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.