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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Pride of Place at NOMA

Over the years, Arthur Roger nurtured artists through his art gallery opened in 1978 and in doing so, helped shape and promote the art scene of his native city. Joining the list of benefactors, he recently gifted his sizable art collection accumulated over four decades to the New Orleans Museum of Art. The eighty-seven objects, including paintings, sculptures, videos, photographs, are on display this Summer for the exhibition Pride of Place: The Making of Contemporary Art in New Orleans, curated by Katie Pfohl, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at NOMA.

 Pride of Place starts with a bang, featuring at the entrance Deborah Kass's silkscreen Camouflage Self Portrait, 1994, a major piece of The Warhol Project. After a short text introducing the exhibition, works lined up along the walls include a red, gory wood print from James Surls and a woodblock from John T. Scott surrounding a piece from Clyde Connell, a Louisiana self-taught artist. These are followed by photographs from George Dureau and face Green Drops, 1983, a cross from John Torreano, Star of David, u.d., from Keith Sonnier and a hieroglyphic composition from Ida Kohlmeyer. In the middle of the room, an early kinetic sculpture from Lin Emery, Fledging, 1965, represents the cornerstone of her future works. All in all, a first glance embraces nine pieces (also Lovers (2 Bronze Horns), n.d., a sculpture from Ersy Schwartz), promising a challenging visit due to the number and variety of works. Their connections to the South and the Arthur Roger Gallery are sometimes subtle. For example, Peter Haley's print A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, 1989, a colored architectural geometric abstraction with squares he calls "prisons" and "cells" connected by "conduits" is about the densely populated northeastern city. How did his work become part of the collection? Haley obtained a Master of Fine Arts from the University of New Orleans in 1978 and lived several years in the crescent city before moving back to New York. Self  Portrait/Cutting, 1993, a photograph from Catherine Opie is related to the landmark show curated by Deborah Kass which took place at the Arthur Roger Gallery in 1993, titled Regarding Masculinity. The setting makes for a pleasant walk through the display. Sculptures, even huge like An American Family, 1991, from Willie Birch  made of papier-mâché or  Fence Row, 2013, from Gene Koss are provided ample space, allowing a view from all angles. Robert Colescott's satirical painting, Whitfield Lovell's ghostly installation, Radcliffe Bailey's piece about the African Diaspora, define the artists. Among the photographers, Robert Polidori who documented the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the devastated city is represented, so is Gordon Parks. Controversial photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe, George Dureau and John Waters are displayed in a more private space while portraits, Magic Johnson by Erb Ritts or Andy Warhol by Greg Gorman, underline the diversity of the collection. A narrative mural from Luis Cruz Azaceta provides a background for a sculpture from Lesley Dill, Untitled Figure-Delight, Bliss, Murder, 1995, a story on its own, featuring a headless female body carved with messages. The deep South is not forgotten with  Courtney Egan's magical video while Dawn Dedeaux and Jacqueline Bishop's works bring darker thoughts about our future.
What is striking, especially in the last room, is the juxtaposition of styles, figurative next to pop or conceptual art, taking some viewers beyond their comfort zone. Through artists from co-op galleries like Aaron McNamee, Alex Podesta or Cynthia Scott, representing the lively St. Claude Arts District, the donation rejuvenates the museum's contemporary art collection and fosters the inclusion of local artists. It also propels NOMA on the international art scene with names like Polidori whose photographs are in the permanent collections of MoMA, Centre Pompidou in Paris or the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Treating subjects like the HIV/AIDS epidemic, sexuality, gender, race, the collection provides material for reflection over place and time. It also follows the tribulations of the city with works inspired by hurricane Katrina. Each carefully selected piece contributes to its overall goal: "collecting contemporary art, reframing regionalism and championing emerging voices".

Be aware, one visit will not be sufficient to appreciate the art collected over four decades!

photographs by the author

Ida Kohlmeyer, "Synthesis BB", 1983
view of the exhibition
 Alex Podesta, "Untitled (Pointer)", 2012, detail

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Beyond Borders

Neapolitan (Comic Book Diplomacy, Go Cup and Water Bottle Buoys)Christopher Saucedo's latest exhibition at Arthur Roger Gallery assembles varied works from the sculptor with an emphasis on his Comic Book Diplomacy series. Saucedo, previously Professor at the University of New Orleans, now divides his time between New Orleans and Rockaway, NY, and teaches sculpture at Adelphi University.
Superhombre, Űbermensch, Stålmannen, ..., Superman's name plastered on the front covers of comic books in Spanish, German, Swedish, Turkish, Arabic, ..., transports the visitor in a fantasy world. Bright colors, vivid graphics, short texts, send powerful messages and define superheroes (and villains). Born from his love for cartoons as a child, the artist's hobby, collecting international comic books of American superheroes, has brought him to consider their relevance and impact on multicultural audiences. To make his point he has created a series of collages. The process involves removing a large circle of a comic book's cover and replace it with the same superhero but from another country's publication, using a hot-brand technique. The juxtaposition of different languages can result in geo-politically or culturally provocative associations. The arrangements are visually pleasing with branded imprints of maps and sometimes embroidered compass roses, contributing to the conversation. Where is North? Off a few degrees, the image refers to the moral compass made of set of values instilled through education and culture. Could  Jewish and Palestinian teenagers get the same perception of the hero's character ? Could the hero foster a bond between them? The mythical figures can also be seen as propaganda material, perpetuating the symbol of an indomitable hero from the giant country. The characters have also been promoted for educational purposes. Superman, Superwoman , Batman, were staged in comics aimed at raising the awareness of children about landmines, deadly remnants of wars. Lined up along the walls of the front main gallery, the pieces created for the Comic Book Diplomacy series are spread toward the back and lead to the second part of the exhibition, a major work from the Water Bottle Buoys series: the artist's self-portrait. A buoy anchored to a heavy boulder by a rope represents Saucedo's volume of water when plunging into a vat filled with the liquid "element". With his life in tatters following hurricane Katrina, he moved to the North East and faced a second disaster during hurricane Sandy. With a tinge of humor, the conceptual artist refers to his mixed feelings about water, deadly and also sustaining life. Practical, he recycles the plastic pollutant to make floating sculptures. A homegrown feature in New Orleans, go cups branded or embroidered on hand made paper surround the sculpture. The poetic rendition of containers, cans and water bottles included, is also a reminder: let's not waste any precious liquid especially when fermented!
Saucedo who calls himself a "pretend sociologist" brings up serious subjects to make us reflect. The exhibition is a way to discover another side of the artist who in his interview for NPR  in 2015, stated that his usual media is "steel, wood, cast metals and big physical material". This time he is using the technique of branding, "pushing red-hot steel shapes onto the paper maps... a deliberate, irrevocable and violent way of marking and cutting shapes". He is also using embroidery, a soothing occupation, on light-hearted material. A sculptor, Saucedo turned his hobby into art.
A very timely and relevant exhibition which reminds us of the power of art, healing on a personal level and creating bridges between cultures.

An exhibition of the Water Bottle Buoys series took place at Good Children Gallery in December 2016.

photographs by the author:

"Comic Book Diplomacy: Supermen (CSAU0151)", 2017
"Superman Handcuffed (CSAU0152)", 2017
"Water Bottle Buoy", 2016

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Please Respond", Senga Nengudi at the CAC

At the Contemporary Art Center, Improvisational Gestures is the "first museum exhibition to survey the sculptures, performance video and related work" from Senga Nengudi. The artist born in Chicago in 1943 is presently living and working in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She was involved in setting up the touring comprehensive survey of her work which spans forty years of her career, from the 70's to the present and features several pieces of her famous RSVP series started in 1975.
The show curated by Elissa Auther and Nora Burnett, following a traditional setting, starts with an informative wall text about the artist and her work accompanied by a few black and white photographs documenting the artist's interaction with her sculptures made of pantyhose. A number of her iconic sculptures fill the second floor of the venue, lined up along the walls. The spotlights in the dark space allow a play between the pieces made of "stretched, pulled , twisted" nylon tights and their shadows. Nengudi is well known for her use of the tan colored medium with sand-filled feet to support the final shape. The RSVP series, an ongoing project started in 1975, is well represented with eight pieces made in 2014. Their message about stretching body and psyche is consistent while Blossom, 2014, created specifically for the exhibition seems somewhat clichéd. Rubber Maid, 2011 and Swing Low, 1976/2014, allude to female shapes with sagging breasts.
A major piece, Nuki Nuki: Across 118th St., 1982, incorporates wooden slats entangled with torn pantyhose, fragile but flexible bridge between two walls. The sculpture is a reflection about the living conditions in the seventies and eighties Harlem where Nengudi lived from 1971 to 1974 as a member of the black artists' community. The sound of a video emerges from a small room where Warp Dance, 2007, is displayed on a large screen. In the multi-channel audio/video installation (sound by Butch Morris) made during the artist's residence at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, she captures colors and rhythms of mechanized looms, resulting in a mesmerizing piece. In the center of the exhibition, a whole space is dedicated to more video works like Side by Side, 2006, about her collaboration with Maren Hassinger, Hands, 2003-2012, a gestural piece performed with hands only, and The Threader, 2007, made also during her residency, in which she records the repetitive gestures of a textile worker. Photographs document past performances of the artist with her collaborators and friends, among them the memorable Gutai style event Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978, which took place underneath an interstate overpass downtown Los Angeles or Nengudi wearing her own sculptures like Nick Cave, for Sculpture Inside Out, 1977/2014.
The exhibition provides an in-depth review of  the work of the multidisciplinary artist who started her career as a dancer. Incorporating dance, music, visual art, she evokes life impermanence, female identity, rituals, through gestures, movement, activating her sculptures during improvised performances. Her RSVP series ( Répondez S'il Vous Plaît) translates into "Please Respond", a direct call to the viewer to become engaged and interact with the works. At first, attracted by the sculptures, I found them static and mute, like frozen lifeless shapes. The display emphasizes their aesthetic qualities, but renders them shallow and irrelevant as the artist's message gets lost,... until one reaches the videos and photographs of her performances. Hypnotized and entranced, I spent a long time watching the videos made during her residency. The Threader becomes a mythical story about a textile worker repeating the same gestures in harmony with the machine to create perfect patterns for eternity. Warp Dance gives life to mechanized looms dancing in cadence and changing colors according to a perpetual cycle. Nengudi's art is dynamic, performative, improvisional, and becomes stale in the museum's context. It brings up the challenge of representing performative art inspired by and created for a community within the walls of an institution.
The "first museum survey" of Senga Nengudi's sculptures comes short of its promises: "the works invite viewers to not only respond but to engage with them physically". At the end of the visit, I felt like a spectator.

R.S.V.P. sculptures activated by the artist and Maren Hassinger, 1977
Rapunzel, 1980/2014
R.S.V.P Reverie 'D', 2014

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Escape at the New Orleans Museum of Art

Japonism is the term used to describe Japanese influence on European art. It flourished in the mid-nineteenth century due to a renewed trade between Japan and the continent following the seclusion era. Artists like Claude Monet with his famous painting The Water Lily-Pond, 1899Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh who collected Japanese prints with his brother Theo, and other Impressionist painters , were inspired by Japanese art.
The New Orleans Museum of Art just opened an exhibition: Regina Scully | Japanese Painting: Inner Journeys featuring works of the local artist presented along selected pieces of the museum's Japanese collection.
At the entrance of the dimly lit Japanese gallery, a red monochrome painting from Regina Scully, The Origins of Dreams, 2017, draws the attention under the title of the show. A wall text introduces the exhibition's brainchild along Mindscape 4, 2017, one of the artist's latest work. The display features Scully's contemporary paintings embedded among Japanese landscapes from the 17th to the 19th century. Scully's "intuitive connection with Asian art" started early in her career as seen in Providence Sketches, 1995, oils on chipboard. Upon reaching the main gallery the visitor is met by a line up of bright paintings, monochromes like Passage, 2012 and Excavation 11, 2009, or with a dominant background color for Mindscape 2 and 3, 2017, blue, orange, yellow, according to emotions and moods. From afar, they share a calligraphic abstract language, spread throughout the canvas without a focal point, allowing the eye to wander. The display which does not follow a chronological order includes Delos, 2012 and Channels, 2013, then three black and brown monochrome paintings from the Navigation series, 2009. According to Rotondo-McCord, curator of the exhibition, these inspired the project due to the analogies found between Scully's techniques, use of perspectives, space, colors, and Japanese art. Across, three paintings are in striking contrast with their vivid colors. From the Mindscape series, they were composed following Scully's exposure to hundreds of works from the Japanese collection. With the same graphic qualities than earlier paintings, they integrate new techniques like paint applied directly on the canvas with the fingertips and experiment with horizontal formats influenced by handscrolls. Near the exit, Cosmographia, 2015, a multicolored composition on a white background which could be qualified as semi-abstract, belongs to the museum's permanent collection. 

A disclaimer in the introductory wall text makes it clear: the exhibition is not about comparing Scully's paintings and Japanese landscapes. Van Gogh's direct inspiration from Japanese prints, especially Hiroshige's, was the subject of a didactic exhibition at the Pinacotheque in Paris in 2013. Each of his paintings was matched with a Japanese scene. Here, Scully's paintings are displayed in the gallery to present the contemporary artist's work in light of traditional Eastern art, allowing the visitor to wander back and forth, following the path of a quiet Japanese garden to the top of a mountain or meandering in one of Scully's busy compositions. She characterizes the different scenes as "puzzles" put together to create a journey which becomes a personal adventure for each viewer. Of course, one cannot avoid comparing the works. Scully's medium, acrylic on canvas or board, brings a different texture sometimes difficult to appreciate behind the glass. Her compositions which appear abstract at first veer to figurative when looked at closer as opposed to the idealized figurative Japanese scenery turning into abstract, but the tension between abstract and figurative is more palpable in Scully's works. Japanese landscapes are restful, quiet, serene and Scully's "scapes" are restless, chaotic, reflecting a different world. The subdued fragile colors of Japanese paintings are replaced by yellows, oranges, reds, greens,..., becoming brighter in her Mindscapes series. Moving on from her monochrome series, she now favors multicolored compositions. Just a reminder, monochrome was born from calligraphy in the East, centuries ago as described in the introduction of the book Monochromes: from Malevich to the Present written by Barbara Rose. If  human subjects appear secondary in the Japanese scenes, Scully's are filled with life, telling myriads of stories. Both are about our relationship with nature.
The exhibition generates an ongoing conversation.  

photographs by the author:

Mindscape 5, 2017
Mindscape 3, 2017 (detail)
Mindscape 2, 2017