by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
Can an achievement be both a triumph and a trip back into the darkness? This is a question I’ve been mulling in my head for the past week as I’ve been thinking back on my participation in the installation of “Prospect Lafayette” at the Acadiana Center for the Arts. The exhibition is a satellite of the Prospect New Orleans 2 Biennial currently running until January 29, 2012.
According to Prospect New Orleans curator Dan Cameron, the exhibition is meant to be a historical overview of some of the work that was included in Prospect New Orleans 1 and Prospect New Orleans 1.5, as well as a showcase for a video by the Icelandic, multimedia artist Ragnar Kjartansson who is showing in the biennial for the first time.
The first iteration of Prospect New Orleans in 2008, as far as artistic achievement goes, was an unequivocal success by all accounts. It included a blockbuster roster of more than 80 international and local artists. It single-handedly put New Orleans on the global art map, along with providing the city some much-needed inspiration after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, the business behind Prospect New Orleans 1 wasn’t so successful: the biennial accrued over one million dollars in debt and a mess of political infighting among its board members which lead to a postponement of the second full installment until this year. Prospect New Orleans 1.5, a city-wide move to showcase new and old local New Orleans artists and their work, was instituted to mitigate the situation and continue the momentum of the biennial. Today, the Prospect New Orleans Biennial is back on track and “in the black” financially; however, it is making waves in a much more concentrated form.
This doesn’t mean that the biennial isn’t expanding in other ways, however. “Prospect Lafayette” is a testament to this notion. After a visit to the Acadiana Center for the Arts, Dan Cameron was impressed enough with the location to ask the ACA to participate in Prospect New Orleans 2 as a satellite. Such a lateral move out of New Orleans is a first for the biennial and a monumental coup for the ACA. Cameron has stated that the ACA is one of the most impressive and significant art centers in the state. Personally, I couldn’t agree more – not only in regards to the facility itself, but also because of its curatorial efforts headed by Brian Guidry.
I’ve had the privilege of working as a preparator under Guidry for about a year- and-half by now. Thanks to this, my experience of the curatorial side of the arts has been one of immense learning, care, intuitiveness and innovation that I don’t believe I could have received anywhere else. During my time at the ACA, I’ve been part of a curatorial team that has put together some of the most impressive, articulate and awe-inspiring exhibitions I’ve ever seen. These exhibitions have also been some of the most idiosyncratic ones I’ve had the pleasure to experience as well. More often than not, an exhibition in the Main Hall of the ACA is about visual abundance, unconventional presentation and curatorial experimentation that seems to mirror the rich visual and cultural landscape of South Louisiana itself. In the midst of all of this, somehow, the integrity of the work is maintained and even enhanced, which is paramount to any curatorial practice.
When it came to preparing for and installing “Prospect Lafayette,” we on the ACA curatorial team had to change our usual game plan. We typically begin planning our exhibitions with a profusion of work. We then whittle the exhibition down to it’s final form from there. Due to the budgetary restrictions that have gone into effect for the Prospect New Orleans Biennial this year (along with other issues such as plain-old timing and the fact that despite the smaller scale of this year’s biennial, it’s still a logistical juggernaut for all involved), we received a smaller amount of work than anticipated. This time around, we’d have to use everything we received in order to fill the exhibition space. This isn’t to say that what we received wasn’t worth inclusion, though. It just meant that we had to make it work with what we had, which can be as much if not more of a challenge than dealing with a surplus. The consensus was that we needed to treat the space as it would be treated in the major, cavernous galleries of New York City in respect for Cameron’s roots there – to give back to Cameron the same way he has given to New Orleans and Lafayette. We also faced a new challenge this time which we’ve never faced before: installing three separate videos in the exhibition.
The video for international superstar, Ragnar Kjartansson is receiving top billing in “Prospect Lafayette” as it is the debut of the artist’s work in the Prospect New Orleans Biennial. A video bay complete with black walls was put together for his work “Death and the Children,” a black and white video in which Kjartansson attempts to confront a gaggle of young summer camp students while impersonating Death. The artist’s impersonation is incredibly hokey, especially because it is evident that his scythe is made of paper. One of the children actually calls him on it. They follow and taunt him with irreverence and glee. At one point they call Kjartansson an “elf with a stick.” It’s not the deepest piece of art I’ve ever seen, but it makes for entertaining viewing and points to the naivete’ of the children and their inability to take death seriously, even in a graveyard.
Prospect 1.5 is represented by a handful of artists including Regina Scully, Jonathan Hicks and Tameka Norris. Scully presents two wonderful gestural abstractions. She is primarily interested in the hybridization of natural and man-made forms. Her works here call to mind the fusion of water with the movement and fragmentation of the city, and they have somewhat of a map-like feel. Scully manages to conjure all of this through a build up of tick-like brush strokes which seem to dance, slide, and skip across the canvas in a variety of hues atop an underlying pictorial structure.
Jonathan Hicks won top honors in my book with his triptych of performance based photographs. Hicks appropriates artist Robert Longo‘s iconic “Men in Cities” images to his own end. He realized that if he molded himself into the twisted poses of Longo’s “men,” the reading of the images would shift due to the color of his skin: he is African American. With this, Hicks was more than prescient. Upon my first contact with these pieces, the first thing that came to my mind was that they were images of a victim being shot to death, an inherently stereotypical meme that runs through our society and, apparently, my head. In pictures such as these, Hicks reveals the deeply engrained racism and prejudice hiding under the surface of his viewers. Another tip-off that these images are concerned with race is Hick’s choice of tie color in each photograph: green, red or black. Together, these are the colors of the Pan-African Flag, and Hick’s incorporates his tie colors into his titles so that the viewer doesn’t miss the point. Stunning, mind-expanding, and filled with pathos, these works of art are the real “stars” of the exhibition.
Tameka Norris’ “Post-Katrina Sunset” is the other video on display in the main space. In it, Norris wears a wrap around her head reminiscent of the headgear of the archetypal mammies of the Old South and African women. She struggles to stay afloat in a body of water while carrying a plastic bin. Her plight is accompanied by a violinist playing an anxiety-inducing solo on the nearby shore. As the title suggests, all the while, the sun sets on the grim scene. Norris seems to be commenting on the helplessness of the poverty-stricken African American population of New Orleans which suffered immensely in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It is mythologized that Emperor Nero played a lyre while ancient Rome burned. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the figure of Nero and Norris’ violinist. Norris’s analogy is a metaphor for the perceived insouciance that African Americans felt from the white majority of the nation, especially as it pertains to the government, in response to the horrors of Katrina. “Post Katrina Sunset” is a devastating indictment of the intersection of racial prejudice and negligence in America.
The largest piece in the exhibition is from New Orleans own Willie Birch. His monumental black and white triptych “We Come This Far by Faith” commands and towers over a side wall of the gallery. It depicts an African American congregation, it’s original church in ruin due to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and the new church the congregation built after the fact. It’s an impressive and articulate marriage of history and artistry. Yet, I was left yearning for Birch’s unframed, expansive paintings on paper of dancers and musicians in Congo Square which somehow feel more powerful, expressive and empowering than this work. The other large sidewall in the main gallery is anchored by Los Angeles artist Gaijin Fujita’s “Saints,” a painting of a fantasy mascot/kabuki warrior Fujita created in response to being overwhelmed by the devotion of New Orleanians to their beloved football team. Fujita brings together the traditional icongraphy of Japan and the visual language of Los Angeles street culture in his work, and “Saints,” despite being a nod to New Orleans is no different. The painting is visually impressive, but it lacks a certain amount of feeling in it’s slickness.
The rest of the main hall is rounded out by works from Fred Thomaselli, Navin Rawanchalkul, Paul Villinski, Danish art stars Superflex, Bruce Davenport, Jr., Dawn DeDeaux, and Robin Rhode. Drag art phenom Kalup Linzy’s “Keys to Our Heart” video is on view in the ACA’s Vault due to it’s “adult” content. The video is a black and white, soap operatic romp through the lives of four characters involved in a love quadrangle. Race, sexual identity, and the human desire for love and companionship are explored in the video. Linzy himself plays one of the female characters and provides the voice overs for all of the ensemble members. The artist has stated that soap operas have been a major influence on his work because watching them brought his family and his community together when he was a child. As such, the drama played out in “Keys to our Heart” is as over-the-top and stilted as any episode of “All My Children” or “As the World Turns.” Unfortunately, the conceit falls a little flat, making a passionate quest for love and understanding a bit of a comical farce.
So, we at the ACA got our piece of Prospect pie with some high-wattage artists to boot. Yet, there’s something about this exhibition that gnaws at me. Despite the occasional moments of excitement in some of the pieces such as the pomp and festivity of Bruce Davenport, Jr.’s fifteen-foot parade drawing or the grace and inventiveness of Paul Villinski’s “Boxed Birds” made from vintage LP’s, this exhibition is haunted. It’s haunted by disaster: the natural, the cultural and the financial kind. These specters of disaster taint everything. The show on the whole is a bit sullen and austere in tone and presentation, especially when compared to the liveliness of previous exhibitions. It seems to me that the life has been sucked out of the hall, and no matter how I look at it, this feeling doesn’t subside for very long. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of things in this exhibition that I like, yet very few that I love. I felt a little hope for a different perspective while I listened to Dan Cameron speak about the exhibition in the hall during his gallery talk on Friday, November 18. He brought a personal touch to the exhibition and filled us in on more of the history and connections these works share with the biennial.
However, as I write and reflect on “Propsect Lafayette” today, it’s as if the dark hand of recent history has laid the exhibition hall bare, and we are all exposed as well. It’s as if the whole exhibition is an extrapolation of Robin Rhode’s spare post-Katrina photograph “St. Bernard Parish.” This photograph is the true heart of “Prospect Lafayette.” When we at the ACA received “St. Bernard Parish,” it was unframed and without any means of support for hanging. We made a shelf for it, and protected it behind a sheet of plexiglass. Now, this image silently presides over a trip back into darkness. It’s a strange and foreboding journey for an exhibition that is meant to celebrate the history of the most momentous artistic achievement in Louisiana’s history. I suppose it was foolish to think that Louisiana’s more unpleasant history and death itself could be cheated in an exhibition like this. After all, the major impetus for Prospect New Orleans was the need for the city to recover from the devastation and despair of Hurricane Katrina. With “Prospect Lafayette,” the horror of recent history and the cold hand of death hover over this trip back in time and are closer than they seem. They whisper in one’s ear, veil one’s eyes, cut to the quick and make a home in one’s bones, even as the celebration of Prospect New Orleans 2 just begins to take flight. I suppose the gnawing I’m feeling is my inability to fully reconcile between the two modes – to find a comfortable place to rest my mind amidst the triumph and the bleakness of the recent past. Maybe that’s the great lesson and blessing of “Prospect Lafayette?” To vacillate between joy and despair is to be open to all that life has to offer until one stops and begins to see the world for what it really is: a great emptiness pregnant with possibility.
Now, can I get a “Laissez les bons temps roulez?” This is Louisiana after all, and no matter what, it’s always the appropriate response – whatever trip one is on.
by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
At this moment in time, the galleries in St. Claude Arts District in New Orleans are leading the charge for new art in the city. This movement has reinvigorated the art scene in the Crescent City which was sorely in need of a rush of new blood, ideas and perspective after decades of concerted efforts on the part of a few artists, curators, galleries, museums and arts organizations that laid the foundation for the art scene as a whole but, nevertheless, lead to stagnation. I have always attributed this stagnation to the fact that New Orleans was first and foremost a city in love with its music rather than its art. Also, the concentration of real art collectors, lovers and financial backers in the New Orleans has always been small as compared to art capitals such as New York City or Houston.
Yet, post-Katrina, the city astonishingly received an influx of artists and creative people who were attracted to the opportunity to live in this new wasteland/wild west frontier/cultureplex with the locals who stayed and rebuild the art scene with a two pronged approach: remake the scene in their own image while respecting New Orleans’ past and its present.
The Good Children Gallery is the product of the post-Katrina experiment which was spearheaded from its home neighborhood in the St. Claude Arts District. As with most of the art spaces in the district, it gathers its strength from numbers. It is a co-op gallery run by artist members with a DIY ethos. The gallery began its life as a scrappy, upstart alternative space. Fast forward to 2011, and practically every member of the co-op has a thriving career which involves exhibiting at the more tony spaces on Julia St. as well as spaces across the country. Many of them have also been involved in the Prospect New Orleans 1 Biennial and its place-holder spawn Prospsect 1.5. This year has finally brought Prospect New Orleans 2 to the city, and this time around, The Good Children Gallery has been designated by Prospect founder and curator Dan Cameron (who played an integral part in the reinvention of the city as an art destination) as a Prospect 2 Satellite space.
To commemorate this occasion, the members of the gallery decided to install a group exhibition, titled “Hit Refresh” highlighting their current work and practices individually. The job of curation was given to Nick Stillman. There’s no nod to a general theme or train of thought, although you could argue that the phrase “alive and kicking” would serve the exhibition well. The exhibition does have a twist, however. After December 4, 2011, the exhibition will be altered, and a new curator, Cameron Shaw, will be at the helm, hence, the exhibition title.
Walking into the gallery on the public opening night of Propsect 2 was like walking into an art minefield. The gallery was packed with people and art rubbing against one another. There were pieces hunkering down on the floor, pieces hanging from the ceiling, pieces occupying entire walls including the floor adjacent to the walls, and smaller pieces scattered around the rest of the space. It was a Good Children smorgasbord replete with an endless supply of well-wishers, connoisseurs, glitterati and gawkers as well as the artists themselves, and it was a little too much.
The “pack ’em in” aesthetic of the show didn’t exactly work well for each piece, especially considering the size of the space: the gallery itself only holds two rooms, neither of which one would call sizable. Personally, when it comes to group exhibitions, I’m of the opinion that one needs to give individual works in a group show the space to breathe and/or a substantial reason to be there, unless the overriding consensus is for the individual works to be subsumed by one another into an art melt of Borg-like proportions such as what’s going on at The Pearl now not far from Good Children. It’s evident that this wasn’t the idea for “Hit Refresh,” and the show suffers a bit for this. Add to this the fact there were no exhibition stickers anywhere in sight to clue viewers into what they were viewing and who it was from, (only an exhibition list with no corresponding numbers on the wall that I obtained after viewing everything), and Good Children and its curators missed the mark on the whole. I was left feeling what I term the “underwhelmingness of the overwhelmingness” of the exhibition. I felt a little withered.
However, it is a little difficult for me to pan the exhibition due to a few caveats. One being the fact that the exhibition itself is a co-op member group show. Exhibitions such as these are sometimes a necessary evil, in that every artist who is a member of the gallery should be represented by at least one work. The idea is to show off the vitality of the group as a whole. This makes for a difficult puzzle for any curator to solve, however. It involves piecing together work that doesn’t necessarily belong together in close quarters and is only being shown together because of the artists’ membership in the co-op. Despite what I felt that night (and I’m sure the zoo of viewers only amplified this), a mixed bag is the nature of this beast. Therefore, it is a little hard to slag this show for being true to its roots.
Also, there were some really standout pieces in the exhibition, . Lala Rascic delivered what I considered to be the best work in the exhibition, a split screen video of herself performing a jerky slapstick with her doppelganger in the midst of a cluttered yet elegant room. It was revealed to me that the “room” was actually a photograph of renowned psychologist and father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud’s study which Rascic pasted herself into. It’s quite an impressive feat and a funny nod to the subject of dreams, which Freud was quite fond of, as well as the comedy of Charlie Chaplain. I also got a sense that Rascic, an Eastern European emigre’ to NOLA, was poking fun at the stuffiness and turmoil of Eastern European culture and history.
Stephen Collier also presented a psycho-orgasm of an installation that has grown in my mind ever since I laid eyes on it. It involved pasting a wall with cardboard and dousing the whole thing with liquid patchouli incense (the bottle remained on a shelf in the installation). The artist then hung Native American Dream Catchers over the cardboard wall. He then placed a hot pink door with barely coherent scribbling in black over one side of the wall. I could make out something about Good Children and “helter skelter” on it. The whole shambolic thing was ugly and goofy. But looking back on it, it keeps becoming more incredible and exciting to me. The piece has sort of become a time bomb in my mind. Considering the punk rage coupled with the hippie hopes that are driving one half of current discourse over the state of affairs in America, Collier’s installation may be a perfect snapshot for our times and it deserves a second look.
Srdjan Loncar’s installation “Fix-A-Thing” is a deadpan serious installation about the absurd notion that you can fix broken things with photography. Loncar presents photographs of his fine art, fix-it man interventions, such as a wall patched with a photograph of the wall intact or a pothole covered up with photographs of asphalt. It’s all pretty laughable until one thinks about how often this ruse takes place in our politics and our culture. New Orleans as a city is a constant crumbling mess, riddled with urban blight, abandoned homes and horrible roads. Much of America’s infrastructure is in disrepair. Yet issues like these constantly are addressed with band-aid fixes if they are addressed at all. Loncar’s installation provocatively points a finger at our desire to make things (both the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual by extrapolation) look good without addressing the underlying cause of disrepair.
General Art Solutions’ diptych of holographic-like police officers in what I thought was riot gear (they’re really black and hard to see) definitely bring all that’s ominous about the police state to bear on the exhibition. These images reminded me of the “Ring Wraiths” from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. They are images of ruthless oppression and horror, despite the frame of LED lights around them which give the images a strip club marquee feel. I’d say the strangeness of the lights actually ups the horror ante of these policemen, adding a whiff of seduction to the proceedings. As any horror aficionado knows, horror and seduction go hand in hand.
Also of note was a hard-edged geometric abstract painting by Brian Guidry in greens, yellows and browns. The precision and prismatic force of this painting make it a visual work horse, and it overcomes the dull yawn of years of this stuff coming down the pike from other artists. One interesting aside about Guidry’s work is that his paintings such as this one are actually landscapes of sorts. Guidry creates colors for his paintings en plein air, sampling the colors of his surroundings. He then returns to his studio, makes larger batches and uses these paints for his work.
In conclusion, the work in “Hit Refresh” is a mix of good and great. However, these works don’t exactly play nice with one another. Hopping from one to the other, often negated the experience I had with the previous piece, rather than continuing the story. It would be nice to see what the exhibition would have been like with a little bit more breathing room or to see an exhibition in which all of these artists were making a concerted effort to produce a piece or several pieces of art together. Yet, it is what it is, a co-op group show, and on some level that’s “good’ as well. Considering that these artists are still in the game, still making good art, and even making waves locally and nationally, these guys deserve badges of honor simply for surviving and thriving, despite the mediocrity of the ever treacherous, co-op group show!
The exhibition “Hit Refresh” is at Good Children Gallery, St. Claude Arts District, 4037 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans, LA 70117 until December 4, 2011 when the exhibition will be “refreshed” with new curation and altered installation.