Friday, August 31, 2018

Along the River

White Linen Night is over. Time to go back to the galleries and look at art!
At the Contemporary Arts Center, Constructing the Break, an Open Call exhibition curated by Allison M. Glenn, is dedicated to the Mississippi River. It assembles the works from thirty artists sharing close or loose links to New Orleans. Their diverse backgrounds and practices enrich the multi-media exhibition located in the main gallery on the building's first floor.

The show starts with Tar, 2018, a Gothic tale of destruction by Joris Lindhout. The installation is made of two videos, a stack of newspapers laid on the floor tied with a black string, an iPad held by two black hands on the wall and an old tape player on a stand. The devices are connected through black wires hanging from the ceiling. The story unfolds on the bigger screen where a glob of oil drips, drops, becomes a creepy substance invading its surroundings and eventually the world. A prescient performance by Joseph Beuys recorded in 1974 in the Gulf of Mexico is displayed on a smaller screen. It shows the artist coating himself with the black goo in the middle of a green bog. On the iPad's screen, a humorous scoop about the FBI looking for a MoMA's curator taken away by a mysterious kidnapper leaving black prints, is accompanied by advertisements for backyard fracking. The introduction gives the vibe to the rest of the exhibition which features an abstract representation of the goddess of fresh water, Oshun by Anastasia Pelias, and three wall pieces from Julie Morel about loss and memory through maps drawn with technologies involving GPS, LED's and conductive ink. Undertow, 2015-2018, the site specific post-industrial installation from Elliott Stockes is made of parts from oil distillation equipment laid on the gallery's vast open floor. Displacement, 2018, an interactive piece from Nurhan Gokturk features two newspaper vending machines side by side in which mirrors reflect deconstructed images of ourselves and our environment. Gabrielle Garcia Steib's mixed-media installation involves sound and photographs to tackle a hot issue, immigration, while Ana Hernandez gets us back to the subject of fracking with two pieces of her series Altering Internal Landscapes: In pursuit of unearthing bodies of Energy. "Visual representation of ecological trauma", The Haynesville, 2017, and The Bakken, 2017, combine Netters Anatomical Flash Cards with a depiction of the formations pierced by nails, evoking pain, thus life. The wounded rocks next to the description of human flesh become living matter by analogy. Annah Chalew makes her own canvasses with trash and plants resulting in unique brown monochrome landscapes. Her wall piece Root Shock II, 2018, combines opposite qualities: primal, sophisticated, coarse, delicate, heavy, light, tough, fragile, ..., and benefits from a close-up view. The life-size photograph of a tree with hanging moss, glowing in the last ray of sun against a soft pinkish sky, perfect picture for My Beautiful South, 2018, from Cynthia Scott, is spoiled by a metal pipe protruding from the tree trunk. Its orifice is covered by a small round screen on which a video is projected. It was shot by the artist along the river's bank and documents the green pastures giving way to industrial complexes and pollution. In Daybew, 2018, Mississippi Swan, a virtual artist born from the collaboration between Rick Snow, (Mississippi River in New Orleans) and Chris Tonkin, (Swan River in Perth), mixes the sounds of two far away cities to obtain scores of electronic music accompanied by colorful graphics flashing like advertisements.
The piece is a great transition to what feels like the second part of the exhibition, dominated by photographs and videos. Twenty black and white or color photographs from eight  local photographers gathered on a wall convey their vision of the city and its people.
 Across, the sixteen-minute video featuring the sculptor Maren Hassinger and her daughter, is a performance piece born from the interaction between artist, landscape, wind, water, and a white scarf. The poetic images are followed by Thy Glad Beams, 2016, from Wiley Aker, a mixture of footage from news and archives in black and white accompanied by an ominous background music resulting in a dramatic end of the world atmosphere. Preceded by three minimalist sculptures made with  concrete from Jack Niven, the conclusion of the show is an epic tale of the Mississippi river, told in less than ten minutes. With its dense content, There's Something in the Water: Yemoja and Osun, 2018, the video from Tia-Simone Gardner deserves to be watched several times to get the full grasp of its historical, geographical, sociological, architectural, poetical references. 
Each of the thirty artists gets to shine in the well-paced display. The coherence of the selected works, their quality and relevance to the subject, make the whole exhibition flow from start to end without a glitch. Lately, viewers have seen a lot of political art. This time, the artists made their point through a whole gamut of expressions more powerful and inspirational than slogans .
They all communicate their unconditional love for the city, the river and the South, and along with it, the "concept of being rooted consistently tempered by infrastructural fragility".

photographs by the author:

Cynthia Scott "My Beautiful South", 2018
Ana Hernandez "The Haynesville" and "The Bakken", 2017
View of Tia-Simone Gardner's installation "There's Something in the Water: Yemoja and Osun" 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

About New Orleans

While the San Antonio Museum of Art focuses on the city's Spanish heritage to celebrate its Tricentennial with a display of paintings from The Prado and other prestigious Spanish museums, the New Orleans Museum of Art features its community through the works of seven artists to commemorate the event. Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories, is a collaborative project between the museum's curators of contemporary art and of photography. It involves installations, photographs, drawings, sculptures, videos, multimedia works, and is located on the first floor of the museum.
Eleven photographs from the War on the Benighted series, 2015-2018, from L. Kasimu Harris were selected to introduce the exhibition in the Great Hall. Each deserves some time to ponder over its aesthetic qualities as well as its content. The staged scenes remind of events or important figures of African American history, and also pinpoint to the failures of the school system and other ongoing struggles. The adolescent actors stay stern, remote, sometimes defiant, and appear frozen in action, participants of a silent but powerful protest through the constructed reality of their surroundings. The series's title is sobering, benighted means: "existing in a state of intellectual, moral, or social darkness". The photographs are haunting.
A short walk to the back of the museum allows to shake off some heavy thoughts before entering the main gallery. Faced by a black wall with the title of the show and the list of artists in white letters, the visitor can find an introductory text in the anteroom of  Skylar Fein's installation Remember the Upstairs Lounge (2008), a memorial to the victims of the fire that destroyed the dive in 1973. A short passage between glowing red glass walls leads to a reproduction of the Upstairs Lounge's door and the bar itself: used red wallpaper with ragged edges, wood panels, pulpit for the guest book and tunes from the seventies in the background. In the semi-darkness, the funerary draping of framed official papers gives an eerie feeling to the display and horror soon follows at the sight of gruesome enlarged newspapers' images of charred bodies, each accompanied by a short text providing the story behind it. Across, smiling portraits of the innocent victims who were shunned by the community for being gay render the graphic scenes even more disturbing. By now, visitors are whispering to each other, walking slowly along the photographs, in respect. Around the corner, the second room of the installation is filled with artifacts, memorabilia, neon signs, giant portraits in woodcuts and photographs, "a fantasia of gay culture" according to the artist. In a photo booth (graffiti included), a video loop of the local news about the tragic event completes the display.
Without transition, the visitor enters the mystical world of  Sister Gertrude Morgan revisited by Lesley Dill through her installation Heaven Heaven Heaven/Hell Hell Hell: Encountering Sister Gertrude Morgan, (2010). Two mannequins dressed in sumptuous gowns, one black, the other white, fill the room. With her head shrouded in light white fabric, the "bride" wears a multilayered veil rising to the ceiling (the sky). Both have words taken from the Scriptures embroidered on their costumes, written in various calligraphic letters' style, size and color. The four walls are covered with words and symbols recounting Sister Gertrude Morgan's revelations, references to her life and prophetic visions of floods, cataclysms caused by sins. At the top, a frieze of delicately drawn figures runs around the room. The ethereal atmosphere created by the luminous prevailing white is followed by complete darkness in the next room where The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music (2014) from The Propeller Group is projected on a large screen. The images provide a glimpse in the funerary practices of Vietnam and New Orleans, two geographically distant places linked by their colonial past. The background music consist of  Vietnamese songs from the fifties performed by a New Orleans brass band. Cultural and environmental commonalities are highlighted in the inspiring film. Katrina Andry' first major museum exhibition is a site specific installation Diverge Divest Deny (repeat) which transforms the space into a tropical forest of palms decorated with epiphytic plants scattered in the greenery. The visitor can navigate between the forty-three panels of woodblock prints, and the aesthetically attracting work after a second look reveals its rich conceptual content. The designs on the folded papers: graphs, maps, texts, diagrams, evoke the rejected projects of an urbanist. They refer to the failed reconstruction projects that plague the African American community in New Orleans. A large room is dedicated to Willie Birch, represented by a wide variety of works from drawings to sculptures. Abandoned objects, portraits, architecture, the artist shares views of his neighborhood in his graphite and acrylic drawings hung on the walls. Bones found in a backyard are immortalized with a coat of gold paint and laid in a heap on the floor, while others are carefully displayed in a glass cabinet. For a Generation not yet Born: The Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811, 2018, is a three hundred inches long tapestry/quilt made at the occasion of the city's tricentennial and another sizable work Waiting for a Serious Conversation on the History of the South, 2017, leads to a room filled with a table, chairs, books, an invitation to reflect on the past and future of the city and its people, surrounded by works from artists like George Dureau, John T. Scott or Sister Gertrude Morgan. The last and seventh project is organized by the New Orleans Photo Alliance and The Everyday Projects, an outreach program with a stand located in the hall.
Two of the works are now part of the museum's permanent collection. Skylar Fein's installation may have lost some of its intense feeling of confinement and dread generated by the smaller space allocated for Prospect.1 while Lesley Dill's gains another dimension with the higher ceilings and walls. Willie Birch's display could be called a retrospective or War on the Benighted series from L. Kasimu Harris could be a photographic exhibition on its own. The artists are all dealing with the subject of marginalized and disadvantaged groups living in the city. The landmark exhibition emphasizes the role of the museum, not a remote institution catering for a selected few, but  one of the community's gathering center, a place to expose and heal its pain through art.

The conversation can start, looking at the past, thinking about the future.

photographs by the author:

Katrina Andry "Diverge Divest Deny (repeat)" (detail)
Lesley Dill "Heaven heaven heaven/Hell Hell Hell" (detail), 2010
Willie Birch "For a Generation not yet Born: The Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811", 2018