Sunday, December 30, 2018

Labor Studies: Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick at the Contemporary Arts Center

The legendary local jazz patriarch, Ellis Marsalis, is often quoted as saying that in New Orleans culture “bubbles up from the streets.” Probably no photographers are more aware of that than Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, lifelong Lower 9th Ward residents who documented those streets for nearly forty years. This “Labor Studies” expo explores the lives of ordinary working folk as once plentiful longshoreman jobs were supplanted by hotel and restaurant work even as farm workers lost their livelihood to machines all over America. As witnesses to those changes, Calhoun and McCormick compiled, over decades, a vast photographic archive that amounted to an impressive life's work. Then, in 2005, most of it was inundated by hurricane Katrina's floodwaters.

Much of what we see is what could be scanned from moldy prints, negatives and slides kept frozen to preserve what was left of them. Despite the damage, many assumed a surreal second life due to eerie chemical changes in their emulsion, while those that remained intact live on as windows into the past and present. McCormick's portrait of Joyce Priestly, a sugarcane cutter at the Bessie K plantation, dates from the 1980s, but nothing seems to have changed since the 1780s. Machines now do those jobs – except at the former plantation now known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where photos from the early 1980s to the recent past reveal that most work is still performed by human labor, as we see in a view of a pair of mules with shirtless inmates tilling the soil with hand tools in the background. Despite being featured in every major art publication, and at every major local art museum as well as at international venues like the Whitney Museum in New York in 2016, and the 2015 Venice Biennale, Calhoun and McCormick have remained almost as below the radar as many of their subjects – for instance, the boy playing a horn on a street corner in a waterlogged image noted in their interview with the New Yorker magazine in 2010. His name was Winton Marsalis. ~Bookhardt / Labor Studies: Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Through Feb. 10, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805;      

Sunday, December 23, 2018

2018: The Year in Review

Monument to Latino Workers
When 2018 began, it had the makings of a monumental year. It was this city's' 300th anniversary, after all, and some monumental art news – for instance, the New Orleans Museum of Art's planned 6 acre expansion of its popular sculpture garden – only added to the celebratory aura. But the protracted controversy over the city's removal of Confederate monuments from their prominent locations last year raised lingering questions about the actual meaning and purpose of monuments that, after months of debate, crystallized into one fundamental question for both the city and its art community: which versions of history should we commemorate and how should we go about that process? In true New Orleans fashion, what happened was a mix of planning and surprise, deliberation and unexpected grass roots serendipity. 

Any city's tricentennial celebration might reasonably inspire art exhibitions involving elements of grandeur, and in that sense the New Orleans Museum of Art's spectacular “Orleans Collection” exhibit of masterworks from the 18th century collection of Nola's namesake, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, did not disappoint. Random references to the old European colonial powers also turned up in the Newcomb Art Museum's “Empire” expo that referenced New Orleans' history as a French and Spanish colony while celebrating the cultural contributions the ordinary local folk who made this city what it is. In a surprising twist, those working class heroes, whether famous or anonymous, emerged as a quiet but consistent presence that defined many of our most intriguing 2018 art events, in museums such as the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, for instance, in Elizabeth Bick's streetscape, above right, among any number of widely varied local venues.  

In the monumental vein, New Orleans maestro Franco Alessandrini's bronze and marble “Tribute to Latin American Workers,” top, was unveiled in Crescent Park on November 10th. Commissioned by retired New Orleans physician Dr. Juan Gershanik, the Creole-constructivist statue is dedicated to the Hispanic laborers who facilitated the city's rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina unexpectedly hinted at the revolutionary worker murals by Diego Rivera who, with his wife Frida Kahlo, is celebrated in a dual portrait exhibit at the  Mexican Cultural Institute. Topically related socially conscious art, such as Brandan Odum's mural of local civil rights leader A. P. Turaud and his wife Lucille in the lobby of the newly renovated Pythian Temple building, was unexpected augmented by a series of posters celebrating events like the successful 1867 protests to New Orleans streetcars that the Paper Monuments organization pasted on unoccupied buildings about town. The power of works on paper to immortalize the workers whose contributions are so often overlooked is exemplified by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormic's “Labor Studies” documentary photo expo, above, at the Contemporary Arts Center, a survey of the Lower 9th Ward natives' views of traditional Louisiana farm, dock and restaurant workers salvaged from their vast 40 year archive, much of which was lost to Hurricane Katrina. Curated by the CAC's Andrea Andersson, “Labor Studies” complements CAC exhibits by William Monaghan and Zarouie Abdalian that she says collectively reflect the “fragile and often invisible laboring community” that sustains so much of what we take for granted.

This year's most widely celebrated local monument to the laborers who built much of this state and nation was Kara Walker's massive working steam calliope sculpture, “Katastwóf Karavan,” above, dedicated to the memory of the African slaves held at Algiers Point before being sold. Walker's performance ended Prospect.4, “The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” on a high note when it closed on February 25th after a three month run that attracted over 100,000 visitors to view work by over 70 contemporary artists from the Caribbean, Africa and the Americas -- a number that Prospect's new director, Nick Stillman, says augers well for Prospect.5, slated to open in fall of 2020 under the creative direction of curators Naima Keith and Diana Nawi. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, it also named Christopher Alfieri as its new president and board chairman. The role played by Prospect New Orleans, since its spectacular inaugural Prospect.1 in 2008/2009, should never be underestimated. As the city changed, in many ways for the better, Prospect New Orleans was the catalyst and the challenge that caused so many artists to rise to the occasion, resulting in new experimental arts communities, most notably along the St. Claude corridor. Other changes at the top include Contemporary Arts Center Director Neil Barclay, who after ushering in new energy and focus is stepping down later this month as CAC veteran M.K Wegmann returns as Interim Director; and Gia Hamilton, who left her post as Director of the Joan Mitchell Center last August, has been named the new Director of the African American Museum, where where her plans include collaborations with cutting edge art organizations such as Independent Curators International among others similarly focused on collaborative innovation. Hamilton's flair for outreach was what successfully enabled the Joan Mitchell Center to become a vital part of the life of the city in ways that made everyone feel welcome and involved, and we look forward to seeing her do as much for the New Orleans African American Museum. +++  

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Production: Zarouhie Abdalian at the CAC

How did we get here? We are now at a point where a weird alchemy of digital and financial technology has created a massive identity crisis for much of America as resilient cities adapt to rapid change while some rural and industrial areas seem left behind due to challenges posed by automation and robotics. Our traditional notions of work, self-worth and wealth are explored in this “Production” exhibit of New Orleans native Zarouhie Abdalian's sculpture inspired by hand tools in particular and labor in general. Here she celebrates humble objects by reducing them to their essence, for instance in “Joint IX,” where a drafting compass, box wrench and industrial shears appear in a conical, Zen-like arrangement held in place by gravity. Their mirror finishes radiate an ethereal quality of light that evokes the aura of self-worth that once ennobled workers who now often feel sidelined by widespread workplace changes. 

The sheer weight of material objects lent gravitas to the labor required to work with them and the imprint of that labor is seen in a series of bas reliefs reflecting the force of the extraction tools used at a Mississippi chalk mine. Each is a contemplative aesthetic object as well as a mini-monument to the miners whose work exposed them to dire health hazards. In “Hull,” top, a ballast stone once used to stabilize the weight distribution of sailing merchant ships is ensconced on a gold plated square of sheet metal with upthrust corners that suggest delicate lotus petals as well as the impact of collisions involving heavy objects. Nearby, barely visible stitching on a wall-size “Banner” reads, “Let living labor live / Let dead labor die,” an oddly poetic quote from Karl Marx who never anticipated the zombie labor of modern digital robotics. A low key yet widely exhibited local artist whose work has appeared in the Whitney, Berlin, Shanghai, Moscow and Istanbul biennials, Abdalian brings a subtly expansive perspective to the paradoxes of our time as we try to cope with rapidly evolving technologies that often appear mired in seemingly endless unintended consequences. ~Bookhardt / Production: Mixed Media Sculpture by Zarouhie Abdalian, Through Feb 10, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Big" Works from the Ogden Museum Collection

In art as in life, things are not always what they seem. Art museums are often assumed to exhibit the best of the best, but lofty goals can be constrained by logistical considerations. This "Big" expo at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art lives up to its name with quite large works from its collection that are billed as "typically hidden from public view" due to their "grand scale." But does size alone make for a cohesive art show? Fortunately, these works also reflect some unique trends that motivated collectors and museum patrons to acquire outstanding regional art over several decades, works that suggest a kind of cultural cross section of unique local sensibilities that were shared by artists and collectors alike.
What stands out is how fresh many of these works still look decades after they were made. The late Robert Gordy was an iconic local artist until his death in 1986, and while most of his work crackled with a vibrant psychotropic electricity, figurative works like his 1972 “Two Faced” view of juxtaposed female heads (pictured, left) presaged America's current psychosexual gender controversies. Similarly, the late Clyde Connell's 1987 canvas, “Creatures of the Hot Humid Earth,” anticipated AfroFuturism via her deftly strategic use of mystical Egyptian, Ethiopian and Coptic symbolism. The sounds of New Orleans streets visually come alive in late local artist Jeffrey Cook's vibrant wall sculpture, “Makin' of a Melody,” where found objects and Caribbean colors resonate a silent hymn to the soul of our city. Much local painting featured an intuitive fusion of imagism and expressionism into a kind of Creole magic realism.

The legacy of imagism lives on in  Alabama-born Roger Brown's 1988  canvas “The Seven Last Plagues,” a haunting reminder of the not so distant past, even as North Shore artist Charles Blank's expressionistic 2001 “Pink Bombs” canvas, right, presaged America's perpetual Middle East warfare state – two representative examples in a varied yet surprisingly consistent expo featuring often timeless works by legendary area artists including Willie Birch, Nicole Charbonnet, Justin Forbes, Kendall Shaw, Fred Trenchard and Pat Trivigno ("Dancers of Delphi #2," 1986, above), among others. ~Bookhardt / "BIG" Works from  the Ogden Museum of Southern Art Collection, Through Feb. 17th, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp Street, 539-9600.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Mildred Thompson at NOMA

Lately, the New Orleans Museum of Art is a study in contrasts. Even as the "Orléans Collection" of Old Master works originally assembled by Nola's namesake, Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans, overwhelms the eye, this more modest "Against the Grain" expo of works by late abstract artist Mildred Thompson, top, manages to evoke the subtle magic of the ordinary while remaining far more down to earth. Part of a generation of great, but often overlooked, black 20th century female modern artists, Thompson and her peers were often ahead of their time for the way their universal vision set the stage for the 21st century's global perspective. Thompson may have been the most eclectic and experimental of the lot, and this exhibition, co-curated by Katie Pfohl and Melissa Messina, and organized around a nucleus of starkly yet lyrically emblematic works acquired through NOMA's Leah Chase Fund, is her first solo museum show in 30 years. 

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1936 Thompson, as a black female artist in the 1950s and 1960s, was ignored in New York but found success in Europe, where most of these “Against the Grain” works were made.  “Wood Picture,” 1972, right, suggests nothing and everything as homely wooden planks part to reveal a flash of royal purple in a composition that makes distinct visual sense while eluding didactic conceptual analysis. “Wood Picture,” 1966, above, a white on white composition of tautly arranged wooden rectangles, resonates a haunting silent music like a Bauhaus take on a Diddley Bow composition. A silkscreen print, “Untitled (# 111),” may initially suggest pristine European abstraction, but look again and it recalls African patterning, like a wildebeest reduced to its abstract essence. Thompson's range of associations reminds us that all humans are products of diverse cultural legacies built on DNA derived from global migrations that ultimately originated in Africa. As she put it: “There are recordings in our genes that remember Africa. If they are strong enough and we are free of false denials, they will surface and appear without deliberation no matter what we do." ~Bookhardt / Mildred Thompson: “Against the Grain” Through Aug 31st, 2019, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.