Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Somber Notes at the CAC

Radcliffe Bailey: Recent Works, the latest exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans takes over the first floor of the venue. The show assembles six large new wall pieces and the eighth version of a site specific installation, Windward Coast. In addition, two works are set in the "oval gallery". The African American artist based in Atlanta keeps drawing his inspiration from the history of the Atlantic slave trade, espe-
cially the Middle Passage, music, and more recently, disasters.
Sounds of piano keys falling on the ground escape from a conch hung to the wall and a giant music stand supports a stack of wind instruments in a small space near the entrance, setting the tone for the exhibition. Music is also referred to in the next piece which fills the front of the main gallery and, viewed from the street, provides a great window display. Lost in the heap of wooden pieces, far away, a lonely black head covered with glitter bobbles in the middle of a sea of piano keys. The famous piece, Windward Coast, has already been much commented upon since its display for the exhibition Memory As Medicine at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 2011. Conceptual art leaves plenty of leeway for interpretation, and I ventured into looking at the forlorn head as the artist himself.
Recent works fill the remaining space in the lobby of the Center. They include Clotilde, 2014 and Clotilde II, 2014, variations on the same subject. Both include a heavy coat of black sand covering objects like ropes, train tracks, cotton, a slave boat's replica, or toy-size railroad tracks. They refer to the scuttling of a slave ship in the Bay of Mobile in 1855 and are hung next to Black Night Falling, 2014, a graffiti of a sort. On a rough canvas, one can decipher the name of islands or countries (Haiti, Jamaica, Senegal, ...) or detect footprints, shadows, under a sliver of moon, surrounded by scribbles of heavy black paint. The next pair of works have a gory appearance with the preserved corpse of a crocodile for On Your Way Up, 2013, and dismembered doll's arms on a rubber backdrop for Congo, 2013,  alluding to "a surrogate crucifix", curios from European elites or the Nile River for the former and imperialist activities of Leopold II in Central Africa after the Berlin Conference in 1885 for the latter, according to the wall text. Comments related to the works are spread throughout the exhibition in an attempt to elicit a direct interaction with the viewers via social media like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
The predominant black color overshadows the exhibition filled with detailed historical references somewhat limiting the breath of the works. Over-inflated descriptions like "big things, large scale, minimalist, abstract sculptural works", "profound sense of serenity, with a hypnotic, repetitive aesthetic similar to Japanese rock gardens" or "Gargantuan" weaken the genuineness of the artist who also compares his studio to a church, a sacred space. His goal is to infuse a mythical dimension to historical events, ultimately give an Odyssean flavor to the sad slave trade. Conceptual art represents a challenge as a mean of narrating history. The flat sea of piano keys lacks energy, rhythm, "waves" and stays strangely silent. As a whole, the works trigger little emotions and lack vision for the future.
If any sound is coming out of the exhibition, it is a mournful tune.

photographs by the author:

" On Your Way Up", 2013
" If Bells Could Talk", 2015
" Windward Coast", 2009-2015

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Revisiting Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas: the private Impressionist at the Newcomb Art Gallery on the Uptown Tulane Campus  provides a glimpse into a less known scope of Degas' practice through its display of "Works on Paper by the Artist and His Circle". The famous sculptor and painter produced also a substantial body of work on paper. The drawings, prints, photographs and related pieces from the artist and his peers on view for the exhibition, were gathered by Robert Flynn Johnson over a forty-year period for his collection.

The visit appears daunting at first sight due to the voluminous material on display, its predominant black and white colors and the monotonous presentation along the walls. However, themes emerge as one walks through: Marie Cassatt at the entrance, or in the main gallery Edouard Manet, portraits of family and friends, studies after Old Masters or Classical sculptures also horses in one of the adjacent room and works from contemporaries in the other. Degas, the photographer, is well represented with a collection of shots made by the Master which contributes greatly to the worthwhile visit. So does the display of works on paper from peers like Ingres, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, ... or less known artists, spread within the show. Detailed wall texts are found next to each work and hand-outs are available for more information, including a glossary of graphic art terms. Etching, aquatint, drypoint, lithographs, first impression,..., the technicalities surrounding works on paper, prints in particular can be confusing but transform the exhibition into a didactic experience for an amateur like me. For example, one can learn about monoprints and monotypes which fell in disfavor after the sixteenth century. They are represented by three works by Degas who was introduced to the technique by Ludovic Lepic: Les Deux Arbres, ca.1878, Bust of a Woman, ca. 1876 and Heads of a Man and a Woman, ca. 1877-78. Most of the prints however are impressions from cancelled plates, made posthumously by Degas' dealer which means without the artist approval. Degas sold his cancelled plates to AmbroiseVollard as explained on page 40 of the book published at the occasion of the exhibition: "Degas' cancellation lines were clearly visible but done so as not to deface the compositions", "Degas himself rarely published or sold any of his work in the medium during his lifetime.". The assumption is that Degas intended to have further editions of the cancelled plates made after his death, which prompted Gary Arseneau to raise some polemic about the exhibition in his blog. The lonely sculpture Head, Study of the Portrait of Mademoiselle S. adds up to the controversy surrounding posthumous sculptures from Degas and appears irrelevant in an exhibition of works on paper. Likely the illustrations from Maurice Potin "after Degas" are subject to further scrutiny after reading the book: "Degas never exhibited the works in his lifetime", " Degas sold them... surely knowing that the dealer intended to use them as illustrations for further publication."...maybe.
The exhibition is a great venue to discover Degas, the photographer, and imagine the artist "at work" while looking at studies made in preparation for his paintings and sculptures. It shows Degas experimenting, presents his circle of friends and acquaintances, and brings up technical issues of interest to the collectors and viewers.
Degas was reluctant to be labeled an impressionist and preferred to be called a realist or independent, he may not approve of the exhibition's title and may also have some reservations about the content.
But who can tell?

photographs by the author:

"Manet Seated, Turned to the Right", ca. 1864-1865, Edgar Degas
view of the exhibition