Tuesday, March 31, 2020


 As the New Orleans Museum of Art was making preparations for Art in Bloom, a yearly Spring event, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery opened Art in Doom: A Springtime Group Exhibition. The slightly derisory title became premonitory overnight in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after my visit, the gallery had to close to the public. The works can now be viewed on its Website and through its busy social media. The exhibition curated by Matthew Weldon Showman features paintings, sculptures and ceramics from five artists.

Assembling more than thirty pieces in the front gallery, the display is easy to navigate through a virtual path created by sculptures on pedestals. Paintings filled with bouquets of flowers and joyous scenes of revelries provide a springy flavor to the show ... until doom seeps in, starting with Tiffany Calvert's works born from seventeenth-century Dutch floral still lifes. They are made of inkjet prints of masterpieces revamped through the combination of several processes described as "gridding, fragmentation, image reversal, painting over" resulting in "digital glitches and scrambled transmission". The final compositions provide a new aesthetic experience enriched by their references to art history going back to the glorious days of figurative painting, abstraction, photography , digital art and appropriation. Are the islands of black color obliterating the pictures an allusion to the death of painting?
At the entrance, one of the sculptures of Beth Carter illustrates her practice which also includes charcoal drawings. Broken Carnival, 2017, is an equestrian statue traditionally dedicated to rulers or warriors, this time, the naked rider appears powerless, slumped on his three headed, six legged draped ride, in disarray, fallen hero led by a fantastic creature. Rag Donkey, 2015, another work strategically placed in the gallery, is the hybrid sculpture of a man with the head of a donkey overtaken by a small crowned humanoid standing on his shoulders. The same message of strength and weakness, power and helplessness, is found in the remaining four bronze sculptures and underscores the new status of manhood depicted through  a dreamy world of fairy tales with uncertain endings.
The third woman artist, Nora See, tackles current socio-political subjects in her latest works. Her depiction of a blacked-out fetus or a man in full suit curled in a uterus is blunt and unsettling. Her redesigned map of the United States speaks for itself.
Peter Olson combines photography and ceramic in his highly decorated vessels. The circles of images produce a lively dance of historical and mythological characters intermingled with decorative bands, and include plenty of skulls and skeletons like in a memento mori. No ashes are found in the urns but more images emerge, like an overflow of life.
Last but not least is William Woodward, a guardian of academic painting who composes rich narrative tableaux. His skills in incorporating several stories in one painting are most likely born from his interest in murals: "Murals are works of art that decorate walls and tell a story." So are his three pieces about the seven deadly sins displayed in the gallery.

The title Art in Doom is eerily prescient and provides a thread to the exhibition assembling five artists of diverse backgrounds who through different media express a common angst at the state of humankind. Their works provide an occasion to pause and reflect but let's not delve too deep in gloomy thoughts. Celebrations, mourning, New Orleans knows how to do this in style... it's all about life.

photographs by the author:

Tiffany Calvert "#316", 2018
Beth Carter "Broken Carnival", 2017
view of the exhibition 

Saturday, February 29, 2020


Post-war New York City saw the birth of abstract expressionism led by a group of white male artists. Norman Lewis, the only artist of color among them, is now considered the forebearer of African American abstraction. From then on, abstract enriched the vocabulary of artists who had to overcome the indifference, sometimes worse, the rejection not only from the art world but also from their own communities. Two years ago the Ogden Museum of Southern Art premiered a memorable exhibition Four Generations: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art. This time, the more intimate display assembles the works of sixteen African American artists, each represented by one piece from the museum's permanent collection. What Music is Within: Black Abstraction from the Permanent Collection complements a solo show Melvin Edwards: Crossroads set in the main gallery on the fifth floor.

Colors hit you when you enter the space. How can such a busy group show fit in the small gallery? A second look reveals the carefully laid out display which includes a large drawing from
Ron Bechet surrounded by wall sculptures from John T. Scott and Kevin Cole facing the entrance, and on the right side, three geometric abstract compositions in conversation with three expressionist paintings across the room. When turning around, the visitor encounters a stunning draped canvas from Sam Gilliam and next to it a smaller "box" in shades of pink constructed by Jeffrey CookClifton Webb's Totem, N.D., completes the show introduced by a wall text, a painting from Horton Humble, the youngest artist, member of Level Art Collective and a sculpture from Martin Payton profiled on the window's light in the hall.

This is a short description of the exhibition which warrants an in-depth look for the occasion to discover less famous artists like Merton Simpson or Moses Hogan who was better known as a pianist, conductor and composer. One can get lost in Forest Party, 1993, from the former, a textured rendition without focal point or look for the spiritual meaning of Turning Wheels, 1984, from the latter. Of course, local artists with their deep-rooted ties to music are well represented. John T. Scott was known to create his work while "jazz thinking" in his studio. His three pieces from the Ritual Cutter  series (1978) hung on the wall evoke instruments of torture, pain, tears, a song filled with sadness, and also of hope with colors bright like the sun. Music is a family affair for Martin Payton, brother of the famed trumpet player Nicolas and his sculptures often bear the name of  musicians, on view here Dexter, 1998, for Dexter Gordon. When I look to Ron Bechet's (related to Sydney) works, I hear Spirituals. Jeffrey Cook was a dancer for a period of time. Sam Gilliam is a fan of  Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Eugene Martin thought about becoming a jazz musician like his father and it shows in his jazzy composition illustrating the correspondence between rhythm and lines, melody and colors. Both Gilliam and Martin were connected in some ways with the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C., Robert Reed spent most of his career further North as a teacher at Yale University School of Art and  Arlington Weathers migrated from Guyana. The exhibition stretches not only geographically but also in time, representing fifty years of African American abstract art and its various styles from expressionist to geometric and color field.

Music needs to be heard, visual art needs to be seen and the exhibition is a great occasion to look at pieces of the permanent collection in the context of music. William T. Williams states that he was often asked:"Why are you making abstraction? It's not African American art" and he would answer "Jazz is the most abstract of all music. Music is totally abstract. How can you not say there's a tradition of abstraction."

photographs by the author:

view of the exhibition: 
Robert Reed "San Romano, Monticello, Brick II", 1982
John Barnes "Doe Poppin' II", 2015
Clifton Webb "Totem", N.D.

Eugene Martin "Geometric Abstract", 1999

Sam Gilliam "Drape Work", 1970

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.

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

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

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