Friday, December 8, 2017

Prospect.4: at the Jazz Museum





Prospect.4, the New Orleans art triennial, includes almost twenty venues spread throughout the city, intermingling with its sites, museums and traditions for the next few months. The Jazz Museum located in the Old U.S. Mint building on Esplanade Avenue appears to be a good choice to start the visit. The works, some created for the occasion, others dug from archives, are displayed on the second floor. Assembling a medley of international and local artists, the exhibition includes paintings, collages, installations, videos and sculptures.

Hank Willis Thomas is one of the fourteen artists featured in the show. His bronze sculpture History of Conquest is located on a grassy area in front of the museum. Inspired by a delicate bibelot from Jeremias Ritter, a seventeenth century German artist, it weighs one ton and consists of a giant snail mounted by a small figure described in the original piece as a Nubian or a Moore, carrying bow and arrows. Appropriation and re-conceptualization rejuvenate the symbolic meaning of the work. Fiend, 2017, a massive piece from Rashid Johnson fills the hall of the second floor. The simple cube, topped with lush tropical greenery, is a multi-directional microphone waiting to be activated by the visitor. In addition, the installation involves a display of culturally significant objects (books, vinyl, Shea butter, ...) lined up on shelves, transforming the work into a repository. Guided by Pete Fountain's music, the visitor walks through two rooms filled with mementos and historical instruments like Fat Domino's or Dr. John's pianos followed by twenty-eight empty boxes of reel-to-reel tape recordings decorated by Louis Armstrong. The collages made with newspaper clippings, photographs of musicians or movie stars, reflect Armstrong's humor, joviality and his disposition as a visual artist. On a different subject, the four paintings from Michael Armitage represent exotic scenes à la Gauguin, telling stories about exclusion, violence and death. The most graphic piece Necklacing, 2016, represents a man burned alive, defying death with a sardonic smile. The rugged texture of the canvas made of  lubugo bark cloth allows the painter's brush to meander around random holes in the fabric, enlivening the landscapes. The artist confided in an interview that he was "most interested in stories that have an ambiguous moral position." Between dream and reality, his paintings reflect this. Dario Robleto brings us back to the realm of music with his installations.  American Seabed, straight out of a taxidermy collection, includes butterflies pinned on fossilized inner ear bones from whales. The insects' antennas are made of stretched audio tape of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row". The collaboration between Robleto and Lance Ledbetter of Dust-to-Digital, results in a "multimedia installation of visual representation of the history of recorded sound".  Vinyl displayed behind glass with printed texts of songs and visual material are paired with headphones diffusing Washington Phillips's music, gospels from 1902 to 1960 with Goodbye, Babylon (Remix), 2015, sermons and lost blues. Last, also featuring religious songs, Sunday's Best, 2016, a 16 min video from Larry Achiampong illustrates the impact of the worshiping practices of the Roman Catholic Church on the artist's Ashanti community. The video was shot in London where Achiampong lives and works.
Across the hall, photographs and other items from the Jazz Museum's permanent collection make an odd introduction to Peter Williams's paintings. His cartoonish gaudy compositions push the boundaries of good taste to the limit and his caustic humor about race generates feelings of awkwardness. Maybe this is the idea. In the adjoining room, two sculptures from Satch Hoyt's fail to energize the space allocated to the artist. Both made with tambourines, Redemption represents a cross on the wall while Ascension (The Chain), 2017, is suspended from the ceiling. The video from  Brazilian artist Rivane NeuenschwanderQuarta-feira de cinzas/Epilogue, 2006, fits the theme of Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp. The post-carnival activities of a colony of ants hauling discarded confetti like treasures could have taken place in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday. Maider López Under the walls, 2017, is a work in progress and involves the artist's intervention to cover corporate advertisements on construction sites with walls of primary colors.
A large space is dedicated to New Orleans artists closely associated with the city's traditions, starring Big Chief Darryl Montana with six of his sculptural costumes and a collection of artifacts surrounded by photographs from Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick catching live scenes of Mardi Gras Indians celebrations. Two huge panels represent Ron Bechet who states: "the rich visual traditions, icons and symbols of New Orleans are the basis of my work". The display includes colorful sculptures from John T. Scott.

The scope of the exhibition makes it attractive to New Orleans residents as well as visitors from out of town. With music and visual art in mind, it also introduces international artists like Achiampong whose work is included in the Venice Biennale this year or Michael Armitage who just had a major exhibition at Turner Contemporary. One can regret a few technical blunders like the noisy air conditioning covering the sound of Achiampong's video or the missing piece from Satch Hoyt  Splash, Ride, Crash described on the wall text. And if the Mardi Gras Indian costumes are stunning, they need to be worn. Absent are the bands, the music which propels them through the streets in New Orleans.

Prospect.4 in sync with the city.




photographs by the author:

Hank Willis Thomas "History of Conquest"
collage from Louis Armstrong
Michael Armitage "Baikoko at the mouth of the Mwachema River", 2016

Friday, November 17, 2017

The New World of Ceramics






Lacking a formal knowledge of ceramics, it is with candid eyes that I visited the latest exhibitions at the New Orleans Museum of ArtNew Forms, New Voices: Japanese Ceramics from the Gitter-Yelen Collection and Personalities in Clay: American Studio Ceramics from the E. John Bullard Collection  just opened and will run through the Summer of 2018. Respectively located in the Japanese galleries and the Besthoff Gallery, the combined displays feature more than one hundred and fifty works from seventy-three craftsmen.

Japanese ceramics have earned a world-wide reputation due to their centuries of tradition and the visit on the fourth floor starts with a short review of the craft's history through the display of three jars characteristic of  Haji , Echizen and Chigaraki ware, spanning from the fourth until the sixteenth century. This short introduction leads to the exhibition divided in five sections and featuring exclusively contemporary Japanese artists. Elegantly displayed, protected by glass, the works are accompanied by enlightening wall texts. Inspired by nature or avant-garde compositions, milky blue or heavily decorated, they represent a second and third postwar generations of Japanese artists. Following this impressive presentation, the selected pieces from the John Bullard's collection are set in a more random manner, featuring artists who built the history of ceramics in the United States from 1945 until 1990. The eclectic works range from functional vases to a teapot filled with an antiwar message or pure art through sculptures. The display appears overcrowded at first, but each artist shines with his/her different style and expression through the media and one can appreciate the works from "major figures in handmade American studio pottery". The two exhibitions complement each other and the order of the visit has no bearing on their overall appreciation.

With these two major shows, the New Orleans Museum of Art offers a review of modern and contemporary ceramics and casts some light on a neglected side of the art world. In doing so, it also revives the ongoing controversy about it: craft versus art. Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, wrote: "For it (an object) to serve its purpose perfectly, it must fulfill its function in a practical way." Today, the use of ceramic to create functional items belongs to an industrial world. Meanwhile, highly skilled artists working in their studios have discovered new means of expression through the media. Their creations should encourage hard core opponents to the inclusion of ceramics in the realm of art to reevaluate their standpoint. Mythologies foster the belief that man was first made of clay, giving a symbolic meaning to the craft.
On a personal level, what did these two exhibitions accomplish? Without expertise, I was able to  appreciate the aesthetic aspect and significance (somewhat the technicalities) of the works and get a grasp of the modern and contemporary world of ceramics, from the East to the West.






photographs by the author:

Satoshi Kino "Fall Wind 150202", 2014 
Daniel Rhodes "Untitled Head No.1", c.1980, "Untitled Head No.18", c. 1980, and "Untitled Head No.223", c.1985
Richard Notkin "Heart Teapot: Afghanistan", 1986

Friday, November 10, 2017

Then and Now, AA Abstract Art






              The long anticipated exhibition Solidary and Solitary at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art allows visitors to catch a glimpse of the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of African American abstract art with its display of approximately sixty paintings and sculptures representing fourteen artists, through January 2018. Four Generations: The Joyner Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art is the title of the catalog published in conjunction with the show scheduled to travel to seven additional venues following its New Orleans debuts.

                 A Private Stranger Thinking about His Needs, 2016, a soaring sculpture from Mark Bradford suspended from the Stephen Goldring Hall's third floor, provides a spectacular introduction to the exhibition. While still looking up, the visitor catches a sight of the yellow neon work from Tavares Strachan, I Belong Here, 2012, and on the way to the library walks by Drape Work, 1970, a major piece from Sam Gilliam. The Mississippi native's work occupies a prominent spot at the exhibition's entrance located on the museum's fourth floor. A sensuous folded canvas from his color field period in the seventies, along a short biography, is followed by nine works spanning  more than forty years of the artist's career, illustrating his search for shapes, colors, media, to build his compositions. The next featured artist, Norman Lewis was the only African American artist to join the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Each selected work provides a clue about the artist's maturation, starting with Conversation (Two Abstract Heads), 1945, which exemplifies the juncture in the artist's career. During that decade, Lewis moved on from figurative and social realist themes to abstract in his quest of purely aesthetic goals. The juxtaposition of two bright yellow paintings, projecting the same aura of warmth and lightness, Easter Rehearsal, 1959, and Afternoon, 1969, provides a great example of the abstraction's process. A total of eight pieces sums up the artist's legacy. Following these "solo" shows, the exhibition takes a faster pace, featuring two artists in each gallery like a "duet" as described in the complementary pamphlet, with Melvin Edwards and Leonardo Drew sharing a space. The former is represented by five wall sculptures from his famous series Lynch Fragments started in 1965 in response to racial violence and two rocking sculptures for A Conversation with Norman Lewis, 1979. The latter's wall compositions contribute to the conversation about African American history and broadens it, reflecting on our society. Edwards's message is quite blunt while Drew's leaves us ponder and dream. Kevin Beasley and Shinique Smith have been selected for the next duet. Both use found fabrics as a media. Here ends the similarity. Beasley builds colorful sculptures, Smith, cosmic landscapes. Charles Gaines's works are spread on the four walls of a small gallery taken over by Numbers and Trees, Central Park Series I, Tree #9, 2016. The colorful tree on a black and white photographic background is drawn through the juxtaposition of  red, yellow, green, blue squares on a grid, giant pixels arranged with a compulsive precision to reach perfection. The minimalist pieces from Jennie C. Jones made with piano keys or painted on acoustic absorber panels are mixed with two neon wall sculptures from Glenn Ligon and Stranger #68, 2012, made with oil stick and coal dust on canvas. The last room is filled with the larger than life portraits from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, charged with a symbolic overtone. The show spills in the hallway with Untitled (America America), 2015, a black neon work from Ligon. Facing down, belly and wires exposed, it looks like a broken object with its flickering lights. Three sculptures from Serge Alain Nitegeka, made with crate material (about refugees), and painted in red (blood) and black (skin color) are randomly scattered, falling short of their intended message. A side gallery offers a unique experience with the display of works from Marc Bradford and Jack Whitten energizing the space.

The show about four generations of African American abstract artists starts on a high note featuring works from two major artists. As it progresses, it looses its thread due to weak links between artists' practices for its duets and the inclusion of Yiadom-Boakye's figurative portraits. The setting which is not by chronological order would benefit from more didactic wall texts about the artists and their works, directed at a lay audience. The key to an exhibition is usually found in its title. The association of the words Solidary and Solitary epitomizes the quandary African American artists were faced with when embracing abstract, as exemplified by Norman Lewis. Other artists of the collection should have been included or mentioned. We miss Alma Thomas, Edward ClarkRichard Mayhew, Julie Mehretu, William T. Williams, ..., even just one work from each!
The exhibition helps us understand the contribution of African American artists to American art as they paved the way to new generations and hopefully will promote the inclusion of their works in the museums.




photographs by the author:
Leonardo Drew "Number 185", 2016
Charles Gaines "Numbers and Trees, Central Park Series I, Tree #9", 2016
Mark Bradford "No Time to Expand the Sea", 2014


Thursday, September 21, 2017

On Being an Artist









At the occasion of his latest exhibition at  Arthur Roger Gallery, "R.I.P. Bruce A. Davenport, Jr./Artwork by Dapper Bruce Lafitte", the artist Dapper Bruce Lafitte gave an interview and offered his thoughts about his art, art in general and how he became an artist.



Could you describe your childhood? How did you find out that you had talent as a visual artist?

My mother was 12 and my father was 20 years old when I was born. My father spent time in jail and I was raised by my step-grandfather who considered me his own. As I grew up, I started to doodle, from 5 to 10 years old, I would do stick-men, from 10 to 13, I drew full figures, pool halls whatever I found and imitated Ernie Barnes I saw on PBS. We were living in the Lafitte Projects and crack cocaine came to our neighborhood. Anything that gave me comfort, I stayed with. Art gave me comfort. If a pal of mine got killed, I would do art that night. If the wake was on Thursday, I would do art that Thursday, to release things. When people discovered I had talent, they went "he is a genius". People who were not into art tried to keep me away from it. I went to college to play football, I did not go to college to do art. But I was not happy and when I did art I felt better. People love you more also they get inspired by what you do, that's a good thing.

Any other artists in the family?

My aunt would draw on pieces of paper. I thought that everybody had talent, my thing was doing art, like Clementine Hunter.

Did you learn about art history? Did you visit art museums?

I would visit museums with my school, NOMA, CAC, the Ogden. I did attend the Summer program for kids living in the Projects at Xavier. I would go by John T. Scott mornings and evenings. One time I cut class and he said: "I will keep you out of trouble, sit down and look at me". He was making a sculpture. I was looking at him and I was thinking "there is a black man" and I looked up to him. He gave me the whole history of art. He would say "artists have a hard time, if you are an artist to make money, you are in the wrong game. You may become famous and then you might make some money"

Do you consider John T. Scott one of your mentors? Did you have a role model when you grew up?

Yes, he is one of my mentors, also Jeffrey Cook, Clementine Hunter, Bruce Price, Harry Jones, the co-owner of Stella Jones Gallery, Dan Cameron, David Cortez, Willie Birch. They are all have been big help in my career.

And now, do you visit museums and look at art?

No, I don't look at art. I might copy it if I like it or I just turn my back on it if I can't get it. I was looking at a Basquiat, David Cortez explained it to me and what he felt. Then I look at the art (Basquiat's), at his creativity and it gives me something.

About your creativity? Is it spontaneous?

Yes, it comes out. I made the marching bands, then I started to gravitate to other things and other things and then I go back doing the marching bands. It does not feel the same when I go back to it.

What are the "other things" you are doing?

The penitentiaries, the correctional system, because my people go through that. I talk about the school system because I got education from there. I talk about the Projects, my elders. I made maps of the city for my latest exhibition. I talk about the good side of the story and the bad side.

Your work is included in collections in Japan, Europe, you are represented by galleries in NYC, how do you relate to the New Orleans art scene?

It is a crab barrel! I will get up and the crab barrel tries to pull me down. But I remember when I first got into the business, I would go to galleries. On St Claude, the lady told me she liked my work and was interested in showing it. I said "Me?" She said "Yes". Then I learned the curator business, I learned the business aspect of art. That's how I started.

How do you get collectors abroad interested in your art which is mainly about New Orleans?

If they don't know New Orleans, I'll give it to them. The collector may be a rich white guy from Germany, he can't come to my hood, but I'll give it to him. He will feel the love. I always wanted to have people look at the art and see where it's coming from so we can relate to one another. Sometimes people can't relate, they don't have a soul. If you have a soul it shows in the work.

After hurricane Katrina, you started drawing school bands. How did you get interested in that subject?

The band directors lost their jobs after Katrina, they would invite me to their homes for dinner, and I started to draw the school bands. They were very appreciative that I brought their bands to the world. Also I watch football on TV and if the band sounds good, I go ahead. I drew LSU, Tulane, USC, University of Tennessee,...

You are visiting schools, making donations to the schools. Do you see yourself as a role model for the children in New Orleans? 

I donated pictures of the marching bands to twenty five high schools in New Orleans, fifteen outside New Orleans. I have to give back to them. I love to talk to the children, they know me, like I was their big brother. I tell them my story, I listen to their stories.

Why the title of your latest exhibition at the Arthur Roger Gallery "R.I.P. Bruce A. Davenport, Jr."?

I was born Bruce D. Washington, my mother's maid name. Then my father came into my life when I was fourteen and gave me his last name, I became Davenport. I hated it. I became angered, depressed, ugly and mean. So I changed my name to Lafitte, the name of the housing project I grew up in.

Does it bother you to be called outsider or self-taught artist?

I don't care, but I rather not be categorized. I am an artist.

Do you throw away some of your work?

No, I just put it away, somebody might like it later.

Do you listen to music?

Yes, I like Beethoven, James Brown, Ray Charles, BB King, Public Enemy, I like when it makes you feel good. You go back and you listen and it becomes part of you. Sometimes I need quiet when I work because I am thinking, I am focused. Sometimes I need loud music, it gives me the groove.


What about the future?

In 2012, I almost quit doing art, but I was encouraged to continue and I am on for at least another ten years! I am working on it every day. I am trying to have six to seven shows outside New Orleans every year and three shows outside the country.
I am Bruce D. Lafitte, I am enjoying art, the creativity that is coming to me. I am enjoying the galleries and museums I am dealing with, I am enjoying my career. I am enjoying that people want my art and take it at different levels. I want to preserve the culture, bridge the gap from the old to the new, and be the in-between.

And the artist concluded with his famous "I see you lookin" scribbled throughout his works to remind the viewer that he is always present, watching.







photographs:

Dapper Bruce Lafitte
"R.I.P. Jeffrey Cook", 2017 (detail)









Thursday, August 24, 2017

Let's Talk About It






This year, White Linen Night will be remembered for its downpours and flooding, but I attended the gallery openings, all decked up in my white clothes under an umbrella. Jonathan Ferrara Gallery offered a memorable performance spilling in Julia Street and Arthur Roger Gallery an extensive collection of works from John T. Scott and Dapper Bruce Laffitte. The following week-end, the openings in the St Claude Arts District were overwhelming due to the abundance of works from diverse artists. Overall, political art was the predominant subject.

Among all, The Banality of Evil, 2017, from Brian St Cyr, stirred up conflicting emotions for me. The piece was selected for Louisiana Contemporary, a yearly juried exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and can be found near one of the entrance (or exit) of the largest gallery. The wall sculpture is minimalist in design and color and, like a child's puzzle, is made of simple triangular and rectangular shapes arranged symmetrically along a horizontal line. The bottom, built with wood is painted turquoise, the top is an assemblage of hamster cages, water bottle included. The mustard wall is the perfect background for the piece which projects heavy shadows on it. The resulting design represents... a swastika. The seemingly benign construction, evoking cute furry rodents and a paradise of tropical islands with its Caribbean color, became a provocative sign of hate, racism, fascism, and its view made my heart race from uncontrolled anger, fear and disgust. Some people learned about the symbolism of the swastika from history books, others from their family history.

Despite a lengthy wall text in which the artist provides clues about his inspiration and shares his personal thoughts about his work, some viewers have been incensed by the representation of the loathed emblem. In her book about war criminal Adolf EichmannAnnah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil". St Cyr states that: "As a visual artist I have long thought of how I would express in visual terms the essence of such a powerful literary phrase." This sums up the purpose of the conceptual piece. However, the artist should not be surprised to provoke strong reactions from the audience challenged by such an inflammatory subject. After all, we are more used to art "underlying political and social realities that the artist sought to cover up with sensuous appeal" (Sylvan Barnet 2009). This time, the graphic statement is blunt. Visual art can be cathartic and provide the occasion to engage in discussions, or better, conversations. The artist's long explanation feels superfluous, the work (and its title) speaks for itself and viewers will decipher the message.
To conclude, this quote attributed to Robert Rauschenberg: "The artist's job is to be a witness to his time in history." This piece reaches the goal.







photograph by the author:

Brian St Cyr "The Banality of Evil", 2017

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Alex Podesta at The Front







No bunnies for Alex Podesta's exhibition Pressured and Squished at The Front. My latest sightings of his humorous slightly deprecatory self-portraits were at LeMieux Galleries on Julia Street and on the O. C. Haley Boulevard. This time the six sculptures set along the walls of the third room at the collective art gallery have taken a less personal and more serious turn.
The showpiece usually concludes an exhibition. Here, Untitled (Ballspine) catches the attention upon entering the space. The towering sculpture represents a humanoid with a distinctive spine made of rubber balls interposed with pieces of wood. Headless, with stretched arms and one wooden leg, it also features very realistic hands and foot resulting in a strange futuristic creature. The next sculptures are more modest in size but richer in their conceptualization. They could be described in sets of two with Infinitube and Snakes! made of the same material, bicycle wheels inner tubes. The first hints at the lemniscate, mathematical symbol of infinity, with its shape held by a hand in a firm grip, and the latter evokes tightly coiled inner guts. Their message is quite opposite, one is soothing and inspires contemplation, the other reflects stress, torment and pain. The second set of sculptures, Pressured and Squished, are each made of two forearms with casts of hands at the end, extensions of longer wooden rods. The two hands hold an inflated rubber ball in the first version, next to the second version featuring the same ball  now collapsed. The juxtaposition of the two pieces creates a narrative due to the action which occurred in between. The synergistic works should stay as a pair or they may loose some of their impact. Pinch concluded my visit. Sadness is involved in this piece, a deflated ball grasped by two fingers: game's over. The useless ball can be discarded.
Conceptual art requires the viewer's involvement and its interpretation can become personal, according to moods, memories, cultural background, ... Do I dare bring up my first interpretation of Ballspine which made me think of a crucifixion? Or can I share the childhood memories which rushed back while looking at Pinch? The sculptures, all made in 2017, reflect the unmistakable artist's flair. Podesta's work projects some dichotomy, navigating between humor and seriousness, action and inaction, simplicity and complexity, catching the viewer in between. The artist brings back our inner child and plays with our angst with his conceptual pieces that defy any classification.
Set during the dog days of Summer in New Orleans, the exhibition could get overlooked. Reviews have already poured in, but when it seems that everything has been told, there is more to find. In his artist's statement, Podesta describes his work as serio-comic, this time, I found his latest creations more serious than comic.
No bunnies, but the artist is always present in his works. (at least his foot and hands!)




 photographs by the author

"Untitled (Ballspine)", 2017
"Infinitube", 2017
"Pinch", 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

Intimate Donald Judd







Donald Judd Writings, published in 2016, is a collection of short essays, notes and critiques written by the artist who is better known for his minimalist sculpturesdesigner furniture and his move to Marfa,Texas. What is striking about the book is not only its bright orange color but its thickness.
Spanning thirty five years from 1958 until 1993, the entries follow a chronological order like a diary. The earlier writings are more focused on art criticism, Judd's livelihood at the time. It is refreshing to read candid, occasionally scathing reviews, some previously unpublished. His statements like "Picasso who produced junk for forty years, and not much before" or "The brushwork in the paintings by Baselitz is thoughtless, passionless, flaccid, and is a parody of Expressionism." are short and final. ( I could not agree more with the latter!) The chapters dedicated to artists like Kasimir Malevich, Lee Bontecou, John Chamberlain among others, reflect his appreciation of their work. Both Wassily Kandinsky and Pier Mondrian appear to have had a profound influence on Judd who refers to them repeatedly.
It is not until his late fifties (mid-way into the book) that Judd becomes more personal and writes about his projects, Marfa, the Foundation Chinati, and shares intimate thoughts about his career and goals, showing some concerns about his legacy including his writings: "I am writing for the record ... I am also writing for the sake of my work." Shorter notes, like in a journal, appear to be written "on the go". Judd tackles politics, religion, architecture, art, philosophy, ..., keeps castigating art critics, collectors, curators, and expresses his mistrust of the art world in general. His overall pessimistic and disillusioned outlook can be summed up with this statement: "We are starting a new era while suffering increasing mediocrity, a time in which even the ideas of quality and knowledge are disappearing."
The dense text with little interruption can become monotonous, but the content keeps the reader's interest going. A compilation of images are relegated to the end and include photographs of Judd's and his colleagues' works, buildings in Marfa, and samples of Judd's original hand writings. Unfortunately, the small format weakens their impact.
Preserving his father's legacy, Flavin Judd oversaw the book's publication and also wrote the book's introduction.
Getting acquainted with Judd through his most intimate thoughts.







Photographs Wikimedia

Untitled box-like art "Judd's cubes", Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX
"Untitled (DJ 85-51)", 1985, Tate Modern