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;       

Sunday, September 9, 2018

22nd Annual No Dead Artists at Jonathan Ferrara

When Jonathan Ferrara was a partner at a now defunct gallery in 1995, an annual exhibition was launched called No Dead Artists. Created to spotlight the work of local emerging artists, the show survived the transition to Ferrara's own gallery and is now international in scope. It remains as quirky as ever; its ability to surprise has always been its most consistent attribute. The surprise this year is the unusual prevalence of figurative imagery that often evokes the identity politics that dominates our current political discourse. Fortunately, these artists approach it with more empathy and humor than most of our politicians, lending a fresh perspective to this deeply contentious topic.

Joseph Barron's Draining the Swamp painting (detail, left) updates vintage baroque imagery with quirky modern details including an elephant blasting a lady in a miniskirt with water from its trunk as familiar political figures cavort amid cupids and lambs in a scene that conveys the circus-like tenor of the times. Kat Flynn courts controversy with box sculptures like Affordable Housing featuring mammy dolls in cubicles, or in Trailer Park where rustic white folk appear amid signs promoting coal, lard and Jesus. Here culture war animus yields to a more nuanced perspective that contrasts cliched stereotypes with broader underlying concerns. Kerra Taylor similarly spotlights familiar looking Middle Americans in dinner scenes where a tornado looms outside a window, or in a boat on an expanse of floodwater where gasping fish and an engulfed plantation house, top, remind us of the common challenges we all face as we coexist on an ever more volatile planet. Other edgy yet ambiguous works include a photo-collage by Mash Buhtaydusss depicting a vintage child in a derelict basement where Humpty Dumpty, porn stars and child action figures cavort amid grimy 1950s office furnishings in a kind of nihilistic time capsule, and Nigerian painter Rewa Umunna's casual portraits of sleek black women rendered in vivid patterning that recalls both geological contour maps and iconic African fabrics, a visual mash-up true to a time when virtual realities and traditional values increasingly, often bafflingly, intermingle. ~Bookhardt / 22nd Annual No Dead Artists: International Emerging Artists Exhibition, Through Sept. 28, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471

Sunday, September 2, 2018

"Empire" at Newcomb Art Museum

If hurricane Katrina had actually killed New Orleans, this is what its estate sale might have looked like. Part grandma's attic, part Raiders of the lost Ark, this Empire exhibition celebrating Nola's tricentennial  captures an elusive slice of the city's soul in a massive display of obscure objects from the dark corners of Tulane University's departments and archives. Sponsored by Newcomb Art Museum, A Studio in the Woods and Pelican Bomb, it was curated by Los Angeles arts activists David Burns and Austen Young. Also known as “Fallen Fruit,” their dedication to planting fruit trees in derelict urban enclaves was a great idea, but could they cope with our notoriously complicated old Creole city? In fact, their flair for the theatrical symbolic objects that locals often place in altar-like displays in their homes gives Empire the ability to transcend the impersonal sweep of history by using memory-infused objects to suggest how the past was personally experienced. The result is an expo as hypnotically weird as only a truly epochal estate sale could possibly be.

It works because Burns and Young evoke how Nola's flair for artful meandering can serendipitously shift routine moments into something more like a dreamy jazz riff. If the 30 busts of historical figures (some damaged during hurricane Katrina) from Aristotle to Mark Twain, clustered around a painting of Cortez's conquistadors sacking an Aztec city make no logical sense, they do convey a sense of history's occluded subcurrents. Nearby, a Box of Lost Souls, below, is a cluster of storm damaged 1940s-era portraits by local painter Anne Pomeroy O'Brien who, despite having faded into obscurity, is here revealed as master of campy psychological cinematic romanticism.

Nearby gems  include jars of “postlarval fish” from Tulane's vast collection of “over 7 million specimens” just across from the first ever jazz recording, released on the Victor label in 1917. Across the way, a 19th century bronze Buddha serenely contemplates a 1919 maquett of the “9th Ward Victory Arch” that still graces McCarty Square. Side galleries feature items like philanthropist Paul Tulane's dueling pistol and a Ralston Crawford photo of a French Quarter sign offering “Rooms, $5 Up, No Female Impersonators, Colored Only.” A nearby “Ladies” gallery features custom wallpaper based on local carnival history as a backdrop to installations including marble statues of Greek goddesses and Victorian-era local socialites, top. ~Bookhardt / Empire: New Orleans Tricentennial Art Installation by David Burns and Austin Young, Through Dec. 22, Newcomb Art Museum, Tulane University, 865-5328.