Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Epic: Meads at the Ogden.

For the exhibition Bent Not Broken,  the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's fifth floor is dedicated to Michael Meads, a versatile artist, photographer, draftsman and painter. Presently living in New Mexico, Mead was born and raised in the deep South, Alabama, where he learned about the Crescent City through the Sunday sermons from Baptist preachers on the radio. He moved to New Orleans in 1998 and was an active member of the community till the disaster struck in 2005. Following hurricane Katrina, he left for good and is now living in New Mexico. Visiting home must be a bitter sweet experience and some nostalgia seeped through his presentation of the show on a Sunday afternoon.
The tour started with a photographic exhibition made of sixteen Cibachrome photographs
and nine Polaroids along the walls, mainly male portraits. Featured with  attributes related to Southern culture: guns, knives, snakes, beer, live or stuffed animals, … and surrounded by a rustic environment, the sitters breathe of eroticism suggested by subtle details like a flash of skin or a pose. The compositions are simple and repetitive with the subject in the foreground and little room left for the background. A slideshow titled It Was Lovely When It Lasted, composed of more than one thousand slides and lasting two hours (I missed some of it) is a visual diary of a kind with photographs of acquaintances and familiar surroundings.
No space is left empty on the way to the main gallery, from charcoal drawings lining up the white walls to masks in glass cases. This is a short introduction to the major show which at first sight appears bathed in a festive atmosphere with its twirling world of Mardi Gras corteges, beads and masked revelers... till a closer look reveals scenes of chaos, disasters and death. Love and sex, celebrations with heavy libations are depicted in the mist of end of the world scenes, life versus death. The subjects are grim, AIDS epidemic with Der Lieberstod (2013-2014), hurricane Katrina with Ghosts along the Levee (2012-2013) or the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with The Baptism (2012), gigantic narrative pieces, stories within stories, scenes within scenes. The magnum opus, The Grand Pageant of the Mystic Krewe of Saint George the Divine (2015) is about the disposition of Dureau's ashes in the Mississippi river. All the works are related to the yearly celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and the centaurs, Egyptian gods or archbishops are renditions of real people, actors in the compositions. We can recognize the painter George Dureau, well-known musicians or friends from the artist. Meads is a narrator of tales from real life. My visit could have ended then, following the enchanted time spent in front of these masterpieces.
The exhibition goes on in the adjacent hall, with a collection of works from watercolors to illuminated diaries and pieces salvaged from the artist's studio after the flood. But I just would like to remember Meads as the artist who, through his works, transcended New Orleans's culture to a myth. A labor of love, each major piece takes nine months to be completed, a symbolic number. He describes two months of feverish creativity followed by seven months of physically challenging manual labor, crouched or on his knees, days after days. With pencils and Velum paper, Meads stages operatic compositions (he relishes operas), translating the spirit of the city. As a whole, the exhibition is a display featuring the multi-talented artist, a retrospective of a sort, sometimes lacking critical insight to "show it all", cheapening some of the purely magnificent works.

photograph by the author:
"Plague Doctor, Mask I and II", Michael Meads, 2004

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