Sunday, August 26, 2012

Under The Spell in New Orleans

Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) is not the first visitor who moved permanently to New Orleans. He is even buried at St. Louis Cemetery. The artist, well-known for his urban and  industrial paintings, discovered the Crescent City and under the spell, recorded with his camera the microcosm around him. The exhibition " Ralston Crawford and Jazz" at the New Orleans Museum of Art presents an extensive collection of his work. The catchy title is an understatement, the photographs and paintings treat a much broader range of subjects.

Hundreds of photographs are regrouped into themes:
 music, portraits, cemeteries, New Orleans streets. At first, paintings, lithographs, inks on paper, appear randomly scattered among them, but a closer look shows a careful selection to illustrate the influence of the photographs on the paintings and vice versa. The painter, considered a precisionist, was also a photographer ...or the photographer was also a painter, one finds the same "eye" in the construction of the scenes. With the lines created by shadows in bright sun bathed streets, he builds a geometric background to frame the subjects: Mardi Gras bands, funeral parades, crowds, portraits... 
A few examples give a glimpse in his technique. The portrait of Bill Matthews, 1955, is a lesson in composition. The arms of the trombonist smoking a cigarette, draw a triangle with the table and the face is a circle falling along the slope of his left arm. Most of the photographs are built around simple shapes suggested by a pillar, telephone poles, a drapery... Waldon "Frog" Joseph, trombone and Joe Thomas, clarinet is another example with the instruments arranged in parallel oblique lines in the center of the photograph. The musicians are accessory to the composition with the clarinettist's face melting in the trombone's shadow. The subjects are seldom looking at the camera and even the bodies turn away from it as featured in the photograph of two dancers.  If their looks are caught , they remain expressionless like the absent stare of a sick woman on a gurney or in the shadows like the eyes of the "Woman with Hands on the Hips" 1950-60's. The musician Jerome Green is caught with his eyes closed.  
All the photographs are black and white. What about the paintings and lithographs? The palette is limited to earth tones, flat blue, grey, with occasional black and white to depict lifeless, cold, emotionless landscapes.   
A complement to the exhibition, a selection of photographs from the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University confirms the historical legacy of Crawford's work: New Orleans 1950's-60', Louis Armstrong's birthplace, Old Clubs, Big 25, Dew Drop Inn, Blue Lamp Bar, Golden Leaf Hotel, Mulberry Grocery Store... 

Interestingly, his heartless industrial landscapes, his photographs show the same lack of emotions, an emptiness leading to expectations. Lines and shapes from buildings, instruments, musicians or crowds build a tense scene set before or after the action. 
Five films are also projected, for more than one hour, great studies in light and shadows.
At the end of the exhibition , a whole room is dedicated to geometric abstract lithographs showing the same preoccupation with shapes to create tension.
The text at the beginning of the exhibition made an attempt to justify the title, trying to apply the definition of Jazz (improvisation, polyphony, syncopation) to Crawford's work. I could not find the connection but discovered an artist's vision, a lesson in catching the unseen and untold.

no photographs were allowed at the NOMA
photographs by the author
banner at the NOMA's entrance

"Under The Third Avenue El" (The Brewery), Ralston Crawford, 1934
Montgomery Museum of Art

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