in this tenth anniversary exhibition at Octavia featuring work by ten different artists. Here Regina Scully sets the tone with Inner Journey, top, a composition that suggests a city inundated by massive blue waves that paradoxically seem to frolic as playfully as dolphins. What it means is up to us, but as a composition it flows like an orchestral tone poem. Blue tones also permeate Philemona Williamson's Limbs canvas where two kids seem to float amid entangled tree limbs under a dreamy azure sky.

In the most famous 20th century music-based painting, Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie,  colored squares pulsate to the artist's inner rhythms, but here Mason Saltarrelli takes colored patches  on a meandering walk on the wild side in an untitled work, left, that visually evokes an edgy modern jazz riff. James Henderson's Flowers – a spray painted outline of a guy in a bow tie with a collage of old photos where his face should be – reads like grafitti, but look again and those brown, purple and yellow splotches on a ragged green background suggest a nihilistic, abstract jazz take on Andy Warhol's iconic flower prints. Conversely, Anne Senstad's minimal Soft Geometry light sculpture, top left, rendered in crimson, mauve and turquoise neon glows with an otherworldly resonance that contrasts with the aura of a hot tungsten filament – or Miles Davis high note – in Jerry Cabrera's minimal acrylic painting,  Haven. Both contrast with the smoldering tones in Jeffrey Pitt's Nuclear Power painting, ironically rendered in patterning reminiscent of Victorian velvet wallpaper. These works may be coming from very different places, but their placement in such a visually attuned installation allows for an unusually expansive and self-explanatory viewing experience. ~Bookhardt / 10 Years 10 Artists, Through Sept. 29, Octavia Art Gallery, 454 Julia Street St., 309-4249.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Susan Bowers at Barrister's Gallery

What happens if an artist encounters her inner child and it turns out to be Barbie?  For Susan Bowers, it  must have come as a shock when that plastic fantasy of teen perfection began turning up in her dreams decades later bearing scars from abusive relationships. Bowers' interests had long been more attuned to artsy bohemian icons like Jane Bowles, the writer wife of elegant hipster author Paul Bowles, whose midcentury Tangier, Morocco-based novel, The Sheltering Sky, was in 1990 made into a film starring Debra Winger and John Malcovich as Jane and Paul Bowles. In this show, Jane Bowles' legacy of abuse by the men and women in her life seems to have infused the Barbie of Bowers' dreams, who now appears in her paintings. Loosely rendered in drippy swatches of pastel colored pigment, Barbie in Tangier, An Ancient Pissed Off Queer Indifference, sets the tone as a loner Barbie surveys a deserted Moroccan beach wearing her pert blankness as a shield. In Is It at Least Partially as You Might Wish?, she remains pert but scratched up, as if from a rough night. She looks more ebullient in Nothing Could Dash Her Hopes for Love (Barbie and Burroughs in Tangier), above, where beat icon William Burroughs, who once “accidentally” shot and killed his wife in Mexico, lurks in the shadows.

Oversize lipstick sculptures, rendered in lurid red glass or dense, gloopy ceramics, occupy much of the gallery's floor space. Lip Gloss for a Perpetual Grin with Jagged Rows of Razor Teeth features a protruding pink ceramic shaft incised with the message “Stop Staring.” The symbolism of lipstick is historically female, but these oversize versions look distinctly phallic, which Bowers says is intentional since the show is really all about the interplay of masculine and feminine. Indeed, an alcove gallery area is filled with prints with titles like Women in Love (I am the Flame and Glory of Life),  depicting beefy naked ladies fiercely wrestling on a bear rug. As art shows go, most of this stuff is convoluted and challenging yet often colorfully engaging. Jane Bowles could probably relate. -Bookhardt / Queer Bubblegum Dream -- World Reality: Mixed Media by Susan Bowers, Through Sept. 1, Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave, 710-4506. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Looking Again: Inside the New Orleans Museum of Art's Massive New Photography Book

New Orleans Museum of Art photography curator Russell Lord’s massive book, Looking Again: Photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art, co-published in March by Aperture and NOMA, suggests our most familiar local art institution harbors its share of semi-secret history. Although known in museum circles for being ahead of its time when it first began collecting art photography in 1973, when E. John Bullard made it his first priority upon becoming director in January of that year, Lord's erudite overview reveals that its pioneering photography exhibitions began in 1916. Because the collection features such a strategic mix of works by the world's most iconic photographers, as well as images by lesser-known figures that illuminate overlooked or forgotten aspects of local or global history, it is a collection that amounts to a nuanced visual history of civilization. For instance, Felix Moissenet's mysterious and striking 1852 daguerreotype of a well-dressed black man raises no end of questions. Who was he? Its velvet case provides the photographer's studio address on Camp Street, suggesting the subject likely was part of the city's unusually large, affluent community of free people of color. His commanding persona and its superb quality all seem to bear that out, but it is his preternatural presence with the forthright gaze of an emissary from an all-but-forgotten culture greeting us from across time that makes it so extraordinary. It is a picture that, as Lord writes, “might have been possible only in New Orleans.”

Daniel Louis Mundy's 1867 photograph The Extinct Dinornis or Moa Bird takes us to Victorian-era New Zealand where dinosaurlike bird skeletons towering over a bearded scientist telescope us into an age when the sun never set on Britain's empire and Darwin's theory of evolution was almost as influential. Science and technology were celebrated for more pragmatic reasons in America, where Lewis Wickes Hine was known for his heroic views of workers, typified by his circa 1920 Mechanic and Steam Pump. He also was a social critic whose shocking images of children and immigrants suffering in squalid conditions set the stage for controversies that still dominate the headlines. More>>

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Shawne Major at Callan Contemporary

Do you sometimes see faces in clouds, messages in tea leaves, images of saints in tortillas? If so, you may be prone to pareidolia, a term for how people with overactive imaginations experience pattern recognition. If it seems an odd choice for the title of an art show, it makes more sense when you look more deeply into it. Although Shawne Major's elaborately beaded wall hangings and sculptures only rarely resemble anything in particular, their thousands of tiny stitched beads, buttons and micro-baubles stimulate the wandering imagination while offering sanctuary from horror vacui. Beyond all that, the New Iberia native gives us something to think about due to the way her colorfully meandering surfaces recall aerial views of Louisiana's swampy topography while evoking bayou level visions of mystical enchanted kingdoms like psychedelic duckweed flourishing as a new invasive species.

Just as the historical roots of beaded embroidery are spread far and wide, apparently originating in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia before eventually finding a home in medieval Europe where beadwork became a favored way of rendering saints with startlingly colorful dimensionality, Major's concoctions evoke global roots. Glyph, top, is mind-boggling for its suggestion of tribal beadwork and cellular biology but it is so interwoven with heirloom traditions that encountering it can be like finding a trove of beaded Victorian handbags containing mummified magic mushrooms amid the rosaries and Irish lace. Others are a tad more elemental. The marbled undulations of multicolored beads in Blind Alley recall the wavy patterning of muddy silt formations along the bird foot delta where the Mississippi meets the Gulf, but Sun Spot is more of a beaded vortex, almost like an elegant whirlpool of sea foam coughing up jewels from a long lost shipwreck. Humors embodies the essence of aesthetic meandering as tiny flowers and shells mix with buttons, pearls and delicate chains in a lapidary gumbo that mingles the treasures of the earth with the dream caverns of the psyche. None of this is practical, but it does recall the old Hindu belief that the gods created this world as a gesture of “lila,” the playful creativity that they regarded as the very essence of divinity itself. ~Bookhardt / Pareidolia: New Mixed Media Works by Shawne Major, Through August 27, Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518;

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Ruth Owens at Jonathan Ferrara; Jerry Takigawa at Photo New Orleans Alliance Gallery

Anyone who follows the news knows that identity remains an inescapable topic of press coverage and conversation. Debates about race and gender can resemble tribal conflicts, but individual experiences are often more nuanced. As the Augsburg, Bavaria-born daughter of a German mother and an African American father, Ruth Owens' mostly German childhood was periodically interrupted when the U.S. Army transferred her soldier father to unfamiliar parts of America. Her Identity Theft paintings convey how those unsettling transitions affected her via loose, expressionistic brush strokes that evoke both disorientation and a distinct sense of wonder. Based on old family photos, paintings like Boyguide, top, explore how differing skin tones reflect a family's evolution, a theme also seen in Cousins, and Half Brothers, where superficial differences pose no impediment to familial bonds.

A different reality appears in That Beauty Queen, a vintage Augusta, Georgia parade scene. As a child, Owens saw the blond “beauty queen” as an icon to be emulated, but this recent painting places the figure within the broader ambiance of a street scene where many factors are in play. Owens also draws on her 25 years as a New Orleans cosmetic surgeon, as well as a wife and mother, in paintings that still reflect the sense of wonder that defined her starkly varied childhood experiences in Germany and America.

Jerry Takigawa's vintage Japanese American family photographs, taken before over 100,000 mostly innocent citizens were forcibly detained in World War II internment camps for “security” reasons, remind us that ethnic hysteria can erupt suddenly. Here the contrast between original images of smiling Japanese Americans, re-photographed to include internment ID cards and racist relics like “Jap Hunting Licenses,” is starkly chilling. Yet they are also meditative in a way that penetrates beyond the anger that blatant injustice provokes, inviting us to look more deeply into the mysterious inner darkness that remains a part of the human condition even in the most ostensibly “advanced” societies. ~Bookhardt / Identity Theft: New Paintings by Ruth Owens, Through Aug 25th, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471; Balancing Cultures: Mixed Media Photography by Jerry Takigawa, Through Aug. 12th, New Orleans Photo Alliance, 1111 St. Mary Street, 513-8030.