Monday, February 16th, 2015

Notes from NOLA: Two Shows in New Orleans

Dispatch from New Orleans


Prospect.3: Notes for Now

October 25, 2014 to January 25, 2015
Various sites in New Orleans


Saturdays, November 15 to January 25, 2015
3010 Sandra Drive, Algiers, New Orleans

Installation view of ExhibitBe in New Orleans.
Panoramic installation view of ExhibitBe in New Orleans. Courtesy of ExhibitBe.

“Prospect.3: Notes for Now,” the third New Orleans biennial, curated by Franklin Sirmans, presented 58 artists and collaborations at 18 locations within that city. The New Orleans Museum of Art showed Paul Gauguin’s Under the Pandanus (1891), on loan from the Dallas Museum of Art; paintings and drawings by Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral; and handsome modernist abstractions by Ed Clark, a veteran local artist. At the Ogden Museum of Southern art was a gallery of large paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was involved with music from New Orleans — and he visited the city briefly. Also at the Ogden were photographs of the prisons in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in nearby Angola; and colorful bas-reliefs by Herbert Singleton, who was incarnated in that prison. And three floors of the Contemporary Arts Center included displays of Manal Aldowayan’s photographs of female workers in her native country, Saudi Arabia and the grid-grounded paintings of McArthur Binion, which allude both to the history of that medium and to black political history. There were landscape photographs of Louisiana and Mississippi by Thomas Joshua Cooper; Charles Gaines’s LED panels presenting texts by African, Asian and European radicals and socialists; photographs of the Nigerian film industry by Pieter Hugo; and Yun-Fei Ji’s scroll, which uses a traditional format to present scenes of conflict in contemporary China.

Ed Clark, New Orleans Series #4, 2012. Acrylic on canvas,  53 x 66 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Stella Jones Gallery, New Orleans.
Ed Clark, New Orleans Series #4, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 53 x 66 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Stella Jones Gallery, New Orleans.

This show displayed some good local artists and, also, a full sampling of the sorts of installations, photography and videos that are fashionable in the present art world. It thus provides New Orleans residents and visitors an opportunity to learn about contemporary visual art. And the weighty, expensive catalogue provides a full visual record of the art on display, though the free newspaper map and guide published by The New Orleans Advocate is actually a more useful guide. The problem here was, quite simply, that while New Orleans has long been a literary and musical center, it hasn’t really been the home of very many well-known distinctive visual artists. When Sirmans justifies his inclusion of Gauguin on the grounds that he was a friend of Edgar Degas, who did visit the city, or of Amaral because of her interest in cultural diversity in her country, Brazil, one’s aware of this problem. The issues concerning class, gender and race faced by New Orleans, pressing concerns elsewhere, are dealt with in this Louisiana city in distinctive ways, which don’t get adequate critical analysis.

Stimulated, but a little frustrated by this ambitious exhibition, I drove South across the Mississippi River to ExhibitBe, an outdoor graffiti display in an unoccupied apartment complex just off of General De Gaulle Boulevard in Algiers. These five-story buildings, public low-cost housing (which is soon to be demolished to make way for a sports center) were the site for an outdoor display by 51 graffiti artists, curated by Brandan “B-mike” Odoms. On the first of these high walls was a pale green portrait of a woman by the Australian artist Rone. At the edge between the buildings Ana Hernandez and Rontherin Ratliff wove plastic window blinds into the perforations of decorative concrete sunscreens to produce a pair of outstretched, three-story high hands in the form of plastic tapestry. On the next building is MEEK’s image of a Ferguson protestor tossing back a police tear gas canister. And Odum’s portrait shows a 15-year-old George Carter, who was murdered in New Orleans, staring from the fifth floor. On the two story building facing these apartments, B-mike painted black history icons — Gil Scott-Heron, Biggie Smalls, Harriet Tubman, Radio Raheem, Maya Angelou, Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And there was more graffiti inside some of the condemned apartments.

Installation view of Yun-fei Ji in "Prospect.3" in New Orleans.
Installation view of Yun-fei Ji in “Prospect.3” in New Orleans.

“This is temporary,” a sign warned: “take a picture. It will last longer.” On a sunny warm day, this open-air, free-admission show attracted crowds — including a DJ and dancers. As always, of course, the moral ambiguities of gentrification are not easy to resolve — the exhibition was possible only thanks to the allowance of a property developer, who is destroying public housing. Acknowledging that problem, I would argue that ExhibitBe, more so than Prospect.3, provides an authentic, accessible record of the visual culture of New Orleans. Recently Joachim Pissarro and I have made the distinction between art-world art and “wild art,” such as graffiti, that is found outside of museums, a distinction which is illustrated perfectly in the contrast between these two very different exhibitions.

Brandan "B-mike" Odums at ExhibitBe, which he helped to organize.
Brandan “B-mike” Odums at ExhibitBe, which he helped to organize.

I owe thanks to my daughter Liz, who is a New Orleans resident, for taking me to this marvelous show, which I would never have discovered on my own.