by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
Author’s note: Please see the earlier post “Prospect New Orleans 2: Digging for Gold in the Crescent City (Part 1) and (Part 2)” on this site for the beginning and middle of this story
I woke up on Sunday morning around 8:30 AM with a pounding headache. It was brutal, and all I really wanted to do was go back to sleep. However, we had to get packing and ready ourselves for the 11AM checkout at the St. Vincent Guest House. I made my way to our hostel bathroom, brushed my teeth, took some ibuprofen, showered and dressed. I watched my wife continue sleeping and felt sorry about having to wake her up. She was such a trooper yesterday, and she deserved more sleep. I left the room to have a cigarette.
While I was out front at a cafe table by a gurgling fountain, I smoked and called Emee Morgan. I figured that she’d be up way earlier than us since she left St. Claude early the night before. She answered in a groggy voice and said that she was still in bed. I told her that we’d give her a call back. I looked at the coffee shop across the street. People were steaming out the front door like some kind of coffee train. I wanted to be aboard. I returned to our room.
Kirstie had awakened and was already dressed. She had decided to forgo her primping ritual that typically lasts at least an hour and a half. I was grateful. We packed, and checked out of the hostel early. All our luggage was put in our truck in the parking lot of the St. Vincent, and we crossed Magazine St. for coffee. Cafe Mojo was still going full-steam-ahead, and we couldn’t find a seat there to drink our large dark roasts and eat our pastry. We went back to the hostel, and asked if we could settle into the courtyard out back. The clerk shrugged a whatever. We parked ourselves at a picnic table and began our morning ritual of coffee and cigarettes, with the added bonus of pastry.
I called Emee again. She had left her bed and was in the middle of assisting her friend with some necessary grocery shopping (her friend’s vehicle was dead and needed repairs). She promised to make it over to meet us as soon as possible.
While we waited and worked on our coffee and pastry, an unkempt woman kept darting around the courtyard and muttering to herself. At times, it seemed like she was traveling through secret wormholes around the place, considering the speed at which she would appear, disappear and reappear in different locations about us. We guessed that she was mentally ill, but she was also carrying cleaning equipment around. The whole spectacle was a little unsettling, but at the same time, I liked the fact the St. Vincent would be willing to employ someone like this. While I spent time working in two separate mental hospitals earlier in my life, I learned that the mentally ill, aren’t so “ill” all the time. Sometimes, they’re more in touch with reality than we are. One can learn a lot from them. I’m not trying to down-play the dark side of mental illness, but it’s a lot more complex and nuanced than most people think. At one point, the magic cleaning lady darted toward us, and asked us for a cigarette. I obliged, and she abruptly darted in the other direction to smoke on the other side of the courtyard on the lip of an old laundry shoot slide that descended from the second-story balcony.
Shortly after, Emee showed up. We talked about her week spent assisting Joy Glidden of Dumbo Art Fair and Louisiana Artworks fame with her new project, “Art Index TV” which specializes in interviews with art world insiders and airs on PBS. Emee said that they had a rough start for the first two days of taping, but the last few days presented an endless river of interviewees. We also talked about the upcoming Creative Economy Summit taking place at the LITE Center on November 9, 2011 in Lafayette, LA. Emee is one of it’s creators, and I couldn’t be more impressed with her for this, especially since she is so young. There was a bit of small talk smattered amongst these subjects as well.
Morning was turning into early afternoon, and we said our goodbyes to Morgan. We got in our truck, and we had a decision to make. Once again, time was not our friend, and we had to decide between returning to St. Claude to see the sites we missed the night before, going to visit the New Orleans Museum of Art, or visiting some sites in the French Quarter. We made the decision to return to St. Claude based on the fact that I have some personal connections to some artists in St. Claude, and I didn’t get to visit their exhibitions the night before. T-Lot and Staple Goods Gallery were calling my name.
We arrived at P.2 satellite T-Lot, which is exactly what its name purports: a small co-op gallery/ studio with a sizable backyard in the shape of a “T.” The lot was packed full of art by co-op members for the exhibition “Parallel Play,” and we were greeted by artists Natalie McLaurin and Stephen Kwok who were gallery sitting that day. They took turns assisting us through the lot and were extremely attentive and helpful. Unfortunately, a couple of works were dependent on night viewings because they involved video projections and lights. However, on the whole, we had a fantastic time exploring the art there which encompassed a scrappy array of thought provoking and engaging works that warmed my heart in the Sunday sun and set my mind turning. I’m still thinking seriously about quite a few of the works a week later.
A collaboration between Dave Greber and Stephen Kwok involving a series of concentric platforms topped with white sand ascending in the shape of a waist high ziggurat was extremely satisfying. The funny thing is that we saw the piece in an incomplete state. Greber’s video projection was missing. However, the piece was interactive: the artists instructed viewers to leave behind objects they felt they could part with in the sand. It was fascinating to see what viewers were willing to part with for the sake of art, and my wife and I wear inspired to leave behind a half-used bottle of Nasonex. God knows this sort of trope has been “done” before, but their piece was still thought provoking and fun. I just wish I would have been able to see it complete with Greber’s video. Amanda Cassingham created an interactive piece that starts with a pamphlet announcing a program that allows viewers to send the artist their information and a small amount of money in exchange for a “delicious” cookie because, according to the Cassingham, in today’s world, if you do something good, you deserve a cookie. My wife and I took one of the pamphlets, and will be sending Cassingham our money and info shortly. The project was ridiculous enough to pique or interest; yet, it is an interesting and thoughtful exploration of the intersection of performance art and capitalism. Jason Childers presented a sizable sculpture of two intersecting vertical and horizontal squares made of wooden molding. The sculpture is unimpressive at first sight and recalls the current vogue for slapdash, DIY aesthetics involving unfinished lumber. However, McLaurin and Kwok clued us in to something important: the sculpture was made without the use of nails, glue or any sort of traditional fasteners to hold the squares together. Ropes connected to the individual pieces of molding hold the sculpture together with tension supplied by cranking them around a central pole in the center of the sculpture. It’s brilliant! Elizabeth McLellan’s large-scale drawings concerning themes of urban blight and apocalypse were riveting and beautiful. I was enchanted by artist Z Bhel’s small, painted wooden army which included a depiction of what I read as a pothead. Hannah Chalew’s work which revolves around themes of nature re-establishing its control over urban sites after they have been abandoned by humans was sublime, and Stephen Kwok supplied some witty, conceptual work that both Kirstie and I loved inside the studio space at the far end of the lot, including a video of various Chat Roulette sessions between the artist and others that had been edited to exclude dialogue. All that was left was instances of participants chuckling, and from afar, the audio sounded like the kind of laughter one hears during sexual foreplay. We almost missed the final piece of the exhibition, a prismatic and precarious walk around the side and back of the studio attributed to WNFG. Once viewers are behind the studio, they are treated to a private alleyway that is an abstract and colorful, hard-hard edged world unto itself.
We left T-Lot for P.2 satellite Staple Goods Gallery. There was a small two-room group exhibition going on there that presented us with a completely different vibe that was more traditional and controlled. Artist William Depauw was on hand to sit for the gallery. There, we viewed a restrained exhibition of work by Staple Goods members. For me Depauw’s work rose to the top. He presented a handful of ceramic works colored in his signature sage green glaze. Each work was composed of a few individual pieces that were in some sort of surrealistic and classically restrained communion with one another. They presented a visual opening into which viewers could insert their own ideas and meanings about why the objects belonged together. Depauw himself said that the arrangement of the objects together was entirely intuitive, and he’s still making sense of their placement amongst one another. Some may balk at an artist lacking any clear direction such as this, but if such an artist creates eloquent objects from the process such as these, something profound is occurring. Over the years, I’ve learned that one should never discount the power of intuition, and in this case, intuition has brought Depauw to a fertile place that is incredibly generous in allowing his viewers to bring themselves into his work. Other standouts at Staple Goods are a couple of couple of gorgeous abstract paintings from Aaron Collier and a hanging construction composed of found objects made of metal wire by Cynthia Scott. Scott manages to create a piece that is fully present, yet essentially and ideally Platonic in nature. It’s a perfect marriage of abstraction, conceptualism, appropriation and post-Katrina junkyard love and sorrow.
Post-Staple Goods, we headed to the Faubourg-Marigny for a very late lunch at a Greek/Lebanese restaurant called Mona’s. The meal was necessary and filling, but completely uninspiring. We made our way into the French Quarter for coffee at one of our favorite cafes, Envie. For anybody unfamiliar with the language of love, “envie” is French for desire or craving, and the name says everything about what it’s like to live without this place. Every time Kirstie and I return to NOLA, a visit to Envie is a must: great coffee and pastry, the perfect atmosphere and a great mix of patrons that range from gutterpunks and hipsters to business professionals. The art they display tends to be of a higher quality than most shops as well. We didn’t spend much time there. I wanted to go forward into the Quarter to view Sophie Calle and Dawn Dedeaux’s P.2 installations. However, by the time we finished with our coffee, it was already around 4:30PM. I realized that there wasn’t anymore time in the day for further exploration. We were exhausted, wall-eyed from art overload, and we had a long 2-and-a-half hour trek to endure in order to make it home to Lafayette that day. At that point, I surrendered reluctantly, and we made the way to our truck. We drove off into the sunset … literally.
On the way back home, Kirstie and I discussed our weekend in NOLA: the art that we saw, the people we came into contact with, the places new and old that we had been. It was an ongoing conversation that ebbed and flowed the whole way back to Lafayette. As with every trip to NOLA we have ever taken, there was a sense of loss and regret that accompanied leaving the city. New Orleans is one of those places that works its way into your heart and soul … into the very fabric of your being. Letting it go and saying goodbye to the city is difficult. Leaving NOLA in the midst of P.2 was even more difficult for me, if not impossible. My mind and heart are still there, a week later.
I never made it to Prospect 1. From all accounts, it was an achingly beautiful and moving display of post-Katrina grandeur that is supposedly unmatched by the smaller scale of Prospect 2. My guess is that such a thing will never be seen again. However, I experienced enough of P.2 to know that the biennial is still thriving, still pushing forward, and still evolving, despite its financial setbacks. The whole experience of this installment of the biennial left an indelible impression on me. The impression that despite it all, everything is going to be alright. That the world, Louisiana and the city are just how they should be. There’s no need to worry about disaster because disaster simply presents another opportunity for renewal, whether it is of a natural or a financial nature. I think we are all experiencing an “opportunity” as I write this. In the grand scheme of things, we are all integral and we are all expendable. It’s simply a matter of scale. I missed quite a bit of the biennial this past weekend. It’s no matter. I can return, or there’s a distinct possibility that this will never occur. Who knows? All that I know is that Prospect 2 and New Orleans taught me to let go and to surrender to something bigger than myself this past weekend- to trust in the beauty of failure because it’s inevitably the road to redemption. It’s a cliche in Louisiana, but somehow I feel it in my heart now, and I understand it on a deeper level than I ever have before: Laissez les bon temps roulez! This is the real gold I’ve been digging for all this time.
by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
Author’s note: Please see the earlier post “Prospect New Orleans 2: Digging for Gold in the Crescent City (Part 1)” on this site for the beginning of this story
Our visit to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art was complete, and the afternoon was turning into the evening. Time was not our friend at the moment. My wife and I made a b-line for Julia Street which is the main thoroughfare through the traditional Arts District in NOLA where most of the blue-chip galleries are. The promise of Arthur Roger Gallery, Gallery Bienvenu and the Heriard-Cimino Gallery dangled in front of my nose. I especially wanted to see what was inside Arthur Roger Gallery: An exhibition of photography and sculpture by famed film-provocateur John Waters and the multi-media art of rising New Orleans art star Dave Greber who has his roots in the St. Claude Arts District as a member of the Front Gallery. Alas, we got to Julia Street and every gallery was closed. All we could do is look through the windows and doors of the darkened and vacant spaces and sigh.
Throughout all of this, my wife was becoming increasingly hungrier and suffering from a headache. To be honest, I was dealing with one too, but I was medicating myself with regular doses of ibuprofen, regardless of whether I had food in my stomach or not. I’m stupid that way. In my jacked-up mode of thinking, art takes precedence over the well-being of my stomach lining. Anyway, I love my wife unconditionally, but she has a tendency to not take care of herself when the time is right, which would have been in the lull between arriving in NOLA and waiting for entrance into our hostel. We were in a dilemma. I figured the only easy way to obtain food for us was to sit down at a restaurant in the area we were in or somewhere in the French Quarter because the next destination was the St. Claude Arts District, and I’ve heard that it’s a notoriously difficult place to find a meal, especially since I was unfamiliar with the area. However, we also had to find a way to get down to the Prospect New Orleans 2 Visitors Center quick so that we could get onto a shuttle to St. Claude. For some reason, I felt that with every minute that passed, the chances of getting a map and a shuttle from the center seemed to dwindle.
We decided to hail a cab from Julia St. to Rampart and Esplanade. $10 later, we arrived only to find that the Prospect New Orleans Visitors Center had just closed ten minutes earlier. A couple from Houston was stranded there as well. They were talking to some guy who I thought was a volunteer. He was on the phone with somebody, telling them about our predicament. That’s when we learned that we could have boarded a shuttle from the W Hotel in the Arts District – the f*#king district we just left! Thanks CAC volunteers!!!
Just as I was about to blow a gasket, Stephanie Patton and Brian Guidry drive by and spot us. Both are artists who divide there time between NOLA and Lafayette. Both of them are also close friends to my wife and myself. They end up making the block and picking my wife and I up to whisk us to St. Claude. Patton and Guidry both had openings at their respective galleries on St. Claude that night. I felt really bad about leaving the Houston couple behind, but all of a sudden, time and space began to bend. We were in warp speed and couldn’t quibble about the misfortune of strangers.
We arrived at Stephanie Patton’s gallery, the Front, which is a co-op run by a handful of NOLA artists. Most of the galleries in the St. Claude Arts district operate in the same way with member artists taking on the duties of being the galerist and curator for the exhibitions as well as producing the art. On display in the gallery was Patton’s solo exhibition “General Hospital.” The exhibition is a poignant and funny visual exploration of the healing process which necessarily needs to take place after tragedy strikes. Inside the gallery, viewers are treated to some of the most well-crafted objects on display at P.2. Pills, a door, a pair of angel wings, a large curvilinear spiral and handmade lettering which spells out “Friends Forever” are hung exquisitely on the walls. Each object is made from either mattress covering or white, vinyl leather that has been upholstered. However, the centerpiece of the exhibition is Patton’s 1 hour and 50 minute long video of the artist squeezing lemons, making lemonade and then stuffing the used rinds with cotton batting and sewing them up so as to make them “whole” again. The whole video is based on the colloquialism “making lemons into lemonade” or turning tragedy into triumph, and it is riveting. As far as exhibitions go as a whole, “General Hospital” was the best/most well thought-out one I saw on my trip to P.2. The proof came in the fact that Patton had sold four pieces from the exhibition. Two now belonged to gallerist Arthur Roger and a well-respected collector from Los Angeles.
Also on view at the Front, was a strange group project from the co-op members that staked it’s claim on the back yard. They called it “The Crave”: a combination of the words cave and rave. It was a hastily built geodesic dome made of PVC pipe, visqueen, and god knows what else that housed an air conditioner, some really DIY sculpture that looked like refuse turned into a vase of flowers and a ring of stalagmites, and a watery video projection. Musical accompaniment was provided by a DJ right outside of it. The first thing that came to my mind was the phrase “underground disco oil spill.” I found out that this was the second version of “The Crave.” The Front members had actually built another one that had been destroyed by 40 mph winds the week before. The whole thing was ridiculous, but well appreciated.
Next up, we heard that a local BBQ entrepreneur had set up shop in front of the Good Children Gallery across the street. It was definitely time to eat! My wife and I made our way over there like white lightning. The food was looking good, but he didn’t have anything to drink, so while my wife waited on our BBQ, I made my way to a local convenience store to buy some water. I got a little bourbon while I was there, too! *** For future reference, if any of you ever want to impress this critic, giving me bourbon is a great place to start.*** So I returned to the sidewalk before the gallery just in time for the BBQ to be ready! My wife and I found a spot next door on a stoop to eat, and we tore into our food like rabid wolves! It was like BBQ from Heaven!
After our stoop BBQ, I noticed that there was something going on right beside us between the stoop and the gallery next door. Surprise! A pop-up gallery had just popped-up in the garage right by us while we were eating! It was the Rusty Pelican Gallery, owned and operated by the couple who owned the stoop we were just sitting on. I walked into the garage-come-gallery to find a wonderland of mechanical and light sculptures made from old rusty metal, incandescent lights, doll parts, and other assorted detritus. There were also some really good paintings and drawings inside. My wife and I were so impressed, we bought 2 really cool, metal scull, refrigerator magnets to remember the place.
Next, we entered the Good Children Gallery. It was a zoo inside! St. Claude had hit its stride by this point, and the place was filled with people. This made it really difficult to document the work there, but I managed for the most part. Each individual piece from the Good Children co-op members was good, but they could have stood to have more breathing room for the disparate works on display. The exhibition seemed cramped and disjointed. That’s the ever-present problem with group shows in small spaces. I’m sure the amount of people packed intot he place didn’t help either. But there were some pieces that stood out for me. Artist Lala Rancik takes top honors for her comic black and white, split-screen video of herself doing slapstick in an antique domestic setting. Srdjan Loncar provided a funny piece about a fictitious business which “fixes” broken things by covering them with photographs to make them look fixed. The artist duo Generic Art Solutions displayed two of their light boxes which incorporate somewhat holographic pictures of policemen in what I thought was riot gear. These images reminded me of the Ring Wraiths in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. They pack a punch and are unbelievably menacing, despite having a strip club marquee feel to them as well. Brian Guidry’s lone painting in the show was an abstract, hard-edged, precisionist master stroke as well, which separated it from the pack.
After our visit to Good Children, my wife and I took a trip with Brian Guidry and artist Emee Morgan to the Pearl, a home/speak easy that had been converted to an art venue as well. We arrived at the intersection that the Pearl is located on, and Brian said jokingly while pointing to various residences, “It’s not this mansion, or this one, or this one! It’s this place with all the junk and the weeds!” Indeed it was, Brian! Indeed it was! We walked up a set of old wooden stairs into an ante-chamber overflowing with art and junk. It was dark and it was hard to distinguish one from the other. Occasionally, I would find an exhibition card that announced that what I was looking at was art. Once, I got further into the Pearl, the things that stood out from the miasma of it all were the videos which were all over the place. It felt like the house/speak easy/gallery was somewhere between dead and alive. It was dreamy and unreal, yet so in-your-face! Most of the place was only lit by ambient light coming from colored lights and the video projections. The place seemed to be an endless maze of sights and sounds, some comforting some creepy, some downright gut-wrenching. It was everything I needed from the biennial but I didn’t know I needed. The work was crammed into this space, lost among all the domesticity and the junk, but it didn’t matter because it worked as a whole. You could even get a drink there and order some food from fully stocked kitchen! It was amazing! It said everything one needs to know about New Orleans in the 21st century, and I loved it! I was so impressed with it, that a took a video of the whole spectacle from the front door to the back yard, and I’ll be posting it soon! Some of the highlights for me were Coutney Egan’s film projection of flowers in bloom in the bath tub inside the bathroom, Brian Guidry’s edited video of an episode of “Wild Kingdom,” Dave Greber’s video of ridiculously happy cult members on the beach after the oil spill, Lee Deigaard’s peekaboo videos in the central hallway, a video of a white South African artist making himself vulnerable to the black South Africans who congregate around him on the streets of what I think is Johannesburg, Anastasia Pelias’ devilishly clever three channel video that turns the consoling words and rhythms of her favorite oyster shucker into a psychotic, post-oil spill rant and a weird little installation in the middle of the Pearl that involves some kind of monster sculpture behind a window – I think!?! No matter, in THIS cramped space, it all worked and became a seamless gesamtkunstwerk that is a triumph, and a credit to all involved. I left the pearl with my mind blown wide open, which is good because it made me ready for what happened next.
As we pulled up to St. Claude St on our way back to Good Children, we saw IT … and IT was like vision, a dream within a dream. The minute we saw IT, we stopped in the middle of the intersection, and abandoned our vehicle. IT was a black truck being pulled by a team of people down St. Claude Avenue, emerging out of the darkness into the surrounding light from the street lamps and neon signs. I’ve never seen anything like IT. This was artist William Pope.L’s “Blink.” As it moved by us, I could barely take a breath. Once the truck was past, I could see the slideshow of images that had been mounted to the back of the truck: a selection of images curated from images that had been sent to Pope.L from New Orleanians responding to the questions “What do you dream, when you dream of New Orleans?’ and “What do you see when you wake up?” It was incredibly moving, and I’ll never forget the experience.
Emee left us to return to a friend’s house to sleep. She was exhausted from a full half a week of assisting with interviews of art insiders for Joy Glidden’s PBS show “Art Index.” We promised each other we’d meet up for coffee the next morning.
After all was said and done … after all the openings … and all the spectacle … after all the art talk … after midnight, Brian Guidry, Stephanie Patton, my wife and I made our fumbling way down to the Lost Love Lounge for some excellent Vietnamese food and drinks (we got lost on the way there). Some of the Good Children and the Front artists met us there. We met the “Sex Ponies” while we were there. They were a group of Amazonian women wearing skin-tight vinyl, corsets, horse-bridles with long ponytails dangling off their rears and mohawk manes. They canoodled with the patrons. At one point, the chef got one of the buttons on his shirt caught in one of their tails. There was also this girl dressed in 1940’s garb doing jigs, “dropping it like it’s hot,” and pole dancing very poorly to the music on the jukebox. The funny thing was that the music was generally down tempo, if not depressing. One of the songs she was dancing to was Johnny Cash’s cover of the NIN classic “Hurt.” Only in New Orleans …
We left the Lost Love Lounge hung over from the whole day but at peace with what we accomplished. Brian and Stephanie returned us to our hostel, and we said goodnight. I turned the key to the lock on the front door of The St. Vincent Guest House. It didn’t work. Another guest was with us: the staff had neglected to give him a key to the front door. We felt a little defeated. Then, another guest who had been staying there longer walked up and helped us. “You have to pull the latch while you turn the key, ” he said. We walked in, said our “thank you’s” and retired to our room to dream dreams of Crescent City Gold in complete exhaustion and satisfaction.
Author’s Note: Stay tuned for Part 3: Coffee Talk, sunday in the T-LOT, Staple Goods, running out of steam in the Quarter and what it all meant. Plus in-depth reviews and pics and videos of all the P.2 Exhibitions I’ve seen so far!