Sunday, March 18, 2018

More than Fashion

Stunning! The word overheard from visitors and buzzing on social media describes my first impression. A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes which recently opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art offers an enchanted visit with a walk through seven themed areas related to femininity defined by fashion. The seven archetypes include Thespian, Mother Earth, Explorer, Magician, Enchantress, Sage and Heroin queens. Each is represented by clothes displayed in fitting decors accompanied by accessories defining their character with a total of more than one hundred items from renowned to more obscure avant-garde fashion designers. Related wall texts, videos and prints complete the display.
The exhibition starts in a dark space illuminated only by a few spotlights aimed at a central pedestal on which are perched mannequins wearing gowns, dresses and suits from Alexander McQueen who inspired the show. David LaChapelle's photograph of a costumed McQueen and his mentor Isabella Blow near a Scottish castle is a reminder of the fashion designer's heritage. The section about Thespian includes detailed wall texts and photographs from Omar Victor Diop and Cooper and Gorfer. Nearby, Mother Earth features an artificial grotto as a backdrop for a garden of Eden filled with pink flowers. A closer look reveals protest signs and banners embedded in the paradisaical display. Designer Vivienne Westwood's clothes are accompanied by her hand written manifesto/poem about "Climate Revolution" and one can find a pair of trainers from Adidas made with recycled plastic, a smog free ring, T-shirts with slogans like "Be Gentle and Kind" or a bag made of tarpaulin from Sweden as well as a scarf from Lebanon addressing the refugee crisis. The next gallery hosts the five remaining queens starting with Explorer. Everyday clothes like checkered shirts or cardigans with distorted shapes represent the adventurer and rebel. She is not afraid of being different as illustrated by photographs of models on wheelchairs or the deformed prosthetic torsos from Maja Gunn. Magician or "the impossible made reality" is rendered by outlandish outfits set in a fairytale installation. Holes allow to peep inside a white plastic enclosure surrounding a blooming orchard that contains sixteen items fit for a seductress-Enchantress. Sage is characterized by her wisdom and wades into "smart-garments": shoes made of pineapple waste, sounds-suits for deaf people, a "cymatic" dress, biodegradable textile made of cow manure or jewelry controlled by mobile devices. Ecological to sci-fi, fashion has no limit thanks to new technologies presented in six short videos while samples of the real things are displayed in a glass case. The final queen, Heroin, a soldier and warrior, wears shiny or padded dresses like armors and elaborate headpieces like helmets.

From sculptural jewelry and dresses to adorned shoes, the blurry boundaries between art and fashion are highlighted throughout the show. The print from Maïmouna Guerresi, a multi-media artist, conveys ideas about life and death through soap bubbles escaping from a round black hole suggesting an outsized womb built in the garment worn by the model. Another memento mori, LaChapelle's photograph of McQueen and Isabella Blow features the two partying in extravagant costumes near a Scottish castle. The scene includes a discrete skull at the lower right. Premonitory? They both did suicide. A dazzling sculpture from Raoúl de Nieves made of thousands of minuscule colored beads contrast with a white gown from Alexander McQueen set along the wall like a figurehead. At every turn, the show offers not only visual stimuli but also fodder for thoughts about ecology, cultural diversity, psychology of colors, technology, economics, sociology, psychoanalysis, politics, ... Fashion is glamorous but also engaged. The concept of the exhibition itself is bold defining seven feminine archetypes modeled after Carl Jung's universal symbols. Feminist movements questioned Jung's theories in the past due to their stereotyping of femininity. Fashion tends to submit women to trends and conformity but this time it appears as a "reflection of women as talented and multifaceted". If the abundance of wall texts appeared overwhelming at first, it contributes to an  enriching visit.

The exhibition was curated by MUSEEA, a collaborative platform based in Barcelona. It is accompanied by an enlightening pamphlet from Mel Buchanan, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design and a catalog.
... stunning, fascinating, informative, provocative, artistic,...

photographs by the author:

Vivienne Westwood Red Label, UK Placards "Mirror the World", Spring/Summer 2016
Raúl de Nieves "Day(Ves) of Wonder", 2007-2014
Hassan Ajjaj "Kesh Angels" series, 2010

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Minimalism at Staple Goods

Until March 4th, Staple Goods features the latest work from Jack Niven with Footings, a show assembling sixteen pieces made of concrete. Among other accomplishments, the painter and sculptor previously exhibited Happiness By The Gram at the gallery, and created a joyful street mural made of "radiant orbs" for the triennal Prospect New Orleans (Prospect.3). Reckon can be seen on Tchoupitoulas. Inspired by subjects as varied as history, his surroundings, the digital world, the artist expresses himself through different languages from figurative to abstract, according to themes. This time, he has chosen the purest form of abstract art, minimalism, for this tribute to his father, Jack Niven.

The sculptures displayed on individual supports attached to the white walls of the gallery are below eye level, allowing a bird view. Four of them are set on a pedestal in the center of the room, one along the windowsill and Untitled #11 on a shelf near the entrance. The grey color of the concrete on the white background generates an emotionless environment in the carefully prepped space. No visual distraction is allowed, not even wall texts and as a result of the visual "cleanliness", the sculptures appear to be floating along the walls, adding an unexpected quality to the medium: lightness. Leaflets at the entrance provide detailed information about the works, including the artist's statement. The assemblage of geometric shapes and different shades of grey are the only variants in the neutral monochrome display. With an average length of ten inches, the longest reaching thirty, the pieces could be held in one hand. The three-dimensional works have not only visual but also haptic qualities due to the rough surface of the cold material. Each looked at different angles offers variations of aesthetic beauty through perfect lines and shapes.

The "white gallery" has become a cliché, but this time it is part of the show, a world of purity and quietness to engender reflection and spirituality. Of note, the word minimalism came from the essay entitled Minimal Art, 1965, by British philosopher Richard Wollheim. It is defined by a few criteria which include usually industrial material and sobriety of shapes to create reductive pieces of art, objects activating the space, themselves activated by the viewer. In this exhibition, the untitled and numbered works meet all the qualifications of minimalism. What about the artist's intend? Purely aesthetic for a graphic impact or a higher goal through simple imagery leading to meditation? Niven provides a clue with Untitled #11 acting as a vessel for a sample of his father's ashes. Clearly as described in his artist's statement, he has dedicated the exhibition to his father who was in the construction business. What more appropriate than the architectural pieces made with concrete? The sculptures have also become receptacles for emotions and memories, "permanent and impervious to the natural world for many generations" to come.
One material, one color, simple shapes, so much with so little.

photographs by the author

Monday, February 19, 2018

How to See

Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art (2017), a book written by Michael Findlay, offers refreshing ways of looking at art and more importantly of "seeing" art. If you feel worn out, jaded, after walking through an art museum (it can happen), this book is for you. In seven chapters, the author provides a list of do's and don'ts to rekindle your enthusiasm. Going back to why we are looking at art in the first place, the seasoned art dealer addresses "pros" and "beginners", sharing his very personal thoughts and experience.
Following a brief introduction to present the book's objectives, the author describes the viewers' relationship to art in a chapter that is mainly a summary of his previous publication, The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty (2012). He next spends some time defining what makes a work of art and by the fourth chapter gets to the core of the subject: our approach to visual art and in particular "The Difference Between Looking and Seeing". Questions outlined in bold fonts like "Can Art Be Heard?", "Can Art Be Read?", "Can Art Be in a Hurry?", initiate responses from the author who supports his arguments with examples gathered through his personal experience and his vast knowledge of the art world. Quickly, it becomes obvious that he is passionate about banning labels, wall texts, audio recordings, cameras, phones, and any means that interfere in the relationship between the viewer and the piece of art including talking with a friend.
The longest chapters, five and six, are filled with advice on how to approach the visit and "see" the work of art, sometimes through provocative statements like "Ignorance Is Knowledge". Findlay at some point imagines a dialogue between himself and you (the viewer) in front of the well-known Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-1943, from Piet Mondrian, avoiding technical terms in the purposely casual conversation. Carrying on this vein, he demystifies the art world with his new definition of the connoisseur of art: "In today's world, a connoisseur of art is not someone who claims to know what is real and what is fake, what is good and what is bad, or what is going up or down in value. Today a connoisseur is someone like you with the curiosity and energy to seek out works of art." In simple terms, Findlay establishes criteria for quality in a piece of art, reveals his dislike of the cynical money component, shares his experience with students, provides advice on how to approach art with children, and more, in a book which includes great quotes, abundant illustrations, and a list of references.
The author is present throughout his writings, especially in the last chapter in which he recounts his journey from amateur to expert art dealer, starting in his childhood.
His advice are well taken, keeping in mind that seeing art remains a very personal experience.

Michael Findlay (2017) Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art, Prestel

photographs by the author 

Mark Rothko "No 10", 1950, at Fondation Louis Vuitton exposition "Etre Moderne: le MoMA a Paris"
Wassily Kandinsky "Auf Spitzen", 1928, at Centre Georges Pompidou

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Is This Art?

Since its invention in the 1830's, photography has been the subject of an argument now pretty much settled: photography is an art form. This month, three concurrent exhibitions at Arthur Roger Gallery are dedicated to the printed medium with the main show assembling more than twenty recent pictures from the world renowned photographer David Yarrow. A collection of works from Robert Mapplethorpe and George Dureau are facing each other in the adjacent gallery. Portraits and videos from Brent McKeever, a 16-year-old photographer, are found in a homey back space. While the nude portraits from Mapplethorpe and Dureau may still upset some viewers, they passed the test of time and even of law. Mapplethorpe's pictures of penises are now prized as much as those of his suggestive flowers. McKeever's portraits of swim-suited beauties on beaches veer toward fashion photography. What about David Yarrow's images of wild animals?

The picture of a huge elephant facing the entrance is an unusual sight in a fine art gallery. The monochrome show features twenty large-scale photographs hung along the walls of the space, spreading from the street side to the back of the building. Surrounded by elephants, lions, bears, wildlife found in remote places of India, Africa, Northern America, it is a challenge to select one of the beasts to start the visit. Each photograph is accompanied by a lengthy wall text commenting on the pic's circumstances, the subject itself, providing technical details about the shot and of course its title, location and year. The portraits provide a unique view of the animals seen from below, themselves gazing at the viewer. Close-ups convey the idea of huge bodies, so does cropping of heads which appear too big to fit within the frame. To suggest strength, power, wisdom, appendages like tusks become the focal point. The images are usually flattened leaving little to no room for a background. A few photographs offer a glimpse into the fauna's habitat. For these, Yarrow chose to break the rules of composition to make his point. For example, in The Gathering Storm, 2011, the row of elephants stays under the perfect straight line of the horizon defining a small band of land, while the sky occupies most of the space above it. The massive pachyderms appear minuscule at the bottom, like crushed by the heavy clouds, overtaken by the wrath of nature. In 78 Degrees North, 2017, a white bear is walking away, swallowed by the whiteness of its natural environment, the pads of its back paw picturing a black abstract sign. One step further, The Factory, 2017, a photograph of zebra patterns results in pure abstraction. What about colors or lack of it? Let's quote the artist who shared his thoughts about it in an interview: "There are three reasons (to choose black and white): Firstly, it's timeless. Secondly, it's art rather than reality... It just feels aesthetically stronger... Thirdly, a photograph's like a piano. You should be able to use all 88 keys on the piano and go from the rich blacks to the full whites."  In his statement, Yarrow describes his intend to create art. Of course to do so, he had to master the required technical skills and his quest for the perfect shot led him to invent a custom made 14-pound steel box to protect his remote controlled cameras, allowing the unique point of view and perspective. Unable to have his sitter pose for the shot, he manages to "freeze" the moment and like a portrait painter, aims at  immortalizing the soul of his subjects.
One aspect of art, which is thorny but unavoidable, is money. The photographs are printed in limited editions of 12 and bought by collectors, which establishes their status in the art world. So does being hung in art galleries and museums. 

Ultimately, this quote attributed to the great painter Francis Bacon resumes why we are looking at the photographs: "I have always been very interested in photography. I have looked at more photographs than I have paintings. Because their reality is stronger than reality itself."

photographs by the author

David Yarrow's Website to look at his photographs:

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Artist's Legacy at Boyd Satellite

There is no better way to discover a city than to walk through its streets, looking at the architecture while learning about its history. To assimilate a city's culture requires a deeper involvement which includes getting acquainted with its artistic heritage, especially in New Orleans where Jeffrey Cook (1961-2009) was born and raised. His short career left a deep imprint on the city's art scene, and the exhibition at Boyd Satellite Gallery is the latest proof of this. A Nkisi for Jeffrey Cook is a "memorial and tribute" to the artist and gathers an extensive body of work, spanning from his debuts as a sculptor to his last pieces.

In the photograph under the title of the show, the artist appears serious and thoughtful. According to his peers, he was charismatic, humble and loyal to his family, friends and community. Starting in a clockwise fashion from the entrance, the exhibition is more or less organized in chronological order.  The overall display offers all shades of browns to blacks with occasional touches of color brought up by works like the first three wall pieces inspired by compositions from John T. Scott, Cook's teacher at Xavier University. Joseph Cornell's influence is also noticeable in the four "boxes" hung along the wall. Each tells a story. In search of his own language, the artist designed two geometric sculptures in painted wood, one of them with ladders, symbol of escape from reality to an imaginary world, according to Joan Miró. Jeffrey Cook's previous endeavor as a lead dancer for a Los Angeles dance company brought him to visit numerous countries from Europe to Asia. However, he never reached the shores of Africa. It is upon his return to New Orleans in the eighties, while visiting the French Quarter galleries, that he soaked in African art and embraced its soul. Most of the following pieces are made with what became his media of choice: cloth, wood, found objects, to create spiritual landscapes. Filled with artifacts gathered in the streets of New Orleans, most of the wall sculptures are of smaller sizes except three of them which could be called panels due to their dimensions while another pair is accompanied by preliminary drawings, proof of the artist's quest for aesthetic and content. All include recurrent symbols like brooms, children's blocks, chalk, ..., described in Andy Antipas's essay Jeffrey Cook: African Art and New Orleans as: "created objects that elude rational analysis, because they form a magical, ideographic vocabulary that is indecipherable without the artist's grimoire". A collection of statuettes made of black cloth secured with twine, like funerary objects, is displayed on individual shelves. Black birds are represented in many pieces. Born from ancestral African beliefs about the soul's future after death, the symbol is also found in Song of Silence. The poignant sculpture made to commemorate two of Cook's friends killed in a shooting features the barrel of two shotguns transformed into birds. Another moving piece is about the holocaust. With pieces of rags and strings, the artist built two expressive figurines full of sorrow. Two collages and an abstract painting are reminders of a less well known side of the artist who was also a painter. The eclectic material of the center piece appears to have been collected after hurricane Katrina. The sculpture, an unstable fragile assemblage of pulleys, pieces of wood and varied objects, evokes destruction and a world in turmoil.

Most of the pieces belong to friends and/or collectors and the busy display misses information about their titles or dates. However, pamphlets and essays written by peers are available at the gallery, providing a window on the artist's work and persona. The exhibition is appropriately called a memorial and includes personal possessions like a weathered bicycle and large pieces of wood from a childhood's tree house built by Cook and his friends in their Central City neighborhoodThe artist started to collect everyday objects almost two decades before the disaster struck the city, catching its soul through the debris found in the streets and transforming them into relics through his sculptures. We are made of our past, and Cook went far back in time and also places to find his, digging into his roots from Africa to the Caribbean and fill his works with "spiritual and ritualistic qualities". Four African sculptures embedded in the show emphasize this, so does a quote from Antipas: "... African art was created as spirit guides, to venerate the ancestors, to encourage clan and tribal social order, to protect the community and individuals,... and most importantly, to protect against the supernatural... Jeffrey's pieces are themselves a kind of talisman to help negotiate the fearsome supernatural powers which surround us".

I previously saw a few works from Cook at various venues like the New Orleans Museum of Art or the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Going through the show allows not only to get a grasp of his body of work but also of his connections to the city's art scene.
The exhibition which takes place during the Triennial Prospect.4 and also at the start of the city's Tricentennial commemoration is the occasion to measure the breadth of Jeffrey Cook's legacy.

photographs by the author

Sunday, January 7, 2018


When looking at art, "aha moments" happen to others, I thought... until I was struck by one of these a few months ago at the Musée de l'Orangerie during my last trip to Paris. I went to see the temporary exhibition Dada Africa, Non-Western Sources and Influences, and by habit, walked through the two elliptical rooms full of tourists making selfies with Monet's Water Lilies in the background.
Even though I visited the permanent collections at numerous occasions, I had the feeling of looking at Monet's murals for the first time. Surrounded by the quiet water sometimes shivering, sometimes dazzling under a ray of sun, and the water lilies floating among willow branches caressing the pond, relishing the blues, greens, pinks, yellows, it was like viewing a poem in colors. I walked along the paintings, back and forth, "in" and "out". Immersed in the monumental compositions, filled with awe, I forgot tourists and time. Contemplating nature distilled by the painter, I reached a calming, deep spiritual state.
Each experience is different and mine was nothing compared to Stendhal's ecstasy while visiting Santa Croce: " I had reached that point of emotion where the heavenly sensations of the fine arts meet passionate feelings. As I emerged from Santa Croce, I had palpitations...., the life went out of me and I walked in fear of falling."
At another level, I realized that several chapters of art history were in front of my eyes at once. I could see a figurative impressionistic scenery from afar and closer, an abstract landscape. Of course, this is not news for Monet's connoisseurs. But it was the first time I became acutely aware of this through my encounter with his work.
How could I have missed so much all these years? Jaded by too many reproductions of the Water Lilies on umbrellas, coffee mugs, calendars, ..., too many poorly displayed Nympheas in museums, I had given up on seeing them. It took that special day to discover, in Monet's words, the "illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore".

photographs by the author

"Water Lilies" (details) at the Musée de l'Orangerie

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Prospect.4: at the New Orleans Museum of Art

At the New Orleans Museum of Art, Prospect.4 starts in The Great Hall with eleven paintings from Barkley L._Hendricks. The special exhibition spreads to the second floor in two different locations: photographs on the left side, paintings, collages and videos on the right. Raised in different cultures and countries, the seven artists featured in the show share common themes through their art.

Hendricks's portraits inspired by European Masters like Velasquez, are in tune with a modern world and the museum's neo-classical white columns provide the perfect frame for the compositions. His subjects contrast with or melt in monochrome backgrounds and project an aura of sophistication through their pose, expression and/or attributes. Hendrick's portraits are the story. On the second floor, Dawit Petros's portraits contribute to the narrative as part of the landscape. At times, a mere observer, the photographer does not get involved in the drama captured through the lens, like the beaching of a boat. Other times, he stages uncanny scenes involving strangers surrounded by their natural pristine environment, partly hidden behind framed images preserving their anonymity and disrupting the quiet landscape. By whatever means of expression, including the construction of abstract compositions with fragments of photographs, the artist brings the viewer along his journeys, from Sicily, Mauritania, Morocco, ..., sharing his travels through places and time. The ten works on display in the adjoining gallery are the result of the collaboration between a photographer Gauri Gill and a Warli painter Rajesh Vangad. The photographs, mainly landscapes, depict the present and through the addition of aboriginal drawings connect to the past and gain a spiritual dimension.
In the contemporary art gallery, Alexis Esquivel's four "narrative paintings" deal with nationalism, colonialism, racism, through allegories. La Muerte de Gulliver, 2015, illustrates the artist's "civic" engagement. Gulliver (Spain) is depicted as a dead toreador, chest pierced by banderillas representing the Basque National Flag and the flag flown by supporters of Catalan Independence among others. Cuba and Puerto Rico's flags are also featured, reflecting the shared yearning for nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic. The painting could not be more prescient as the fight for Catalonia's independence goes on. The site specific piece from Xaviera Simmons is a great introduction to her work. A mural made of a succession of words taken from political speeches and texts, written in white on a black background lines up an entire wall. Like a graffiti, it is an expression of protest. Political art defines Simmons's practice. Two videos and a series of photographs in which she performs confirm this. Her message is focusing on "the vast financial, social and hierarchical disparities between people from the African and European Diasporas" and is aimed to the United States and New Orleans in particular. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, is represented by four of her paintings-photographs-collages. Starting with images found on the internet and photographs from her family, she rebuilds a composite world born from her roots and manages to harmonize three different cultures: rural and urban Nigeria where she is born, and New York City. The life size of her figurative collages engages the viewer who becomes part of the scenes.
Of the seven artists, five were born in the seventies and deliver a message through their practice, call it "civic" engagement for Esquivel or political for  Simmons. Not only do they favor figurative, from Crosby, the youngest (born in 1983) to Hendricks, the oldest (born in 1945), they also keep being inspired by European Masters. Hendricks who revived the tradition of portraiture is now followed by younger artists like Kehinde Wiley. It is not a surprise to find Barkley Hendricks displayed prominently at the NOMA. Trevor Schoonmaker, Artistic Director and Curator of this year's Triennial, organized the first retrospective of his work Birth of the Cool at the Nasher Museum of Art in 2008 and was in the process of selecting the portraits to be displayed at NOMA when the artist passed away last April.
The list of selected artists includes a culturally varied group. Their common theme can be resumed in three words found on one of the exhibition's wall text: "identity, displacement and cultural hybridity".

photographs by the author:

Barkley L. Hendricks "The Way You Look Tonight/ Diagonal Graciousness (Self-Portrait)", 1981

Alexis Esquivel "La Muerte de Gulliver", 2015