Tagged: painting

From the Mouths (and Hands) of Babes : The Student Arts Expo 2013

Student Arts Expo 2013

by Reggie Rodrigue

The latest post from the Acadiana Center for the Arts Blog is up! It’s on the Student Arts Expo which took place earlier this month during Artwalk. It’s also a treatise on the vital roll that arts education plays in Lafayette Parish’s schools! There’s also a story in there focusing on the most incredible student arts project ever – at least by my estimation! By the end of the article, you will also be able to determine whether you are more creative than a 2nd grader! Good luck on that one!

If you are interested in reading the article, please follow this link to the Acadiana Center for the Arts Blog!

Mardi Garage: Herb Roe, Festival International de Louisiane and a Prime Location

Courir de Mardi Gras - Number 14_HRoe_2010

Herb Roe, “Courir de Mardi Gras – Number 14″, oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″, 2010, photograph courtesy of the artist

Courir de Mardi Gras_Valse du Vacher_HRoe_2012

Herb Roe, “Courir de Mardi Gras – Valse du Vacher”, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″, 2012, photograph courtesy of the artist

Courir de Mardi Gras - McGees's Medley_HRoe_2013

Herb Roe, “Courir de Mardi Gras – McGee’s Medley”, oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″, 2013, photograph courtesy of the artist

Tee Courir-Number 27_HRoe_2013

Herb Roe, “Tee Courir – Number 27″, oil on canvas, 5″ x 7”, 2013, photograph courtesy of the artist

Tee Courir-Number 29_HRoe_2013

Herb Roe, “Tee Courir – Number 29″, oil on canvas, 7” x 5″‘, 2013, photograph courtesy of the artist

Danse à cheval II_HRoe_2012

Herb Roe, “Danse a’ Cheval II”, graphite on paper, 18″ x 24″, 2012, photograph courtesy of the artist

Cajun Fiddler-Number 1_Lino block print_HRoe_2012

Herb Roe, “Cajun Fiddler I”, hand-painted lino block print, 10″ x 12″, 2012, photograph courtesy of the artist

Cajun Fiddler-Number 2_Lino block print_HRoe_2012

Herb Roe, “Cajun Fiddler II”, hand-painted lino block print, 10″ x 12″, 2012, photograph courtesy of the artist

by Reggie Rodrigue

It’s late April, and Mardi Gras is just a memory in our collective rearview mirror in Louisiana. However, the bon temps keep rolling! Festival International de Louisiane is about to kick off this Wednesday, April 24, 2013 in Lafayette, LA. This 5-day world music festival juggernaut,”featuring six music stages, food court areas, street musicians and animators, arts and crafts boutiques, art galleries, beverage stands, cultural workshops, international cooking demonstrations and a world music store,” (www.festivalinternational.com) will take over Downtown Lafayette for another year.

In the midst of all of the international frivolity will be Lafayette artist Herb Roe. For this year’s installment of Festival International de Louisiane, Roe has  decided to open an exhibition of his “Courir de Mardi Gras” paintings, drawings and prints in the Garage, located at 205B West Vermillion St., Lafayette, LA, which is – surprise, surprise – a former garage. The location itself will be ideal for viewing Roe’s work as the Garage will be right beside the Vermilion St. Open Market once Festival begins.

To anyone from outside South Louisiana, Roe’s “Courir de Mardi Gras” works may seem like something out of a Surrealist phantasmagoria, with their grotesque depictions of otherworldly protagonists running amok in a bucolic setting. However, Roe is a died-in-the-wool realist painter, and his “Courir de Mardi Gras” works faithfully depict what the celebration of Mardi Gras in rural South Louisiana actually looks like in real life – minus the occasional post-apocalyptically red sky (You can’t keep it real all the time – as any Dave Chappelle fan knows).  In Roe’s work, one comes face-to-face with the bizarre yet rich tradition of the rural Mardi Gras.

Participants in the celebration make their own costumes, replete with homemade mesh masks and conical dunce caps. They ride on horseback through the small towns of Acadiana, creating mischief, teasing young children, performing feats of daring and chasing chickens donated by locals for the communal gumbo pot to be shared at the end of the day. In rural Acadiana, Mardi Gras is a day when the natural order of things is overturned and mayhem and merriment rule before the Catholic fasting season of Lent begins.

What’s especially engaging about Roe’s work is the perspective he has on this Louisiana tradition – for Roe isn’t originally from Louisiana. He was born in Ohio, and spent his childhood and adolescence between that state and Kentucky. Roe’s work with Lafayette, LA muralist Robert Dafford lead him to the Hub City and the subject of his current work. Certainly, he has spent a great deal of time living and working in Louisiana – enough to be considered a local by our standards. Yet, in his paintings of the Courir de Mardi Gras, one begins to understand his unique perspective of being an outsider on the inside track to one of Louisiana’s most mysterious and mystifying cultural experiences. Roe’s application of paint is almost clinical and diagnostic in it’s realism, and points toward his status as an observer outside of the scenarios which he is depicting. However, the scenarios are so removed from the daily currents of normal life that Roe’s realism is swallowed up in the tidal flow of color, pattern and pageantry that he is depicting. In this way, the wall between observer and participant breaks down in much the same way that the Mardi Gras celebration breaks down societal inhibitions and hierarchies. When viewing Roe’s “Courir de Mardi Gras” works, one succumbs to the ecstatic, drunkenness of the images in all of their obsessively detailed, hyperrealistic, stranger-than-fiction glory. They are a profound visual treat for anyone, whether you’re from Mamou, LA, Moscow or Madagascar, and the perfect visual accompaniment for the joyous celebration that is Festival International de Louisiane.

Herb Roe’s “Courir de Mardi Gras” exhibition at the Garage (205B West Vermillion St., Lafayette, LA) will be open during Festival International’s officially scheduled hours. For further information on Festival times and other Festival related information, visit its website, http://festivalinternational.com/site.php.

To visit Herb Roe’s artist website, follow this link: http://www.chromesun.com/

Poetics, Paraphernalia and Paint: The Artworks of John Hathorn

by Reggie Michael Rodrigue

“All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

“One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters…But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.”
Charles Baudelaire

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “A Note on Red,” oil on canvas, glass, oil, pigment, metal, string, 2000, collection of Lucy Leslie, photograph courtesy of the author

Near the entrance to “John Hathorn – A Retrospective” at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, there is a small, rather unassuming painting on the title wall of the exhibition. It is a vertically oriented, rectangular canvas which has been treated with a thin, umber, oil paint wash and slathered with a thick impasto of red oil paint which virtually obliterates the support surface. The red paint was probably built up with the help of a palette knife over the course of several days or weeks or months … maybe even years?  The skin of the painting is as luscious and dense as cake frosting, but looking at it feels more like looking a slab of bloody meat. An old specimen vile containing powdered, red pigment hangs from the bottom of the canvas, calling extra attention to the not-so-secret ingredient that makes this painting hit one square between the eyes. One’s pulse quickens. One’s mouth moistens. Desire takes hold, and the color red is in the driver’s seat.

Hathorn’s “A Note on Red” is a sensual powerhouse; yet there is something extremely lucid and cerebral about it as well with that preserved vile of pigment hanging there from that red dwarf of a canvas, proclaiming that emotion is as easy to produce in the human species as parading colored dust before our eyes. There is poetry in that idea, despite (or, possibly, because of) the Pavlovian inanity of it.

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “Suspension in Red,” oil, tar on canvas, wood, cloth, rope and metal. 1985, collection of H. Gordon Brooks II, photograph courtesy of the author

In the heart of Hathorn’s exhibition, another painting, “Suspension in Red,” continues the artist’s exploration of the expressive power of the color. Here, the color red sets the scene for an abstract treatise on tension.

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “The Grammar of Verbenas (For Darrel Bourque),” oil and conte’ crayon on canvas, 2012, photograph courtesy of the author

Further along in the exhibition, on the back wall of the ACA’s Main Gallery, one can view Hathorn’s “The Grammar of Verbenas (For Darrel Bourque),” a monolithic painting composed of a cataract of paint strokes, smudges and drips in midnight blue, black, burnt sienna and cadmium yellow on a white canvas. A scrawled line from a poem by Louisiana’s 2009-2010 Poet Laureate, Darrell Bourque, hems the right edge of the composition like the inscriptions one can find on the edges of Japanese and Chinese prints. The inscription reads “one burnt water flowing into another burnt water.”

Here, the abstract image is primary, yet the inscription – the addition of language – adds focus and direction to the image. Language makes the image more concrete and discernible, pinning it down while it seems to still wriggle with a mysterious life force of its own. Yet, the inscription leaves one to question what exactly “burnt water” is. The answer lies in the meaning behind Bourque’s poem, which concerns the consummation and obliteration of the dichotomous elements of creation to create new substances or new life – hence the paradox of “burnt water.” It is a metaphor for the way that oppositional forces and drives engender creation.

This fusion of opposites – the sensual and the cerebral – is the basis for all art. However, John Hathorn makes this fusion something overt. He makes the connection between the mind and the body the subject of his art by juxtaposing the sheer beauty of paint doing what it does on canvas with objects from the “real world” and fragments of literature, creating a trinity of human thought, gesture and artifact that stands in for the sum total of human aspiration and creation. In the end, he falls short of this goal, but anyone foolhardy enough to attempt such a thing would. What he does is manage to bring us closer to the goal which is valid in and of itself if one ascribes to the idea that “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “Raft,” wood, rope, stone, salt, metal, oil, cloth, paper, ink, floor to ceiling suspended installation, 2012, photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

Detail from John Hathorn’s “Raft,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

Detail from John Hathorn’s “Raft,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

Detail from John Hathorn’s “Raft,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

Detail from John Hathorn’s “Raft,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

Detail from John Hathorn’s “Raft,” photograph courtesy of the author

Speaking of journeys, it is somewhat easy to fantasize about taking one on Hathorn’s sublime “Raft.” The sculpture is a wooden platform covered with rugs, paintings, drawings, personal notes and other objects which hovers inches above the floor of the gallery and is suspended from the ceiling via a sturdy rope. The other end of the rope is wrapped and tied around a wooden palette topped by stone slabs and salt blocks on the other side of the gallery. The piece dominates the entrance to the exhibition.

Hathorn’s “Raft” looks like a cross between a raft, a magic carpet, a cabinet of curiosities, a studio, a DaVinci-esque science project and a construction site – all things which speak to exoticism, travel, transformation from one state to another, and/or a belief in or a hope for a better future.  It is a highly personal, artistic gesture in that Hathorn used lumber left over from the construction of the studio he shares with his wife, artist Mary Ellen Leger, to make the piece. Add to that the personal ephemera and paraphernalia from Hathorn’s own practice in the completed studio, and one has access to a slice of the artist’s life, work and process combined.

Yet, Hathorn’s aspirations for the piece go beyond the personal and move toward the universal and the Romantic. One of the inspirations for the piece is Theodore Gericault’s masterpiece “The Raft of the Medusa,” a 19th century painting depicting the aftermath of the shipwreck of a French frigate off the coast of Senegal in 1816. Another inspiration for “Raft” is William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” which unfolds around the central character of Prospero, a deposed duke and a magus who is trapped on a deserted island. In the play, Prospero plots to regain his title by unleashing a storm on his enemies while they are at sea which causes their ship to wreck, forcing them onto the shores of Prospero’s island where he reigns supreme.  Between these allusions and the physical manifestation of “Raft” itself, one is set adrift to peruse the individual materials that together compose the work and ponder what it means to seek and find refuge in uncertain times. In Hathorn’s case, text, image and personal effects fuse to create a secure and fertile ground upon which his life and creative spirit thrive.

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

Installation view of John Hathorn’s work table display in “John Hathorn – A Retropsective,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

A painting on John Hathorn’s work table display in “John Hathorn – A Retrospective,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

An assemblage on John Hathorn’s work table display in “John Hathorn – A Retrospective,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

An assembalge on John Hathorn’s work table display in “John Hathorn – A Retrospective,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

An assemblage on John Hathorn’s work table display in “John Hathorn – A Retrospective,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

An assemblage suspended over John Hathorn’s work table display in “John Hathorn – A Retrospective,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

Two assemblages suspended over John Hathorn’s work table display in “John Hathorn – A Retrospective,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

A waste basket filled with used paint tubes near John Hathorn’s work table display in “John Hathorn – A Retrospective,” photograph courtesy of the author

A more diffuse but still compelling assembly within the exhibition is Hathorn’s work table topped with diminutive paintings and rough-hewn, little objets d’art, some of which were made as tokens of affection for his wife. The alchemical role of the artist is on display here, exposing the small but fruitful experiments and transformations of paint, objects and texts which underpin the larger works in the exhibition.  With the table display, one can gain a better perspective on the artist’s process, and it is one of my favorite parts of the exhibition. I especially love the waste basket filled with used paint tubes near the table. Rather than being a side note on waste and consumption, it’s proximity to the table gives it the air of something poetic, beautiful and grand. It is transfigured into an accidental monument to love and passion for one’s craft.

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “Large Palette,” oil on wood mounted on steel rod in wood base, 1994-1996, one of two individual palette sculptures on display in “John Hathorn – Retrospective,” photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “Cardinal,” oil on canvas, steel plumb, string, wood, oil on wooden ironing board, 1996, photograph courtesy of the author

Elsewhere in the exhibition, one comes into contact with more paintings-cum-sculptures that explore the various themes inherent in Hathorn’s ouevre: the physical qualities of thickly impastoed paint, emphasis on the expressive and symbolic qualities of color, the elevation and suspension of objects, and an interrogation of the nature of painting and sculpture.

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “Large Bather,” oil on canvas, wood, glass, oil, pigment, 1997, collection of Darrell and Karen Bourque, photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, ‘The Grammar of Water (Seventh State),” oil on canvas, 2006, photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “The Grammar of Water (Twelfth State),” oil on canvas, 2006, photograph courtesy of the author

There is also the running theme of water through the exhibition. Beside the aforementioned “The Grammar of Verbenas (For Darrell Bourque)” and “Raft,” with their allusions to water,  there is the presence of “Large Bather” and “The Grammar of Water (Seventh State)” and “The Grammar of Water (Twelfth State).” In “Large Bather,” Hathorn aspires to capture some of the abstract play between water and light in some of the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn’s paintings, such as “Woman Bathing” of 1654. In Hathorn’s painting, we are given the tenebrous atmosphere of Rembrandt’s background, thick, painterly gestures standing in for the rich cloth depicted behind the Rembrandt’s bathing beauty and a bottle of amber liquid on a shelf to exemplify the interplay between light and water.  With the “Grammar of Water” paintings, Hathorn simply focuses on color and gesture to achieve a painterly language to convey water’s various guises.

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “The Baudelaire Sketches (The Silence of the Void)” oil and charcoal on canvas, cord, metal, water faucet, 2009-2010, photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “The Desire to Paint (On Baudelaire,” oil on canvas, oil on wood, typewriter, glass, oil and string, 1998, photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “The Benefits of the Moon (On Baudelaire)”, oil on canvas, music stand, oil on panel, stone, oil can, wood, glass, pigment, ivory, 1998-2002, photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “The Baudelaire Sketches (Of a Miraculous Plant)” oil and charcoal on canvas, 2009-2012, photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

John Hathorn, “The First Word of a Poem (On Rilke),” oil and conte’ on canvas, 2012, photograph courtesy of the author

The allusions to water continue in Hathorn’s “Baudelaire Sketches” with the deployment of a suspended faucet in the painting “The Baudelaire Sketches (The Silence of the Void).” Here Hathorn rifts on the work of famed French poet Charles Baudelaire, inscribing lyrics from a poem by the author directly onto the canvas in a black scrawl and using the words as a generative element to create an image of absence. The faucet serves to trigger the memories that we all have of faulty faucets leaking water loudly in otherwise silent rooms and the loneliness and isolation of the sound.

Baudelaire looms large in Hathorn’s work because, according the artist himself, Baudelaire “used words as a physical reality … Like Baudelaire’s abstraction of language, I use paint’s physicality as the language of my art making” (from an artist’s statement in “John Hathorn – A Retrospective”). In a very real sense, Hathorn and the French poet are spiritual and artistic kin, sucking the marrow out of the physical engagements of life and the sensations they engender and transmuting these things into an art of felt experience, symbolic inquiry, and metaphysical significance. Hathorn views his work as a form of correspondence across the centuries between himself and Baudelaire. This, among other correspondences, creates a temporal shift in much of the work that seems retardaire, nostalgic or simply elegiac. The irony here is that Baudelaire was considered an avatar of modern literature in his own time and a prototype for the avante garde of the 20th century.

Another literary figure Hathorn communes with is the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The poet’s work generally juxtaposes stark yet lyrical physical imagery with a transcendent spirituality poised on the cusp of a pantheistic mysticism and existential angst. Though his work comes from the turn of the 19th into the 2oth century, Rilke seems to be a poet for our times as well in that the forces set into play in his own works are forces that we recognize in our own lives.  His naked and direct, yet elegant, lines appeal to our sensibility for simple, unadorned language while between the lines, one gets the sense that he is reaching out for something far more obscure, yet profoundly nourishing. One can get the same sense of simplicity and profundity from Hathorn’s work.

There are other antecedents for Hathorn’s work as well, and they come from the visual arts. However, they aren’t mentioned in the exhibition: they are the Abstract Expressionsists, namely Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning, and the group of artists that immediately superseded them, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. In their combined works lie the seeds for everything that John Hathorn undertakes and subtly yet personally transforms in his own work. He is in their debt for certain. This is no slight, however. It is the position of all artists to be in debt to someone or something. If we are worth anything, we choose to stand on the shoulders of giants.

With all of its correspondences with authors and artists from the past, Hathorn’s work may seem like a throwback to another era with it’s denial of the trademark tropes of contemporary art: the fixation on advertising, graphic design, and celebrity, the slick appeal of minimalism, the shock of graphic and taboo imagery, the chic deshabille of a pile of  trash thrown together, the divisiveness of identity art, and the transitory and shape-shifting nature of digitalia and the New Aesthetic, along with the theatrics of performance art and relational aesthetics.

All of these things seem a long way from Hathorn’s ouevre, and rightly so. For Hathorn has conceived of a world for himself that operates at a slower pace, is more contemplative, quieter, subtler and richer than the outside world, if not as complex. The conundrum is that a complex world with ever-increasing demands on time and resources often breeds glib and facile art or conversely art that is so chaotic as to leave one feeling lost in it.

Therefore, it is an invaluable treat to be in the presence of an art which allows for a slow read and a chance to look back into the vast sea of art and literature from the past – not to dredge for kitsch, mind you, but to rediscover what is valuable, timeless and essential and return it to the light of day. Hathorn reminds us that we are most human when we contemplate the connection between mind, body and spirit. This connection has sustained humanity on it’s long journey through the centuries.
As long as we continue to forge and refine this connection, we will find comfort and refuge in our creations – the glorious life-rafts of our own making.

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

Installation view of “John Hathorn – A Retrospective” at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, photograph courtesy of the author

John Hathorn - A Retrospective

Installation view of “John Hathorn – A Retrospective” at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, photograph courtesy of the author

“John Hathorn – A Retrospective” is on view at the Acadiana Center for the Arts until April 13, 2013.

Ave Aunt Jemima, in Excelis Deo!

by Reggie Rodrigue

Kneel down and tremble before your new god, world! Like a phoenix reborn from the ashes of a bombed-out antebellum kitchen, she has arisen! Her name is … AUNT JEMIMA, and she’s servin’ up a plate full of revenge pancakes for you sorry bitches to choke on … along with some sweetness and motherly love!

Detail of the central mural of the exhibition “Uncle Tom’s Watermelon Rebellion of ’89” by Johnathan “JJ” Wilson and Pat Phillips

At least, that’s the tone of most of Johnathan “JJ” Wilson and Pat Phillips’ exhibition “Uncle Tom’s Watermelon Rebellion of ’89” in the James Mallia Gallery of the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, LA. The title of the exhibition is a mash-up of the anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin“, the stereotypical connection between African-American’s and watermelon, and the birth years of Wilson and Phillips.

In the center of the gallery lies a devastating mural by Wilson and Phillips of that icon of African American subservience, Aunt Jemima or Mammy. She has been remade in the likeness of the Hindu goddess of time, change, destruction, empowerment and cosmic benevolence, Kali. Her robust and corpulent frame towers over a waffle cone and a bed of ice cream, complete with candy sprinkles and a cherry on top! Like many Hindu gods, Wilson and Phillips’s Aunt Jemima is endowed with a multitude of heads and a host of arms which wield various talismans and weapons including a sword, a rooster talon, a lollipop, a plate of ashen pancakes, railroads spikes and two effigies. One is a blue corpse; the other effigy is of John Henry, the steel-driving man of American folklore.

The mural is a joint salvo by the two artists, whose aims were to redraft the exhausted and offensive stereotypes of African American folklore into images of subversive power and authority. In this sense , the duos’ mural of Aunt Jemima turns a symbol of African American/female servitude into a seething totem of cosmic motherhood as well as cosmic wrath. She represents all that is beyond and within time and creation – a notable step up from the menial pigeonhole that is the role of the mammy. Another notable facet of the Aunt Jemima mural is how form follows function here. As the mural is meant to flesh out the multiple hidden aspects locked inside the character of Aunt Jemima, Wilson and Phillips follow suit pictorially – blending their two distinct graphic styles into the depiction. Throughout the mural Phillips’ thick swaths of spray paint, squat modeling and his “staying within the lines” color-blocking give way to Wilson’s more nuanced and obsessive, calligraphic line and his play with accidental paint drips. This mural is a tour-de-force in both aesthetic and political terms.

From the mural, Wilson and Phillips diverge on their own paths, creating two distinct wings for their own personal works on either side of the gallery. Wilson’s work concerns the character of Lil’ Sambo and Phillips work centers around the folk hero, John Henry. Both icons act as masculine consorts to the central figure of Aunt Jemima.

All of Wilson’s works are painted on cheap plywood squares. Upon these abject grounds, Wilson deploys a palimpsest of painterly abstraction and a succession of prints all based from a single drawing of Lil’ Sambo which he produced at Freetown Studios.

Uncle Tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: Betrayal of the King,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012

Uncle Tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Ogre,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012

Uncle Tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Tyrant,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012

Uncle Tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Heart,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012

Uncle Tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Protector,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012

Uncle Tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Johnathan “JJ” Wilson, “The Six Betrayals of Sambo: The Betrayal of the Martyr,” acrylic paint on wood, 2012

Yet, this image of Lil’ Sambo, it ain’t yo’ Pappy’s! In the classic tales, Lil’ Sambo is blacker than tar, has bug eyes, huge white lips and is constantly getting in trouble when his dimwitted schemes backfire. Wilson, on the other hand, depicts him as a decapitated head with three eyes, three tongues protruding from a gaping maw adorned with a grill made of crucifixes, three earrings on each ear and a tuft of hair that doubles as an atomic mushroom cloud.

He is the embodiment of the Holy Trinity of Christianity, the more base yet cosmic/chthonic forces of pagan mythology such as the Greek Titans, or even such literary characters as H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz. He is simultaneously the way toward salvation and oblivion, and in this sense can be compared to the trickster gods and deities of various world mythologies, ie: the Norse God Loki, the Native American spirit animals Coyote and Raven, or more germanely, the Yoruban Orisha of enlightenment through chaos, Eshu or Papa Legba (who is also associated with the number three).

By depicting Lil’ Sambo, in this light, Wilson manages to wrest him from the curse of being perceived as an incompetent buffoon to the stature of a divine being who uses deception and betrayal to shock the human race into a finer-tuned perception of reality as a process that necessarily involves moving through pain toward successive plateaus of ever-widening enlightenment.

The signifying and subversion continue on Pat Phillips’ wing of the exhibition with his works devoted to bringing the tall tale of John Henry, the steel-driving man, up to date. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, John Henry was said to be a freed slave who worked as a steel-driver for an American railroad company during the Reconstruction Era. Steel driving involved hammering holes into solid rock by hand. The holes would then be used to house dynamite, which, when detonated, would clear paths for railroad tracks through the American landscape of the West. It was through the back-breaking work of men like John Henry that the expansion of America across the continent really began in earnest. Railroads were vital to this expansion, and manual labor provided by men like Henry, along with prisoners in chain gangs, was crucial to the success of America’s Doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Without the speed of locomotive travel and its ability to deliver supplies, the assimilation and domestication of the Wild West would have been a much more difficult and time consuming proposition.

At the time, America was knee-deep in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and the machine was in ascendance. A steam-powered hammer had been invented, and it threatened to displace the steel-drivers. According to the legend, John Henry challenged his boss to a race between man and machine to save his job and the jobs of his fellow African American steel-drivers. By the end of the story, Henry is said to have bested the machine, but not without giving his life for the cause. Upon beating the jackhammer, Henry collapses on the ground and dies from exhaustion.

In the decades since the tall tale came about, John Henry has surfaced in pop culture in a variety of songs, plays, books and advertisements. Most notably, he has been used as a symbol of human dignity in the face of global mechanization and exploitative labor practices in the workplace by labor movements and as a symbol of racial pride, unity and tolerance by civil rights activists. Within Phillips’s work, all of these associations come into play, but he also looks to John Henry as a patron saint for graffiti artists and taggers who work on trains and/or in train yards. In Phillips’ view, they both are underdogs who find their own ways to challenge the dominant systems which conspire to oppress and devalue them as creative individuals.

Uncle tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Pat Phillips, “Henry vs. the Machine,” mixed media on wood panel, 2012

Phillips is a long time graffiti artist and tagger himself, and as such, his style of painting and his subject matter draw from this experience. Aerosol paint, flash pen work and distressed surfaces are used by Phillips to connect his work to the graffitti and tagging he did in the past as well as the graffiti and tagging taking place in the street today. Though his style is rather simplistic, it serves a definite purpose as a delivery system for the complex compositions and difficult subject matter he conjures.

With “Henry vs. the Machine,” we are witness to the aftermath of the battle royale between John Henry and the steam-powered jack hammer. Yet, Henry is in the guise of a boxer. The only hint that this is a painting of John Henry comes from his name painted on the bottom of the canvas and the occasional railroad spike flying through space after our protagonist throws the KO punch that explodes the machine into it’s constituent parts (along with some teeth?). It’s telling that in the center of this explosion hovers a US marshal’s badge, equating the defunct machine with American authority/oppression. It becomes apparent that all is smoke and mirrors in this work. Henry is a stand-in for every African American who has challenged the system, including the boxers Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali and all those African American graffiti artists and taggers who have used the street and the lowly materials at their disposal to express themselves when self-expression was something one had to fight for. In many ways, it still is.

Uncle Tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Pat Phillips, “Be Big and Strong Like John Henry (Eat Pickled Pigs Feet),” mixed media on wood panel, 2013

A similar sort of subterfuge and appropriation is used by Phillips in his painting “Be Big and Strong Like John Henry (Eat Pickled Pigs Feet).” In the painting, a depiction of Henry’s glistening, muscled arm and hand busts a can of pickled pigs feet (a soul food staple) open as a gaggle of hands grope for the feet before a background mimicking the American Flag, except the stars have been replaced by railroad spikes. Here, Phillips conflates John Henry with the cartoon character of Popeye with his steroidal can of spinach. It’s a sly appropriation of cultural power wrapped-up in a visually engaging and humorous depiction.

Uncle Tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Pat Phillips, “Hello My Name Is (John Henry),”  mixed media on wood panel, 2013

Another conceptually brilliant suite of paintings by Phillips are his diminutive “name tag” paintings – a series that concisely tells the audience what the story of John Henry is about by way of tagging Henry’s name on a depiction of a name tag.

Uncle Tom's Watermelon Rebellion of '89

Pat Phillips, “Chain Gang,” mixed media on wood panel, 2012

However, the humor and whimsy inherent in Phillips’ other pieces is nowhere to be found in his wall sculpture “Chain Gang,” which consists of two planks of wood painted in prison stripes, tagged with prison ID’s and chained together. It’s silent, post-minimalist power induces a pause and a shudder not unlike the sort of reaction one has standing before a grave – a shocker in an otherwise visually raucus exhibition. It offers a moment of quiet reflection about how far we’ve come, and how much farther we have to go as a society to truly be free. Afterall, slavery as a legal institution isn’t that far off in our collective rearview mirror. Its ramifications are still being felt in our culture, and chain gangs are still around. They didn’t go anywhere. Today, in many ways, slavery and forced-labor have just been either hidden from view or euphemistically tarted-up for the approval of the general public in America. Human trafficking victims (mostly females used for the purposes of prostitution), illegal aliens and guest workers toiling for pitiable wages, the teeming numbers of lower class citizens in this country who are stuck in dead-end, part time jobs that pay a sickening minimum wage or even less than that without the benefit of stable healthcare, all of the people around who are in debt up to their eyeballs due to “living beyond their means” when the deck was always stacked against them, the large numbers of African American males that get shuttled into the prison system and are forced to perform “free community service” due to their bad choices made in communities where there usually weren’t many other choices to begin with, and (lets not forget) the 3rd world sweatshop workers who make all the things we buy – all of these people are 21st century slaves in one form or another.

All that I’ve got to say at this point is: Oh Most Holy and Divine Aunt Jemima, roll-up your sleeves! We’ve still got work to do!

As another civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte, once sang, “Day O! Day-Ay-O-Oh! Daylight come an me wanna go home!”

Let’s get off this banana boat, y’all!

Other LINKS:

* Harry Belafonte singing “The Banana Boat Song”

* Public Enemy singing “Fight the Power”

* Lightning-Long John (Old song by a chain gang)

* Lead Belly singing “John Henry”

* Betye Saar: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima

* An overview of the artworks of Kara Walker

* Freight Train Graffiti in Los Angeles

Beauty and the Beasts in the New Realm: Amy Guidry at Lafayette’s Ballet Academie

Amy Guidry

“Adaptation”

acrylic on cnavas

36″ x 48″

Amy Guidry

“Beginning”

acrylic on canvas

40″ x 30″

Amy Guidry

“Complete”

acrylic on canvas

30″ x 40″

Amy Guidry

“Freedom”

acrylic on canvas

48″ x 24″

Amy Guidry

“Renewal”

acrylic on canvas

48″ x 24″

Amy Guidry

“Tranquility”

acrylic on canvas

30″ x 40″

Amy Guidry

“Was It a Dream?”

acrylic on canvas

40″ x 30″

by Reggie Michael Rodrigue

Dorothea Tanning, the grande dame of American Surrealism, passed from this plain of existence into what I can only imagine to be the ether, the world of dream, earlier this year on January 31, 2012 in New York City. Tanning’s artistic output is vast- it straddled much of the 20th century. Considering that she died at 101, it was only natural for her work to mutate and take on many forms and styles, including abstraction, as she evolved as an artist. Toward the end of her life, after her husband Surrealist master Max Ernst passed, she took on the roles of writer and poet as well. Yet, it is her early work, grounded in figuration and Surrealism, that remains the touchstone of her canon to this day.  Tanning’s paintings such as “Birthday” and “A Little Night Music” take their viewers into a cloistered inner-world of feminine desire and becoming that is frank yet ultimately enigmatic. These works pictorially take place inside domestic settings, yet fantastical flora and fauna share these interiors with her women.

For instance, “Birthday” is a self portrait inside a maze-like home. In the portrait, Tanning stands in a doorway, wearing an anachronistic costume which includes a train of vegetation, and her breasts are exposed. It’s as if she just walked into the room and confronted the viewer. Yet, the look upon her countenance is ambiguous. One would expect shock to register on her face. Instead, the viewer is confronted with a visage that is on the edge of equanimity and fatigue. A lemur-like creature with wings huddles in the foreground of the painting, looking more stunned than the artist herself.

In Lafayette, LA, Artist Amy Guidry began the body of work she is currently showing at the Downtown Lafayette Ballet Academie shortly before Tanning’s death. There is serendipity at play here. Out of a strange coincidence comes a passing of the torch. Guidry’s work on display shares so many affinities with Tanning’s work that it is almost uncanny. Here’s the check list:

1. surreal figuration – check!

2. self portraiture – check!

3. fantastical flora and fauna – check!

4. allusions to female desire – check!

5. allusions to becoming – check!

6. unusual setting – check!

7. flamboyant fashions – check!

Despite all these correspondences, Guidry isn’t just repeating history, however. There’s a new sensibility to these paintings that probably could not have been registered in Tanning’s world of the 1940’s. Whereas, Tanning painted herself and her heroines in slightly ominous domestic settings, Guidry paints herself in a forest of birch trees floating in a white void. In symbolic terms, Guidry has created a tabula rasa ready for a new investigation into what it means to be a Western woman in the 21st Century.

In Tanning’s era, women were still viewed, on the whole, as second-class citizens whose main occupation was being “barefoot and pregnant,” regardless of the work of the earlier Suffragettes, female sweat shop workers of the late 19th and early 20th century, and the many women who entered the work force in the absence of men during WWII.  As soon as the war ended, hard working women were “put in the their place” once again, and were there until the dawn of the Feminist movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s.  It’s hard not to think that Tanning was responding to her times when she painted her Surrealist masterworks.  This is just conjecture, but she was painting a moment when women were caught between freedom (self determination) and gender entrapment – between what she and her sex needed or wanted and to what society as whole said that women could aspire.

Old habits die hard, and the ideas that Tanning was grappling with haven’t exactly died. Women still make less than men. They still have to deal with the issues of self-determination and their place in society – the recent brouhaha over writer Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic Monthly article about the debate over women being able to “have it all” is testament to that (Artinfo got into the fray and collected a gaggle of responses from female art professionals here.) However, a sea change is currently under way. Today, there are more women enrolled in universities than men. This means that there will soon be more educated women in the workforce than men, and the ranks of female professionals and politicians in the upper echelons of society continue to expand. The glass ceiling that women  have been under for so long seems to be cracking (the recent conservative obsession with the politics of women’s bodies only serves to underscore the progress women have made).  With this comes a new conception of what it means to be a woman. The title of Amy Guidry’s exhibition “New Realm” says it all.

In fact, (and I’m not entirely sure whether Guidry is aware of this, but…) in classic symbolism, birch trees signify new beginnings and a cleansing of the past. I spoke with the artist about her use of birch trees in the paintings at her opening, being curious about their use and considering that birch trees are not typically associated with Louisiana. Guidry told me that she was simply attracted to them for their visual quality. In the space of the white void and the cleansed forest, Guidry has unconsciously cleared the way for women to advance from their cloistered existence in domesticity into the future – and according to Guidry’s artworks, the future will be all about reconnecting to nature with women at the vanguard of this movement … and wearing some pretty fierce clothing! It might sound laughable, but if one is going to fight the good fight, one might as well look good doing it (Guidry is quite the snappy dresser, by the way). The clothing Guidry depicts herself in registers as simultaneously regal, militaristic, feminine, antique and contemporary, and the attention to the details of these garments is phenomenal. One could get lost in the shimmering folds and lacey effects that she marshals. This attention to detailed figuration also applies to the rest of her subjects from goldfish, butterflies, birds (especially the glorious pheasant departing Guidry’s mouth in “Freedom”), and flowers to her own lips, rosy pallor, and outsized heart in “Complete.”

The work goes much deeper than that, however. Guidry also seems to have found a way past the old conundrum of “the Madonna” and “the whore,” the two standard/opposing symbolic measurements of womanhood in patriarchal society. In Guidry’s “New Realm” paintings, a perfect balance is struck between spirituality and sensuality, with neither overpowering the other. One gets the sense that Guidry has a finely calibrated sense of self through these works, even when she is depicting herself in some sort of rapturous moment such as “Beginning.”  All together, the works in “New Realm” call to mind an incongruous but ultimately satisfying mix of Persephone, Joan of Ark, St. Francis of Assisi, Bjork, Kate Moss, Kazimir Malevich (the master of composing figures against a white background) and, as mentioned above,  Dorthea Tanning. Somehow, it all works and makes sense. It’s basically about the ability to choose one’s direction or directions without distraction, without shackles, and without having to ask for permission from the powers that be. Guidry seems to be saying that the real power resides inside all of us, whether we are innies, outties are something in between. We can all be “forces of nature” as long as we tend to ourselves and our surroundings with diligence, curiosity, wisdom and love.

Amy Guidry’s “New Realm” is on view at the Ballet Academie (200 Polk St., Lafayette, LA 70501) for the month of July until August’s 2nd Saturday Artwalk.

Eugene Martin at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art on Oxford American

 

Eugene Martin

“A Great Concept”

1987

My fourth article for Oxford American has hit the virtual news stand! It’s about the current mini-retrospective exhibition “The Art of Eugene Martin: A Great Concept” at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, MS. Martin is one of the largely unsung heroes of Southern Art, and the article discusses his life, his work and the exhibition itself. It’s a truly inspiring read if I do say so myself – check it out here.

 

A video of Eugene J. Martin’s Work at the Turn of This Century

In honor of the upcoming retrospective of artist Eugene J. Martin‘s work at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, MS which runs from June 5, 2012 to December 1, 2012, we here at Louisianaesthetic thought it would be nice to share a video of Martin’s work which was completed at the dawn of the new millennium in his home studio in Lafayette, LA!  Thanks to the efforts of his lovely and tenacious wife, Ms. Suzanne Fredericq and her efforts at www.eugenemartinart.com, we have this beautiful document! I hope you enjoy it!