Friday, February 7, 2020

In Search of Beauty







The title of the exhibition Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires gives the key to Thomas's latest show  at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. For the art lovers who visited Mickalene Thomas: Waiting on a Prime-Time Star at the Newcomb Art Museum two years ago, it feels like an update with the display of more recent works. First time viewers can appreciate the whole gamut of the artist's practice including her paintings, photographs, videos, films and iconic "tableaux".

Located on the building's first floor, the exhibition starts with a large painting facing the visitor at the entrance. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010, features three black women and the shadow of a sculpture from Matisse in the background in place of Manet's four subjects. Inspired by a photograph shot in the sculpture garden at MoMA, the work underwent several stages: cutting, collaging, painting with acrylic, oil, enamel, adding rhinestones (reference to pointillism according to the artist) to reach the final composition. Already displayed in a number of venues, it has brought in mainly positive reviews and the imposing figures succeed in making the visitor blink under their bold stare.

Following this masterpiece, Me as Muse, 2016, provides a very intimate encounter with the artist through a twelve-monitor video installation featuring images of her naked body intermingled with those of Western paintings depicting bare females, Saartjie Baartman (the Ottentot Venus) and brightly colored African textiles. Unabashed, the artist rejuvenates the myth of the nude and the canons of beauty.

The front of the gallery is occupied by a living-room, an invitation to curl up on a sofa and read a book from the selection of volumes piled up on the floor: Toni MorrisonZadie Smith, Maya Angelou, ... Houseplants, comfortable furniture decorated with African prints, books, carpets, rugs, fill the replicas of the artist's childhood interiors. In her interview for Artnet Thomas sheds some light on her "tableaux". She describes how she recreates familiar spaces from her memories: "we construct our spaces in various ways to express ourselves". The domestic installations provide a way to connect with the artist and her history.

The next works are hung along the walls leading to the back of the gallery. The mirror-based series are portraits inspired by the book and movie The Color Purple, and strong characters like Diahann Carroll or Naomi Sims. Most of Thomas's creations start with photographs  undergoing several processes, this time the last one involves silkscreening onto a mirror. The dreamy subjects appear remote and subdued, without a smile or eye contact, filled with the blues.
This is in contrast with Do I Look Like a Lady? a raucous video installation projected on multiple screens lining up two walls around a second living room. The You-tube clips of famous singers or comedians are selected according to their relevance to the plight of black females. The quarter of an hour projection is best viewed sitting on one of the comfortable armchairs.

In the next room, the smaller space allows the display of four works, two "picassian" paintings- collages  facing each other and two black and white Polaroid portraits of queer models (according to the wall text) engaging the camera with a proud stare, Courbet #2 and Courbet #4. The show ends with one of Thomas's black and white film shown in a dark backroom. Twenty minutes long,  je t'aime, 2014, shows close-ups of the artist and her partner on two adjacent screens. The camera is moving slowly over bare skins and it feels like intruding when confronted with the gaze of the two lovers enjoying their intimacy. In the background the sound of water dripping gives a measure of time.

The 49-year-old artist has been recognized by the art world for more than a decade and pundits have discussedanalyzeddissected her work already. Inspired by a long list of artists, she has absorbed the essence of their practice to grow her own, characterized by multiple references to art history in her signature portraits of black women made in various media, from photography to collages, paintings, videos and movies. Ultimately her quest is powered by her own history starting with her childhood's memories, growing up as a black queer woman. Her art can be considered provocative and inciting voyeurism, but skin, breasts and pubic hair aside, her portraits are about the inner strength of her subjects conveyed through their intense gaze. The relatively modest show with about a dozen well selected works enriched by informative wall texts allows to sample Thomas's practice, interact with her homey interiors and follow the artist in her quest for new canons of beauty.





photographs by the author:

"Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires", 2010
"Sister: Shug Avery Breakfast", 2016
"Portrait of Aaliyah", 2017

Monday, January 20, 2020

Hell and Paradise






Buildings and their contents, an endless source of inspiration for artists, provide the theme for the works of three painters displayed in the Arts District New Orleans this month. Jim Richard, James Kennedy and Pierre Bergian respectively at Arthur Roger Gallery, Callan Contemporary and Octavia Art Gallery are expressing their creativity through their different style, from abstract to figurative.

All the Way Home assembles twenty six recent paintings for Jim Richard's tenth exhibition at Arthur Roger Gallery. Among them, three of his iconic claustrophobic interiors of plush houses filled with furniture and objects reflecting the social status of their owners. Eight works feature empty gardens seen through colored filters, generating a moody atmosphere: fresh and peaceful greens, sepia memories, violet sadness like in Letting Go, 2019, ... and more hues. In contrast, bushes and flowers explode in the vibrant motley compositions from 2018. Three depictions of the artist's studio made in 2013 underline the difference between oil on paper the medium he favored then, and matte flashé paint, his most recent choice.


James Kennedy returns at Callan Contemporary with Notations, a collection of recent works veering further into geometric abstract compared to his previous shows. His architectural compositions have matured into tighter arrangements incorporating repetitive shapes of darker colors suspended on busy neutral backgrounds, like notes on a staff, adding multiple focal points and rhythm. Inspired by Goethe's writings, the multi-talented Irish artist creates meditative compositions evoking music, the most abstract of the Arts.



At Octavia Art Gallery, Pierre Bergian fills the space with his paintings of neoclassical buildings. Facades, architectural decorations, objects (ladders, chairs, tables) are drawn like preparatory sketches enhanced by delicately applied oil paint of soft grays,blues, yellows, ..., thin like watercolors. The empty spaces are an invitation to dream of walking through the doors, sometimes open, half-open or even closed, to take a stroll along the succession of rooms and discover mysterious places filled with the ghosts of history.


According to Plato's theory of art, the representation of a chair cannot be sat on, therefore art is not useful. This is a cartoonish interpretation of his argument but why paint a chair? or everyday objects? For Richard, they represent a presence (or absence) and a story, which can be hellish like in Modern Inferno, 2019, featuring a decor fit for Huis Clos, (No Exit), the famous play from Jean-Paul Sartre.
In contrast, Bergian's palatial suites bathing in ethereal colors evoke a paradisaical world. Matisse painted subjects in their interiors with windows opening on familiar landscapes, Van Gogh, his bedroom or his preferred bar. Here, empty buildings, houses, gardens, stay anonymous even when the title provides a clue, and represent a collective dream or nightmare, while Kennedy opted for complete abstraction to generate a state of meditation.
At the end of his visit, the patient viewer will realize he/she is not looking at but is looking in the paintings.



photographs by the author:

Jim Richard "Look in Here", 2019
James Kennedy "Notation IV", 2019
Pierre Bergian "Ruins", 2019


Saturday, December 21, 2019

Pic of the Day








PhotoNOLA, "an annual festival of photography in New Orleans" now in its fourteenth edition, is the occasion to binge on photographs at diverse venues during the month of December. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of images, I cannot remember why I selected this photograph for my daily Instagram post. More I look at Go Back, Go Back 217 from Bradley Dever Treadaway, more I find it mundane and riveting.
The banal shot depicts a mother waist-deep in water, enjoying an afternoon at the pool with her two pre-teen sons. The trio soaking in the sun, looking up at the camera and smiling, represents the picture-perfect scene of a blissful Sunday in suburbia. The photograph is divided by a diagonal line caused by a sharp drop of the pool floor and on the left side, a greenish dark color replaces the background's cobalt blue surrounding the young family. Deep at the bottom of the pool a coiled hose is lurking.
The snake-like object creates tension and the picture becomes a story: Could the children fall into the pool's abyss? Could the inert shape become alive and strike them? Could a fun afternoon end up in tragedy?
Like a collage, the superposition of a childhood's photograph on a recent shot of the same pool blends past and present, contrasting a carefree joyful time with today's neglect, decay and emptiness. Where are the protagonists? What happened? Like a bad omen, a black frame surrounds the composition.
Go Back, Go Back is a vast project described by the artist on his Website as "exploring spatial, historical and technological ambiguity that concerns the recollection, reconstruction and failure of memory, manifesting as memento mori and the closing chapter of 50 years of family history."
The joyful moment next to the scene of abandonment hints at before and after, loss and death.

Bradly Dever Treadaway "Go Back, Go Back 217", 2019

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Worth a Thousand Words









Lately, climate change is on the news almost daily it seems, heightening our awareness of the phenomenon and its consequences on the planet and ultimately our lives. Tina Freeman's interest in glaciers was triggered by Brett Weston's photographs of Alaska in the seventies and brought her to visit the remote state in 1989. For the past seven years, she has spent time on a project which culminates with the exhibition Lamentations on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art. From the Wetlands of Louisiana where she was born and raised to the Arctic and Antarctica, she explores nature's changes  through twenty-seven photographic diptychs accompanied by charts and data.

An introductory wall text provides the key to the exhibition and next to it, two nautical charts from Southern Louisiana (1934, 2019) placed side by side illustrate the loss of land, so does a list of locations removed from the charts (2011). The diptychs are hung on the walls of the gallery's four rooms with date and location of the shots, leaving the visitor wander at leisure from one scene to another. Each is made of the juxtaposition of a southern and a polar landscape. The seamless transition between the two images makes it appear as if they had been shot at once. Taken at different time and place, they always have some kind of connection: subject (cemeteries, glacial lagoon and freshwater marsh, whaling station and oil tanks), shape (sea ice breaking and wetland, floating iceberg and cypress tree) or color (orange sunset and oil booms). The photographer "sees" beyond the landscapes and her technical mastery allows her to play with scales and perspectives to reveal compositions invisible to the untrained eye. Among more than fifty images, the closest hints of human or animal presence are cemeteries and the skeleton of a musk ox, as Freeman concentrates on the quiet world of nature. The end of the exhibition features a list of retreating glaciers (2138!) and a single aerial photograph of the Mississippi River flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.


The connections between distant lands affected by the same phenomenon, i.e. climate change, are documented by the artist through photographs of places we will most likely never visit. Acting as a witness on our behalf, she explores a threatened natural world and reveals its accelerating changes. The stark data accompanying the poetic, dramatic, beautiful, sometimes dreary images make comments superfluous and the long list of places already gone written in white on a black background is fit for a funerary monument.
Lamentations, a biblical term, expresses the grief felt upon the realization that the changes witnessed are most likely irreversible, impacting the future of our planet.



pic#1:
Left: 20140222_Dritvik_016
Ice along a stream, western Iceland
Right: 20130911_Louisiana_Deltas_270
Healthy marsh along the lower Mississippi River, just West of South Pass

pic#2:
Left: 20111203_Deception_Island_037-3
Deception Island, Antarctica
Right: 20060531KatrinaEastbank217
Cemetery near Violet, Louisiana, in the Katrina aftermath

pic#3:
Left: 20130819_Iceland_058
Glacial outflow, southeastern Iceland
Right: 20130911_Louisiana_Deltas_566
Sediment near Wax Lake, Louisiana


Sunday, September 29, 2019

Serious Games






For his solo exhibition Finding Way at Antenna, Rontherin Ratliff has selected fifteen pieces to fill the gallery located on the building's second floor. They reflect his current practice inspired by his childhood and in keeping with his previous body of work are made of found objects and architectural material. Hung on the walls, the assemblages are of small to moderate size giving an intimate flavor to the show.
Three pieces from 2017, the artist's statement and a wall text, introduce the exhibition in the anteroom-like space at the entrance, and lead to recent works done this year. White Horse is a composition made of a wooden toy leaping out of a box suspended to the right side of a gate painted in gold. The fence draws a frame around an empty space and brings the focus to the off centered toy. Black Horse is almost identical, the horse this time gallops toward the box, showing his rear. The joyful pieces evoke a carousel and allude to childhood's dreams. On the other side of the gallery along the back wall, Heirloom, is a more elaborate monochrome assemblage of discarded furniture and objects covered by a heavy coat of black paint. A draped quilt adds a homey feminine touch to the funerary piece. A total of seven Mind Splinters are displayed in the gallery. The painted wood sticks decorated with found objects evoke homemade toy swords. Alphabetical Playscape and AlphaBollock Balance incorporate a sphere made of alphabet wood blocks. The two pieces facing each other are elegant in their simplicity with the former combining gate and lock, the latter a sash window weight as a counterbalance. The artist includes void (negative space) to fill gates, doors, frames and asymmetry in most of his latest compositions.
How can you build a future without a past? Since hurricane Katrina, Ratliff has been repurposing objects to reconstruct the past and rebuild memories. For example, in Perception or Self-Defense, 2017, mattress springs become relics protected by etched glass and are laid into wood boxes decorated with antique window sash weights looking like tassels. Most recently, he explores the world of childhood filled with dreams fed by unbound imagination and further, the passage of time and the fragility of life, through a conceptual language that not only brings up ideas but also tickles emotions. The self-taught artist has assimilated conceptual art to create simple playful compositions filled with rich meanings.
Titles matter and looking at the series of Mind Splinters, I thought about this quote:
“Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind …”
~ Morpheus, in ‘The Matrix’ 






photographs by the author:

"Emotional Symptoms", 2017
"Alphabetical Playscape", 2019

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Myths Up To Date






Greek mythology is a boundless source of inspiration for poets, musicians, playwrights and visual artists with its tales of love, tragedies, deceits, rapes and other monstrosities about the deeply entwined lives of gods and mortals. In Gorgo at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, Lala Raščić revisits the story of three tragic female characters in the context of feminism. Born in Sarajevo, the artist is dividing her time between Zagreb, where she attended the Academy of Fine Arts, and New Orleans. She is known for her performances, installations, videos, sculpture-artifacts, drawings and held previous shows at Good Children Gallery in New Orleans. The solo exhibition fills the Center's main gallery with three videos, a reflective glass installation, sculptural objects, drawings and photographs.
Blinded by the local sunshine, it takes a few minutes to accommodate to the darkness of the windowless space. A floor installation made of drawings on glass projects shadows of masks and other artifacts on two opposite walls through a play of lights. Paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are scattered throughout the vast space divided by temporary partitions.
The stories of Arachne, Electra and Medusa provide a loose plot for the scripts of the three videos projected on large screens. EE-O, 2018, features Arachne (Raščić) the victim, weaving her way into a science fiction heroine. The slow and monotonous monologue gives emphasis to the spoken words also available in a brochure laying on the bench facing the screen. The images are hypnotic and the artist's performance flawless. The Eumenides, 2014, a piece in three acts based on Jean Paul Sartre's famous play The Flies, starts with a close-up of the lone artist looking straight at the camera to address the viewer. Reversing the traditional use of male actors to play female roles, she is Orestes the "king without a kingdom". In contrast, act two featuring the Furies is a fast paced succession of multicolored masks grimacing while rapping. The third act is about Electra, the winner. Wearing a cloak elegantly draped like an antique sculpture, her head crowned by a delicate crocheted headband,  she represents status and power. From the stage, she is haranguing an invisible crowd, sharing her wisdom. Energized by her exhortations to resistance, the cheers of the chorus build up chanting "Elect Electra". The third video in color is about Gorgo, a made-up character by the artist who resurrects Medusa with a new body. Wearing breastplate, mask, shield, she is also connected to sensors. Triggered by her body and armor, they generate sounds reverberating in the gallery. The cyborg adopts warrior-like poses and stares defiantly behind the mask, fearless. I chose to conclude my visit on this lasting image.
Filled with references to mythology, Ovid's Metamorphoses, modern plays, the Xenofeminist Manifesto, ..., the exhibition is challenging and requires some brushing up before the visit to fully appreciate it. A flyer is available at the entrance to refresh our memory and provide clues about the show which takes time to absorb. Two of the videos are about thirty minutes long and can be viewed regardless of their chronological order. The solo show is supported by a number of contributors: a Bosnian poet, a Serbian academic for texts and scripts, the only Bosnian female blacksmith for props, and three local artists for punctual performances.
The multi-talented artist, who also performed live in previous venues reaches a wide audience as she rejuvenates the myths we grew up with in light of the Me Too Movement.
In doing so, Raščić appears fearless like her heroins.


photographs by the author

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Timeless






Photographs, paintings, videos, installations, the forty four works from twenty three artists selected by the guest juror David Breslin, Director of Curatorial Initiatives at the Whitney Museum of American Art are not only made of different media, they also represent a whole gamut of styles. At the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the highly anticipated opening of the yearly juried exhibition Louisiana Contemporary on White Linen Night is the occasion to discover new artists and works, and sometimes look at previously seen pieces in a new context like Sistema, 2018, from Kristin Meyers.
Near the entrance, the full-length humanoid of sizable height, wrapped in black material and red strips of cloth, is a free-standing sculpture with multiple points of view and focal points. Top-heavy, with a base anchored on a small golden pedestal, it defies the laws of gravity. The rigid torso supports two arms, each telling a different story. The left limb gracefully ends with a slender hand fit for a ballet dancer as the right with a gloved hand is ready to deliver a punch like a boxer. Above, the head is tilted upward, its face hidden by a heavy protective mask. The assemblage of sundry objects embedded in the fabric is an invitation to spend some time to look at the numerous perspectives. Shotgun, stethoscope and blood pressure cuff, a small black panther, diverse metal pieces, pommel of a sword or a knife, scalped bunches of hairs, sometimes hardly recognizable amulets, become part of the mummy-like shape. Weapons and trophies evoke a warrior. Like Janus, the androgynous creature has two faces, a small head can be spotted hanging from the upper back, tilted downward. The fixed piece is not static. Asymmetry and instability provide movement and energy. Dancing or fighting, there is action.
Going back to the title, "Sistema" or system in Italian is derived from Latin and earlier, Greek. The composition is an amalgam of cultural references crossing continents and centuries and adopts a universal language to "explore the human condition" (artist's quote).





photograph by the author