Friday, September 16, 2016

Art with Ideas

A century ago Marcel Duchamp submitted Fountain, a urinal-basin, for the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. It was refused but Conceptual art was born. Still engendering controversy, it has become a full fledged mean of expression for artists. NOLA CONCEPTUAL, the latest exhibition at The New Orleans Art Center in the St. Claude Arts District features the works from eleven New Orleans artists, including paintings, sculptures, installations, a performance and a video.

The gallery space is left wide open for the exhibition, setting the stage for the numerous and diverse works. The immediate attraction is a slow paced performance from Ricardo Barba featuring an actor wrapped in a white blanket and bound by the wrists to a cord hanging from the ceiling. In the name of the anonymous victims of injustice, Another One Bites the Dust (Love No Matter What), 2016, makes a powerful statement. I chose to focus on one work from each artist, drawn by subject and/or aesthetic. Starting with John Isiah Walton, I found his monochrome piece compelling: a clear glass jar filled with blue water, rocks at the bottom and syringes floating on top. Its simplicity emphasizes the message. The stones refer to the heaviness of being, the syringes to the escape from it through artificial paradises while the color is about infinity, eternity and ultimately death. In this piece, the artist rejuvenates the art of the memento mori. Among the four wall compositions from Ana Hernandez, an idiosyncratic piece related to the St. Claude neighborhood and its divisive neutral ground, They call it "The Shooting Side" can also be interpreted in a larger context. A thick green line crosses the dark brownish landscape, like a slash. Carl Joe Williams's Ladder intrigued me. The least narrative of his five pieces, it is also the most conceptual. Joan Miró incorporated the symbol in his works as a mean of escaping reality and reach the imaginary world. Williams's ladder is festive, covered with glitter and bright colors but with broken steps, like a broken dream, an escape to nowhere. Locked from Alex Podesta features two symmetrical creatures with antlers, facing each other in a passive confrontation, on wheels but static, frozen in action, without past or future, locked for eternity. Nearby, Cynthia Scott brings us into a world of fairy tales with three works inspired by well-known legends. Rapunzel Moves On is a lavish installation with its golden locks spread on the floor and antique scissors laid on top. The blond mane belongs to a now cropped haired head. The gesture of cutting is final and at the same time implies a new beginning. Rapunzel is leaving, turning her back on the "prince". The piece is a whimsical reference to women's liberation from their submissive roles. Rontherin Ratliff is somber, preoccupied by death, the carceral world and a future overshadowed by genetic engineering. His sculpture Biological Fear, 2016, relates to the DNA's double helix. Will its manipulation be used for the benefit of the human race or become another weapon? In the 9 min video from Jason Childers, physical and digital worlds intermingle to create a bizarre atmosphere filled with unrelated images and sounds where reality becomes "both meaningful and meaningless". On a lighter note, Christina Juran's Good Day is a silhouette frolicking in the clouds, oblivious of surroundings and ...happy. Across, Gina Laguna offers what feels like a forest of sculptures ( six). They can be appreciated one at a time or as an installation. Their common message is about nature and its life cycle. The numbered series of sculptures from Keith DuncanBody Brace, alludes to infirmity and suffering. The silvery replicas are witnesses of the pain endured when growing up. This can start or conclude the visit of the exhibition.

Group shows can be overwhelming, confusing, lacking cohesion. The clear labeling of the works, the short but informative wall texts and the use of the space avoid these shortcomings. The selected pieces are representative of the eleven artists, each expressing their angst, sharing their intimate thoughts through their work. Conceptual art requires the viewer's participation  and more than aesthetic pleasures, provides thought-provoking material. Challenging, it is also rewarding if one spends some time interacting with the work.
The exhibition is a landmark for conceptual art in New Orleans.

photographs by the author:

Keith Duncan "Body Brace"
Carl Joe Williams "Past"
Cynthia Scott "Rapunzel Moves On"
Alex Podesta "Locked"

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