Sunday, December 27, 2020

Plastic and Porcelain at NOMA

"Stunting" Garniture Set
, 2020, from Roberto Lugo, commissioned by the New Orleans Museum of Art is now on view in the Elise M. Besthoff Charitable Foundation Gallery, previous site of the exhibition The Quilts of Gee's Bend. The new addition will become a permanent installation within the decorative galleries in April 2021. Born and raised in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood, Roberto Lugo was a graffiti artist early on. He is presently best known for his use of porcelain as a medium for his socially engaged pieces and is the first ceramicist to have been awarded the Rome Prize (2019).
The sculptural triptych combines three Grecian pillar-pedestals. The highest in the middle supports a replica of a golden tank and on both sides, richly decorated vessels featuring a semi-profile of Louis Armstrong on the left and Lil Wayne on the right, set in white medallions. Baffled at first by the image of Armstrong next to a war machine, I was reassured by the wall text: the tank refers to No Limit Soldiers, a "group of hip-hop artists responsible for coining the sound of  Southern Rap". Beyond music and musicians, the rococo vessels painted in iconic bleu-de-roi are an unmistakable reference to Sèvres porcelain, the French kings' china. One of the golden handles represents an outsized trumpet for Louis Armstrong while Lil Wayne is surrounded by a massive chain necklace with a huge cross. The urns decorated with the artists' distinctive attributes could contain their ashes. They are set on crumbling neo-classical pillars in fake blue marble made of earthenware and plastic. Gold paint seeps from their cracks like blood from wounds.  
Reflecting on the kitschy piece about two New Orleans icons and a hip-hop group, one finds out that it has little to do with music. The title "Stunting" borrowed from street slang, meaning showing off, (jewelry, cars, clothes...) next to "Garniture Set", a term used to describe a display of precious china on a salon's mantelpiece, introduces various means of claiming status, through a composition blending low and high art. With his selection of African American artists from poor backgrounds reaching the pinnacle of fame and media mixing plastic and porcelain, the artist sees his practice as a challenge to the establishment. Featuring African American musicians born in the city, neo-classical columns a reminder of its architecture, and French china of its history, makes the work a "native" from New Orleans. A single edition will be displayed at New Orleans Museum of Art.
I cannot wait to see the piece embedded in the permanent collection, bringing a whiff of the street to the museum.

photograph by the author