Friday, April 12, 2019

Drawing with Light

Keith Sonnier was born in the heart of Cajun country, Mamou, Louisiana, best known for its food, music, and rowdy Mardi Gras celebrations. The visual artist moved to New York City early in his career and became part of its art scene. His contemporaries include Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, ..., and he is associated with the post-minimalist movement. After experimenting with various media, Sonnier gained international recognition with his neon sculptures. Keith Sonnier: Until Today at the New Orleans Museum of Art is a retrospective of the seventy-seven-year-old artist's work. The  exhibition includes more than thirty of his iconic sculptures, early videos and a large immersive installation.

The show's entrance is like an invitation to Keith Sonnier's world. Waves of neon lights suspended from the ceiling like celestial decorations reflect on the shiny floor below, leaving puddles of colors. Passage Azur, 2015/2019, is paired with Quad Scar, 1975, an alignment of ship to shore black boxes aligned on both sides along the walls and broadcasting weather reports. The passageway leads to a succession of smaller galleries organized by themes: "Forms in Space: Sculpture, Architecture and the Body", "Industry, Agriculture, and the Everyday", "Future Ruins: Technology and Monument", "Global Influence", " Portals and Passageways" and "Evoking Louisiana: Color and Light".  Each sculpture/installation (hung on the walls or in the round) is introduced by a text and is allotted enough space to spread its glow and shadow. While the first rooms are filled with pieces from the late sixties, the following displays are a mix from different periods. For example, "Industry and Agriculture", features Deux Pattes, 1982, and New Blatt Cinema (Cinema series), 2016, both semi-abstract. Farther, one can find a collection of works inspired by Sonnier's trips abroad, Japan in 1984 or Greece in 2011. The heart of the exhibition is a large site specific installation from the museum's permanent collection. Fluorescent Room, 1970/2019 offers views from two opposite windows into a cave-like structure covered with splashes of orange and green fluorescent paint. Close by, three videos from the sixties provide a glimpse into a period of experimentation with the new medium in collaboration with other artists like Tina Girouard.

The walk through the entrance is an immersive experience with lights, reflections, glows, shadows and sounds reverberating on the walls. In contrast, a peak in Fluorescent Room is somewhat frustrating as one misses the sensation of bathing in colors like in  Chromosaturation, 1965, from Carlos Cruz-Diez or more recently the Pop Cosmic Caverns from Kenny Scharf.
The visit is like a voyage in time and space, from the late sixties until today, from Louisiana to the Far East. Through the combination of electrical wires, fabrics, wood, transformers, porcelain, artifacts, bamboo, found objects and neon or argon lights, the works connect distant cultures. Swamps' ghosts haunt Fluorescent Room also filled with shimmering colors evocative of festive celebrations in India. Back and forth from semi-abstract to conceptual, Sonnier uses all languages to spread his message.
The exhibition gathers works from a number of series: from early Neon Wrapping Incandescent Series in 1968, Ba-O-Ba Series 1969, Herd Series, 2008, to Portal Series, 2015, and more. Spanning the artist's career, it emphasizes the relevance of his body of work to today's world and provides an overdue recognition of Sonnier's originality in his creativity.

photographs by the author:

"Passage Azur", 2015/2019 (detail)
"Neon Wrapping Incandescent II (Neon Wrapping Incandescent Series), 1968
"Propeller Spinner (Antenna Series), 1990

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Second Look

Ear to the Ground: Earth and Element in Contemporary Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art features eighteen artists, each represented by a work selected from the museum's or the artist's  collection. As suggested in the title, all relate to the four elements: water, earth, wind, fire, and the natural world through various media. The exhibition occupies the contemporary art space on the museum's second floor.

After walking through the display and reading the detailed wall texts found next to each work, I spent some time in front of two pieces which captured my interest for different reasons. My encounter with Persian Waterfall, 1990, one of the famous "Waterfall" paintings from Pat Steir was a non-event. A rapid glance revealed white drips with splashes on a black background and I carried on with the visit. My first impression is never final and I went back for a second look. What did I miss? The seventy-eight-year old artist is in the news lately with two well publicized exhibitions: ongoing at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia with eleven commissioned works for Silent Secret Waterfalls and upcoming, a site specific exhibition for the circular space at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC. This time, I walked TO the painting from the show's "entrance" all the way back, staring at it, ignoring the surroundings. It grew bigger as I came closer (no surprise!) but it also became alive. Immersed in the painting, twice my size in height, even larger in width, I finally "saw it". Through the techniques introduced by the Chinese "ink-splashing" painters centuries ago, Pat Steir captures the spirit of nature. Splashing, pouring paint on the canvass, by chance, the artist created the powerful and dynamic waterfall with skills she describes as control of the "fluidity, gravity and timing... the timing of the pour" making her Waterfall paintings qualify as performance art.

Who would not be attracted by The Hinged View, 2017, from Olafur Elliasson? The artist, also involved in creating waterfalls in New York City (2008), this time deals with the visible light spectrum through six glass spheres lined up on a black metal stand. Walking by, the visitor animates the display. Like planets, the spheres appear to rotate, changing from black to transparent, and even reflect an upside down pic of the viewer at some point. Their respective color seeps in and transforms them in vibrant red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet orbs when facing them. About color, light and beyond, alluding to the unseen spectrum and other dimensions, the piece is in the vein of Elliasson's works.  I was just baffled by the wall text next to it which states: "created against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Elliasson's sculpture seeks to heighten perceptual awareness as a way of counteracting the polarizing nature of current political discourse."... Would the artist endorse these comments? Can we look at art without searching for some hidden political intend? Art can be political and sometimes it is not.
It is a great responsibility to be the viewer, it takes second looks!  I cannot agree more with Olafur Elliasson who during an interview in 2018 stated: "Without the viewer, there is nothing"

photographs by the author:
Pat Steir "Persian Waterfall", 1990
Olafur Elliasson "The Hinged View", 2017

Saturday, January 26, 2019


Where can you find a collection of works from Anita Cook, visit a solo exhibition from Esther Murphy or Leslie Friedman? Where can you discover an artist you never heard of? ... in the Arts District Saint Claude. Its website recently published offers a list of galleries, collectives and more.
Starting at Good Children Gallery, Leslie Friedman's solo show Yaddah Yaddah Yaddah fills the front and back of the gallery space with screen prints on various materials and a video. The print maker addresses an endless subject through her pop art: "identity, social inclusion and exclusion". Belonging to a group validates our status in a society and is key to our identity. Jackets, flags, patches, decorated helmets or "fish chandeliers" provide a way to join a group made of "all those skipped over". The artist is not only making art, her pieces become a membership to this "new gang on the block" and the video is a personal invitation. Somewhat disconnected with the exhibition's theme, abstract geometric black and white screen prints with decorative shapes and patterns complete the display. 
Humor spreads from The Front, featuring thirty one women comic artists with "stories concerning their bodies and experiences in patriarchal society", to Antenna Gallery where Natalie McLaurin shares her new experience with motherhood through sculptures and drawings. Far from the serenity displayed by nursing Madonnas, her reality appears filled with pain, frustration and guilt. Breastfeeding is not easy, humor helps!
Nearby, BrickRed Gallery offers a display of photographs from Esther Murphy. The exhibition's title Orekticos I refers to the word orectic, "concerning desire, appetite". Influenced by her recent year-long stay in China, her luscious, exuberant still lifes reach beyond photography and in the genre's tradition include symbols like decaying fruits or citrus peels. The artist's compositions remind of the best chinoiseries made popular in France in the eighteenth century and beyond... with a twist.
Anita Cook is represented by fifteen works at the New Orleans Art Center. Her practice is about lines, texture, sometimes colors and ultimately rhythm. For example, the busy cityscape City Streets/Control Panel made of juxtaposed small squares contrast with the waves of Windswept/ Ohio Fields in Winter. The undated works on display represent different series or processes per Cook's website. Three of Not Your Mother's Apron series, older works, are more actual than ever. The show allows an overview of her work spanning decades and underline her tight connection to the city. In one of her statement Cook describes "the energy of the process" to create the dense compositions which take several years to produce. 
In the back of the gallery, one can find the works from D. Nuego who gathers left over packing material like Styrofoam as his media to carve giant monochrome sculptures weighting only a few pounds. Like a true outsider, D. Nuego is not found on the Internet or social media. His mythical creations with Spanish titles appear to be inspired by Mayan art  and refer to animals, objects or places.
The UNO Saint-Claude gallery is a great venue to meditate this month. Two videos ensure a visual as well as auditory experience with the acoustic music composed by Jane Cassidy.

So... Cross the railroad and visit the Arts District Saint Claude, there is more to see ...

photographs by the author: 
"Yaddah Backdrop" from Leslie Friedman
Anita Cook: "ColorWheel, from the InsideOut" from Quilt Series. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Art of Curating

If a cursory look can titillate a visitor's interest, ultimately an exhibition's content makes the visit memorable. Hive Mind at Loyola University's Diboll Gallery is a show that offers both: a strong visual impression and a rich compelling display. Curated through the collaborative effort of twenty three undergraduate students, it assembles the works of fifteen graduate artists, and includes paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos and small installations.
The white space on the top floor of the building, above the library, is bathing in natural light on one side and artificial light on the other. Its center is surrounded by a sort of semi-circle walkway. Rendere: Pouring myself out to, 2013, a large piece from Luba Zygarewicz, faces the entrance, floating in the air. The fragile construction made of bee wax with a single word "life" painted in red on it, projects a web-like shadow on the panel behind it. Heaps of colored used tea, remnants from the artist's consumption, are lined up below it. Her second piece found nearby is eye-catching as well. A Thousand Wishes, 2017, is a dress made of used teabags, hanging from the ceiling to the floor, spreading like a train. Starting on the left, a wall text describes the exhibition and provides a list of the artists' and curators' names. Smaller framed works like photographs, prints, watercolors, needlepoint, are hung on the columns supporting the structure and are usually grouped by artists. Sculptures on pedestals fill empty areas, allowing a view on all sides. Peter Barnitz is well represented with five of his unique compositions scattered from the entrance to the back. Three of Esther Murphy's colorful photographs made in 2017, inspired by her year long stay in China, are next to each other, across one of Barnitz's monochrome black work, while a fourth is found further amid works from Michel Varisco and Jenna Knoblach. Lighter, humorous prints from Dianna Sanchez are spread throughout the show. The selected pieces reflect the artists' practices, sometimes with smaller works for Carlie Trosclair, due to the constraints imposed by the space.
The artists are known, some works were previously displayed in other venues, Contemporary Art Center, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, galleries,..., or are available to look at on the web.
The exhibition provides a way to rediscover them in a different context, through the fresh eyes and the hive mind of undergraduate students.

photographs by the author:
Luba Zygarewicz "A Thousand Wishes", 2017
Peter Barnitz "Amid the Strikes" (detail), 2016
Erica Larkin Gaudet "Reclining Figure Maquette", 2018

Friday, September 28, 2018

Timeless, Clifton Webb at the Ohr

Sometimes you need to travel to see New Orleans artists' works. The solo exhibition Icons: The Sacred Muse by Clifton Webb at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum is the occasion to take a trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. The African-American sculptor, a pillar of the city's art scene, was a co-founder  of the Contemporary Arts Center and participated to the New Orleans Talented in Visual Arts Program as a teacher for twenty-five years. Homegrown, he graduated with a BFA and an MFA from Louisiana State University. The museum built by Frank Gehry hosts a collection of pottery from George Ohr, the "Mad Potter of Biloxi". Its gallery dedicated to African-American art is the perfect setting for the display which includes twelve sculptures and four laser prints of the artist's collages.

Inspired by his late wife, a dancer, Clifton Webb created a body of work centered on the female torso which is represented in most of the sculptures assembled for the exhibition, starting with the major piece facing the entrance. Great Mother with its hieratic pose presides over the show. Curves and breasts, symbol of femininity and nourishment, define the towering matriarch perched on a profiled female trunk for pedestal. She is crowned with a headdress fit for a queen, including a plume made of palm and wears a ceremonial cape decorated with patterns of black and white triangles with touches of red. The major piece defines the theme and style of the smaller sculptures lined up along the walls on each side. Most of them incorporate the female shape as part of semi-figurative works like Arabesque, a wood female torso upside down surmounted by a wreath made of imbricated blue-grey aluminum cones. Variations of the recurrent design (circle of cones) are also found at the bottom of Intergalactic Dancer, this time as an elaborate base supporting a light construction topped with swirls of paper. The diverse material used to build the multimedia compositions include wood, aluminum, bronze, brass, stones, plastic, sand, marble, copper, cowrie shells, steel..., and underline the skills of the artist who carves, sculpts, paints, hammers, ..., echoing the practice of African artists. Each sculpture in the round projects an aura enhanced by its title. For example,  Sankofa refers to the Asante symbol from Ghana. In Webb's version, the bird which represents the link between past and future, is replaced by a female statuette above a set of opened lips, evoking a prophetess. Mixture of religious and profane references, The Temple of  God reaches sacred undertones while Her Majesty, a construction standing on sand surmounted by a blue umbrella, brings a lighter note with its beachy attributes. The only reference to the male gender is found in Adam and Eve and Fearless Warrior. Symmetry, feature of African art, is key in Unity. Four photographs of  collages scattered along the walls energize the show with their colors and visual exuberance. Next to the wall text at the entrance, Mojo Venus sums up the myths about female power while the center piece Timeless Dancer protected by a glass case, represents the source of the artist's inspiration.

The wall text, also available on a flyer, provides a brief background about the artist and his work. In his pursuit of the "Sacred Muse" and the perfect Venus, Webb perpetuates female archetypes which may not befit current women's aspirations. However, the sculptures depict females with attributes of status and power and Eve noticeably carries her equal share of the world (represented by a heavy stone on top of the couple) with Adam. The artist reaches his goal of creating works that amplify "the royalty and sacredness of who the African American is". Without dates, the works are timeless and  could be part of an ongoing series.
Beyond the aestheticism, the sculptures engender reflection, and the contemplation of their quiet beauty brings to the recognition of the "power of art to harmonize the self with itself and with the world" (Vernon Lee).

photographs by the author

"Intergalactic Dancer"
"In the Beginning" (detail)
view of the exhibition at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum

Friday, August 31, 2018

Along the River

White Linen Night is over. Time to go back to the galleries and look at art!
At the Contemporary Arts Center, Constructing the Break, an Open Call exhibition curated by Allison M. Glenn, is dedicated to the Mississippi River. It assembles the works from thirty artists sharing close or loose links to New Orleans. Their diverse backgrounds and practices enrich the multi-media exhibition located in the main gallery on the building's first floor.

The show starts with Tar, 2018, a Gothic tale of destruction by Joris Lindhout. The installation is made of two videos, a stack of newspapers laid on the floor tied with a black string, an iPad held by two black hands on the wall and an old tape player on a stand. The devices are connected through black wires hanging from the ceiling. The story unfolds on the bigger screen where a glob of oil drips, drops, becomes a creepy substance invading its surroundings and eventually the world. A prescient performance by Joseph Beuys recorded in 1974 in the Gulf of Mexico is displayed on a smaller screen. It shows the artist coating himself with the black goo in the middle of a green bog. On the iPad's screen, a humorous scoop about the FBI looking for a MoMA's curator taken away by a mysterious kidnapper leaving black prints, is accompanied by advertisements for backyard fracking. The introduction gives the vibe to the rest of the exhibition which features an abstract representation of the goddess of fresh water, Oshun by Anastasia Pelias, and three wall pieces from Julie Morel about loss and memory through maps drawn with technologies involving GPS, LED's and conductive ink. Undertow, 2015-2018, the site specific post-industrial installation from Elliott Stockes is made of parts from oil distillation equipment laid on the gallery's vast open floor. Displacement, 2018, an interactive piece from Nurhan Gokturk features two newspaper vending machines side by side in which mirrors reflect deconstructed images of ourselves and our environment. Gabrielle Garcia Steib's mixed-media installation involves sound and photographs to tackle a hot issue, immigration, while Ana Hernandez gets us back to the subject of fracking with two pieces of her series Altering Internal Landscapes: In pursuit of unearthing bodies of Energy. "Visual representation of ecological trauma", The Haynesville, 2017, and The Bakken, 2017, combine Netters Anatomical Flash Cards with a depiction of the formations pierced by nails, evoking pain, thus life. The wounded rocks next to the description of human flesh become living matter by analogy. Annah Chalew makes her own canvasses with trash and plants resulting in unique brown monochrome landscapes. Her wall piece Root Shock II, 2018, combines opposite qualities: primal, sophisticated, coarse, delicate, heavy, light, tough, fragile, ..., and benefits from a close-up view. The life-size photograph of a tree with hanging moss, glowing in the last ray of sun against a soft pinkish sky, perfect picture for My Beautiful South, 2018, from Cynthia Scott, is spoiled by a metal pipe protruding from the tree trunk. Its orifice is covered by a small round screen on which a video is projected. It was shot by the artist along the river's bank and documents the green pastures giving way to industrial complexes and pollution. In Daybew, 2018, Mississippi Swan, a virtual artist born from the collaboration between Rick Snow, (Mississippi River in New Orleans) and Chris Tonkin, (Swan River in Perth), mixes the sounds of two far away cities to obtain scores of electronic music accompanied by colorful graphics flashing like advertisements.
The piece is a great transition to what feels like the second part of the exhibition, dominated by photographs and videos. Twenty black and white or color photographs from eight  local photographers gathered on a wall convey their vision of the city and its people.
 Across, the sixteen-minute video featuring the sculptor Maren Hassinger and her daughter, is a performance piece born from the interaction between artist, landscape, wind, water, and a white scarf. The poetic images are followed by Thy Glad Beams, 2016, from Wiley Aker, a mixture of footage from news and archives in black and white accompanied by an ominous background music resulting in a dramatic end of the world atmosphere. Preceded by three minimalist sculptures made with  concrete from Jack Niven, the conclusion of the show is an epic tale of the Mississippi river, told in less than ten minutes. With its dense content, There's Something in the Water: Yemoja and Osun, 2018, the video from Tia-Simone Gardner deserves to be watched several times to get the full grasp of its historical, geographical, sociological, architectural, poetical references. 
Each of the thirty artists gets to shine in the well-paced display. The coherence of the selected works, their quality and relevance to the subject, make the whole exhibition flow from start to end without a glitch. Lately, viewers have seen a lot of political art. This time, the artists made their point through a whole gamut of expressions more powerful and inspirational than slogans .
They all communicate their unconditional love for the city, the river and the South, and along with it, the "concept of being rooted consistently tempered by infrastructural fragility".

photographs by the author:

Cynthia Scott "My Beautiful South", 2018
Ana Hernandez "The Haynesville" and "The Bakken", 2017
View of Tia-Simone Gardner's installation "There's Something in the Water: Yemoja and Osun" 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

About New Orleans

While the San Antonio Museum of Art focuses on the city's Spanish heritage to celebrate its Tricentennial with a display of paintings from The Prado and other prestigious Spanish museums, the New Orleans Museum of Art features its community through the works of seven artists to commemorate the event. Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories, is a collaborative project between the museum's curators of contemporary art and of photography. It involves installations, photographs, drawings, sculptures, videos, multimedia works, and is located on the first floor of the museum.
Eleven photographs from the War on the Benighted series, 2015-2018, from L. Kasimu Harris were selected to introduce the exhibition in the Great Hall. Each deserves some time to ponder over its aesthetic qualities as well as its content. The staged scenes remind of events or important figures of African American history, and also pinpoint to the failures of the school system and other ongoing struggles. The adolescent actors stay stern, remote, sometimes defiant, and appear frozen in action, participants of a silent but powerful protest through the constructed reality of their surroundings. The series's title is sobering, benighted means: "existing in a state of intellectual, moral, or social darkness". The photographs are haunting.
A short walk to the back of the museum allows to shake off some heavy thoughts before entering the main gallery. Faced by a black wall with the title of the show and the list of artists in white letters, the visitor can find an introductory text in the anteroom of  Skylar Fein's installation Remember the Upstairs Lounge (2008), a memorial to the victims of the fire that destroyed the dive in 1973. A short passage between glowing red glass walls leads to a reproduction of the Upstairs Lounge's door and the bar itself: used red wallpaper with ragged edges, wood panels, pulpit for the guest book and tunes from the seventies in the background. In the semi-darkness, the funerary draping of framed official papers gives an eerie feeling to the display and horror soon follows at the sight of gruesome enlarged newspapers' images of charred bodies, each accompanied by a short text providing the story behind it. Across, smiling portraits of the innocent victims who were shunned by the community for being gay render the graphic scenes even more disturbing. By now, visitors are whispering to each other, walking slowly along the photographs, in respect. Around the corner, the second room of the installation is filled with artifacts, memorabilia, neon signs, giant portraits in woodcuts and photographs, "a fantasia of gay culture" according to the artist. In a photo booth (graffiti included), a video loop of the local news about the tragic event completes the display.
Without transition, the visitor enters the mystical world of  Sister Gertrude Morgan revisited by Lesley Dill through her installation Heaven Heaven Heaven/Hell Hell Hell: Encountering Sister Gertrude Morgan, (2010). Two mannequins dressed in sumptuous gowns, one black, the other white, fill the room. With her head shrouded in light white fabric, the "bride" wears a multilayered veil rising to the ceiling (the sky). Both have words taken from the Scriptures embroidered on their costumes, written in various calligraphic letters' style, size and color. The four walls are covered with words and symbols recounting Sister Gertrude Morgan's revelations, references to her life and prophetic visions of floods, cataclysms caused by sins. At the top, a frieze of delicately drawn figures runs around the room. The ethereal atmosphere created by the luminous prevailing white is followed by complete darkness in the next room where The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014) from The Propeller Group is projected on a large screen. The images provide a glimpse in the funerary practices of Vietnam and New Orleans, two geographically distant places linked by their colonial past. The background music consist of  Vietnamese songs from the fifties performed by a New Orleans brass band. Cultural and environmental commonalities are highlighted in the inspiring film. Katrina Andry' first major museum exhibition is a site specific installation Diverge Divest Deny (repeat) which transforms the space into a tropical forest of palms decorated with epiphytic plants scattered in the greenery. The visitor can navigate between the forty-three panels of woodblock prints, and the aesthetically attracting work after a second look reveals its rich conceptual content. The designs on the folded papers: graphs, maps, texts, diagrams, evoke the rejected projects of an urbanist. They refer to the failed reconstruction projects that plague the African American community in New Orleans. A large room is dedicated to Willie Birch, represented by a wide variety of works from drawings to sculptures. Abandoned objects, portraits, architecture, the artist shares views of his neighborhood in his graphite and acrylic drawings hung on the walls. Bones found in a backyard are immortalized with a coat of gold paint and laid in a heap on the floor, while others are carefully displayed in a glass cabinet. For a Generation not yet Born: The Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811, 2018, is a three hundred inches long tapestry/quilt made at the occasion of the city's tricentennial and another sizable work Waiting for a Serious Conversation on the History of the South, 2017, leads to a room filled with a table, chairs, books, an invitation to reflect on the past and future of the city and its people, surrounded by works from artists like George Dureau, John T. Scott or Sister Gertrude Morgan. The last and seventh project is organized by the New Orleans Photo Alliance and The Everyday Projects, an outreach program with a stand located in the hall.
Two of the works are now part of the museum's permanent collection. Skylar Fein's installation may have lost some of its intense feeling of confinement and dread generated by the smaller space allocated for Prospect.1 while Lesley Dill's gains another dimension with the higher ceilings and walls. Willie Birch's display could be called a retrospective or War on the Benighted series from L. Kasimu Harris could be a photographic exhibition on its own. The artists are all dealing with the subject of marginalized and disadvantaged groups living in the city. The landmark exhibition emphasizes the role of the museum, not a remote institution catering for a selected few, but  one of the community's gathering center, a place to expose and heal its pain through art.

The conversation can start, looking at the past, thinking about the future.

photographs by the author:

Katrina Andry "Diverge Divest Deny (repeat)" (detail)
Lesley Dill "Heaven heaven heaven/Hell Hell Hell" (detail), 2010
Willie Birch "For a Generation not yet Born: The Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811", 2018