Sunday, September 29, 2019

Now That I'm a Woman Everything is Strange

As art show titles go, "Now That I'm a Woman, Everything is Strange" sounds edgy and of the present moment. The truth is more timeless and complicated. The title is a line from a song in the 1982 animated fantasy film, "The Last Unicorn," about a hopeful female unicorn on a quest to find out why she is the last of her species. She soon learns that unicorns have fierce enemies including an evil witch, who captures her. To escape, she relies on help from a sketchy magician who changes her into a young woman. It is the paradox of her new human female persona that inspired the song as well as the work seen here. Focusing on transformational magic as a timeless aspect of female identity, curator Jessica Bizer says the show "explores fluidity and shape-shifting as sources for feminine power."  

It is an intriguing notion that resonates on any number of levels ranging from ancient mythology to modern psychology, and may well be worthy of a major museum exhibition. This show, however, like many on St. Claude, seems more experimental and offhand, with a grab bag quality about it. Bizer's ceaselessly shifting “I'm Into Shapes” wall projection, top, at its best suggests the sense of magical possibility we associate with unicorns, but Nina Schwanse's “Tempestuous Pussy” drawings are evil witchery in the form of expressionistic demon cats with human breasts rendered in a style reminiscent of Willem de Kooning. “Girl,” above, a sculpture by Rachel Jones Deris, is eerie not only for its strange oracular eyes under a mystical star-burst emerging from her forehead, but also for its odd resemblance to teen eco-activist Greta Thunberg. Sophie Lvoff's photograph “Melon” of a neo-renaissance fruit composition  evokes fertility as a form of mystical mojo, while Rachel Avena Brown's wooden table inscribed with mystical signs literally rounds things out. All in all, it is a show that takes a freewheeling and loosely improvisational approach to timeless myths and mysteries. ~Bookhardt / Now That I'm a Woman, Everything is Strange: New Work by Jessica Bizer, Rachel Avena Brown, Rachel Jones Deris, Sophie Lvoff and Nina Schwanse, Through Oct. 6, Good Children Gallery, 4037 St. Claude Ave., 616-7427.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Latoya Ruby Frazier: Flint is Family; Tulane Critical Visualization and Media Lab: Gordon Plaza: The American Dream Denied

Unlike massive wildfires or cataclysmic oil spills, some environmental disasters are silent killers. Flint Michigan's poisoned tap water crisis falls into the latter category, as does the ongoing Gordon Plaza toxic soil disaster in New Orleans' Gentilly district. Two exhibitions at the Newcomb Art Museum explore how residents of both places have coped with the insidious catastrophes that have impaired their lives and robbed them of their faith in the American dream. An introductory series of photographs by AnnieLaurie Erickson ("Norco," below) and Jonathan Traviesa provide a broader context for a region where chemical industries and environmental protests are increasingly pervasive. 

In Flint, the crisis began in 2014 when city officials switched to a cheaper water source. The new tap water soon caused old lead pipes to corrode. Lead toxicity quickly spiked to extreme levels, forcing Flint residents to use bottled water for ordinary everyday tasks. LaToya Ruby Frazier spent five months with three generations of Flint women as they attempted to live normal lives, leaning on each other for support while navigating an ecological crisis of vast proportions. Empathy sets the tone in works like “Andrea Holding her daughter Nephratiti” as well as other scenes where bottled water attains a pervasive, iconic presence. Human interest views are set against news photos of protests and the Flint water system that recall crime scene documentation. Yet, Frazier often avoids the near-cinematic drama that defined classic photojournalism in favor of a softer, more sociological approach.

Like Flint, Michigan, Nola's Gordon Plaza development in Gentilly was once a hopeful place. Built atop the site of the old Abundance Street landfill, its attractive, affordable homes were well received as they became available in 1981. Most residents knew nothing of the site's history, and their dreams soon crumbled as soil tests revealed high levels of deadly toxins. Here dreamy works like Hannah Chalew's collage drawing of tidy homes atop layers of toxic waste share space with more clinical and journalistic displays. This Tulane Media Lab expo reminds us that Flint and Gordon Plaza are everywhere, tragic legacies of the all too common tendency to value money over human health and well being. ~Bookhardt / Latoya Ruby Frazier: Flint is Family; Tulane Critical Visualization and Media Lab: Gordon Plaza: The American Dream Denied, Through Dec 14, Newcomb Art Museum, Tulane University, 865-5328;

Sunday, September 15, 2019

23rd Annual No Dead Artists Exhibition

Psychologists have long suggested that dreams are a way our subconscious minds reorder everyday life events into symbolic narratives. Some artists and poets use dream imagery to suggest heightened awareness. It may seem surprising that so many dreamy images appear in this 23rd Annual No Dead Artists expo of work by emerging artists in an age when alarming political events were supposed to usher in a new era of protest art. Is this just a subjective reaction to political figures who appear to live in a dream world untethered to any verifiable reality? In fact, many of these dreamy looking views turn out to be infused with biting or ironic social content reflecting a range of contemporary issues.    

Chris Barnard's painting “Acquitted,” top right, suggests a futuristic prison with shadowy figures  treading exposed gangways inside. Look again, and it's a night view of New York's Museum of Modern Art where four of the figures are actually a rendering of the LAPD officers acquitted of assault in the beating of Rodney King. In the foreground is “144 Lead Squares,” a minimalist work by sculptor Carl Andre who in 1988 was acquitted of murder after allegedly pushing his wife out a high rise window. “Facade X” by German artist Susanna Storch is a night view through the glass walls of a high tech  laundry where anonymous people face whirring washing machines – except for a couple making out on a shiny steel bench, infusing the sleek mechanistic scene with a furtive hormonal aura.

More minimal facades appear in Maggie Evans' eerily empty modernist spaces, but Felicia Forte embraces dreamlike messiness in her “Night Cereal” view of a wall with a glowing TV screen framed by tchotchkes like an animal mask and oversize ax in a cluttered domestic setting. Although there are many more figurative works in the show, it is these oddly somnambulistic scenes that capture the disembodied tone of a time when so much human interaction is filtered through the small screens of digital devices equipped with  apps for all occasions. ~Bookhardt / 23rd Annual No Dead Artists Exhibition, Through Sept. 28, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471. 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Epaul Julien & Matthew Rosenbeck at Stella Jones

Black history, even local black history, is by now such a well trod path for African American artists that we may wonder what new light can be shed on historic figures ranging from Marie Laveau to Angela Davis or Robert Johnson. A visit to this "Ain't I America" expo of mixed media work by Epaul Julien and Matthew Rosenbeck at Stella Jones suggests the short answer to that question is: quite a lot. This show shines as a vibrant installation in which the two artists works exist in a colorful dialog about the meaning of being black in America as seen in the lives of iconic figures who helped define their times. 
Epaul Julien takes a macro approach in many of his mixed media collages featuring a melange of images. “A Woman's Place,” spotlights black female activism with views of figures like Angela Davis on a wanted poster, but others are more specific, even hagiographic, for instance, an ornate wooden wall altar framing a painting of Marie Laveau, right. Julien's flair for wood shines in “Before Gentrification,” top, a sculpture of a ramshackle home atop a spindly pedestal. Its facade is a portrait of a youth in dreads, and its roof is crowned by a battered trumpet. Here Julien's ever-experimental way of putting a face and a form on abstract issues imbues them with a soulful, emotional aura.
Matthew Rosenbeck's mixed media portraits portray familiar figures in graphically arresting new contexts. “Malcolm X” bristles with the tensions of the times he helped define, but blues icon “Robert Johnson” (pictured) is more mysterious. Here the red tinged fruit in the background evokes the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” in which lynched bodies hang from trees. Robert Johnson's father barely escaped that fate when a lynch mob forced his family to flee after a dispute with a white land owner. Despite dying young, Johnson became one of the most influential figures in modern music yet, like so many of the individuals depicted here, his whole life was a series of close calls. ~Bookhardt / Ain’t I America: New Work by Epaul Julien and Matthew Rosenbeck, Through Sept. 27th, Stella Jones Gallery, 201 St. Charles Ave., Suite 132, 568-9050.               

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Key-Sook Geum at Callan Contemporary

To approach Key-Sook Geum's ethereal dress sculptures involves confronting mysteries within familiar forms. Nothing is more commonplace than clothing, yet Geum takes the very idea of clothing to not just another level, but other dimensions: despite their fussy, intricate elegance there is something almost spooky about these discarnate female forms. Beyond that, her wire and bead concoctions play other perceptual tricks, first by seductively drawing us in with their delicate, diaphanous beauty, and then by taking us on an exploration of the implicit inner life of the garments we take for granted. This aura of mystery may seem surprising since the materials used in these elaborately wrought bead and wire mesh forms are obvious for all to see, but their uncanny aura – the elusive yet near-human presence that imbues each work with its own personality – is harder to explain. Part of it has to do with their presentation: whether suspended and hovering over the floor or placed close to the walls, the interplay of light and shadow seen in "Wind and Whisper I, below left, subtly animated by ambient breezes, creates an eerie effect of shimmering dark and light patterns that add yet another layer to these unexpectedly complex works.

All of these qualities are seen in “Reminiscence in Ice,” top. Like a party dress for a fairy princess, “Reminiscence” is instantly familiar for its human scale and the classical female form of its implicit, yet unseen, wearer – but on close inspection it takes the eye on a magical mystery tour of its  meticulous wire and bead networks that might suggest the structure of skin cells, or perhaps human neural networks, or even fiber optics. Universal forms are just that, but within this is a unique invisible human presence that seems to breathe, or sigh. The rarefied aura of “Reminiscence” contrasts with the much simpler forms of traditional East Asian garments like “Greeting in Gold,” above. Here the aura of this very traditional bead and wire tunic appears as a charismatic glow emanating from a form reflecting the reverence for simplicity that underlies much East Asian culture, as well as its age-old assertion that all material forms are ultimately illusions, as permeable and immaterial as the air we breathe. ~Bookhardt / Wind and Whisper: Recent Sculpture by Key-Sook Geum, Through Sept. 22, Callan Contemporary, 518 Julia St., 525-0518.