Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ghosts of the Past and Present

Carrie Mae Weem's works could not find a more appropriate place to be displayed than the George and Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art on Carondelet during Prospect.3. Walking through the porch of the antebellum house transformed in a museum is a great introduction to the exhibition which includes photographs from the Louisiana Project (2003).
Twelve pictures from the above series are found on the first floor, most featuring the artist seen from behind, leading the viewer on a 19th Century plantation's visit. The views are quiet and empty but soon get filled with the ghosts of the past, revived by the artist's presence, staged slightly off center, leaving room for the viewer to look at the scenes with her eyes, share her emotions and ultimately develop empathy. Carrie Mae West is reflecting on her roots, her people's history and slavery in this invitation to a trip down memory lane.
When watching Meaning and Landscape, 2003, a DVD projected on a television screen, one cannot avoid thinking of Kara Walker's work which treats similar themes set in Southern backgrounds. They both are great storytellers, but Carrie Mae West approach stays subtle, with innuendos and suggestions, as opposed to the raw violence and sexuality depicted in Walker's cut-paper silhouettes. Weems's chooses grayish images, blurred by a fence in the background, delivered at a slow pace, for this tale about race, gender and status.
Going back in time, on the second floor, Lincoln, Lonnie and Me-A Story in 5 Parts (2012) is a historical review of her ongoing themes. Short clips stage different characters including the artist, ghostly figures disappearing like magic on the stage defined by virtual bright red theater curtains. The Pepper's Ghost illusion, an old technique born in the 16th Century is used for the 18 minutes video which includes texts and music mixed for the soundtrack. The work in which the artists rekindles memories in a grey world of shadows was commissioned for the show Feminist And... which took place at the Mattress Factory,

Resurrecting the ghosts of the past to haunt our present...

photographs by the author

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Basquiat Belongs

With its catchy title, the exhibition Basquiat and the Bayou at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, part of Prospect.3: Notes for Now, is an attempt to relate Jean-Michel Basquiat's legacy to the culture of the Crescent City and the South in general. Nine paintings have been selected for the show which starts with a biography of the artist set along the hall leading to a vast room filled with the works.

Facing the entrance, Zydeco, 1984, a dark green triptych, color of "haricots" (beans), catches the visitor's attention with its reference to the music from Louisiana. The camera on the right panel focuses on the accordionist, the central figure. The left panel, harder to decipher, includes a black refrigerator, four black skulls topped by two iconic crowns and two seated black silhouettes. The painting is surrounded by Natchez, 1985, on the right, an aggregation of Xeroxed pieces on plywood mounted on a wood door, covered by texts and drawings treating a variety of subjects and, on the left, by CPRKR, 1982, dedicated to Charlie Parker. Facing these, two works appear loosely related to the theme of the exhibition: Embittered,1986, a complex juxtaposition of cartoonish figures including African inspired drawings and Back of the Neck, 1983, a painting inspired by Gray's AnatomyProcession, 1986, appears racially charged with its simple sinister cortege led by a figure wearing bright clothes and carrying a white skull, followed by four black silhouettes. Another prominent piece Exu, 1988, is a mythical painting radiating energy, a late work possibly made after Basquiat's visit to New Orleans. Two paintings, King Zulu, 1986 and Untitled (Cadmium), 1984, are similar compositions treating unrelated subjects. The first refers to New Orleans and the musician Louis Armstrong, the later has a religious overtone featuring a black torso and a sacred heart.
The physical relationship between the bayou (South) and Basquiat is tenuous at best and consists of one visit to New Orleans during Jazz Fest in April 1988, shortly before his death. Basquiat himself claimed his New York City roots which are not incompatible with his preoccupations with the South, racial bias, his Haitian and Puerto Rican origins, and his musical choices, as described by Robert G. O'Meally in his essay published in the exhibition's catalogue. So it is not surprising to find themes related to the South in his works long before his trip to New Orleans like in Undiscovered genius of the Mississippi Delta, 1983, or Jim Crow, 1986, among others, important works selected for the great retrospective which took place at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010 for his fiftieth birthday. Furthermore, some of Basquiat's late paintings appear to be an attempt to reconnect with his preferred themes following his collaboration with Andy Warhol.
It is not surprising that the exhibition's intent feels somewhat contrived, twisting Basquiat's vernacular to make it fit into a Southern experience. Cataloged as a neo-expressionist artist, ultimately, Basquiat is recognized as Basquiat and like Gauguin, found at the New Orleans Museum of Art during the Triennale, it is fitting that he should be part of Prospect.3 because, referring to Tavares Strachan slogan floating on the Mississippi, he "belongs".


photographs by the author:
"Untitled (cadmium)", 1984
" Exu", 1988
" Zydeco", 1984

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Absurdist Pop

Icon, 2011, from Will Ryman, is located near the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park during Prospect.3. The thirty foot tall sculpture features five red roses, one of them climbing straight up to the sky and the gigantic red flowers are looking odd, profiled on a Southern autumnal background. The work meets all the definitions of Pop art with its monochrome meaty red industrial paint covering petals, stems and thorns made of stainless steel. The shorter version of the 2011 installation on the Park Avenue Mall in Manhattan is surrounded by a black fence which obscures the bottom of the sculpture- to prevent lovers from scribbling their initials?
Red roses are about love, but these roses, made to be eternal, are cold, harsh and threatening, with their thorns color of blood which means death. In one of his statements, Ryman, influenced by absurdist philosophy, alludes to a twist of humor in the piece. In the process, he transforms the symbol of the rose and its romantic undertone into a cruel and commercial cliche.
Another work from Will Ryman, part of the permanent collection at the NOMA,  America, 2013, is a massive gold log cabin containing all the country's historical attributes: shackles, coal, computer keys, car parts, candies, ... embedded in the walls. The superficial reflection on American history is ready for consumption by the viewers with its hodgepodge of cliches. 
Ryman requires a lot of space and material to produce works light in content. Pop art seems to be a treacherous mean of introducing philosophical hints. 

"Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose",...Gertrude Stein and Pop art is Pop art is Pop art.