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