by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
“Art is a fruit that grows in man, like a fruit on a plant, or a child in its mother’s womb.” – Jean Arp, artist
It is a fantastical peculiarity of language in New Orleans and other parts of South Louisiana that few outsiders understand. This peculiarity, one among many, is the phrase “makin’ groceries.” It derives from the French phrase “faire son marche'” or “to do one’s market shopping.” The verb “faire” can either be used to connote “to do” or “to make.” Thanks to the poetic imprecision of the French language and a typically bull-in-the-china-shop translation into English, we in South Louisiana now “make groceries” when we go shopping. It is as if we whip the goods we buy into being from thin air. When one thinks about it, the phrase is particularly artistic in nature.
This notion becomes evident in the grand scheme of a tightly curated exhibition currently running at Staple Goods Gallery in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans. The name of the gallery derives from the history of the building in which it is housed. In its previous incarnation, the building was used as a corner grocery store. The gallery’s co-op members decided to pay tribute to this history through the name, as well as the gallery’s motto: “We believe that art is a staple of life, not a luxury.” Hence, Staple Goods’ members decided to mount an exhibition titled “Fresh Produce,” which highlights recent work from the collective for the gallery’s present run as a Prospect New Orleans 2 Biennial Satellite. Nary a fruit or vegetable is in sight within the gallery; however, it’s pretty evident that making thoughtful and articulate art is high on this collective’s list. Gallery members included in the present version of the exhibition are Thomasine Barlett and Minka Stoyanova, Aaron Collier, William DePauw, Daniel Kelly IV, Anne C. Nelson, and Cynthia Scott.
The mother and daughter team of Thomasine Bartlett and Minka Stoyanova offer a mid-sized photograph that documents a series of living tableaux the pair orchestrated for the exhibition “Hot Night” at the now-defunct KK Projects/Life is Art Foundation. The photograph is titled “Hot Mammas of KK Projects” after the tableaux they produced which were titled “Hot Mammas” in toto. According to the “Hot Night” press release, Bartlett and Stoyanova aimed to “recreate period ensembles depicting 6 Louisiana women whose lives predate Air Conditioning. Live model/performers sit, sweat, and remove clothing as they attempt to endure the late summer heat, a reflection of fashion’s unerring battle with environment.” I never saw the original tableaux myself, but Bartlett and Stoyanova’s photograph manages to quicken the pulse, even though it’s pretty tame by contemporary standards. It recalls Ernest J. Bellocq‘s feted photographs of New Orleans prostitutes in the notorious red light district of Storyville. Bellocq lovingly and lustfully photographed these women of the night around the turn of the last century. There’s also something of the titillation of Jean August Dominique Ingres’s 19th century harem paintings in Bartlett and Stoyanova’s photograph. However, the commentary that accompanies the photograph cuts through the “heat” to bring awareness of the constriction and brutality that women have endured through the ages in the name of fashion, especially in terms of undergarments such as corsets. Yet another thing that adds a layer of complication to the photograph is the fact that it depicts a happening at KK Projects. The name of the artistic enterprise lives in infamy now in New Orleans, as owner Kirsha Kaechele has abandoned her project space, which has fallen into disrepair since she left the city, to pursue other creative endeavors. They say that fashion is fickle; apparently, Kaechele is as well. As for Bartlett and Stoyanova’s photograph, the descriptives “complicated” and “loaded” don’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Speaking of complicated and loaded things, three paintings by artist Aaron Collier are on view in “Fresh Produce.” Collier is a bit of a bipolar artist. One minute he’s drawing highly refined, conceptual/representational drawings and the next minute he’s cramming gestural and geometric abstraction onto a single oil canvas (typically gesture wins). Either way, it’s a game with high stakes that involves an exploration of discreet moments set against the backdrop of eternity. When viewing Collier’s abstract work which is on display here, one becomes more aware of time and the individual moments that form the fabric of one’s life within it through the accretion of colorful gestures on his canvases. Whereas most abstraction has the feeling of holding together – of unifying to become one thing – Collier’s abstraction always seems to be on the verge of exploding into its constituent parts. It’s as if his canvases and the human perception of time are the only things holding them together. In this way, his paintings seem incidental, rather than summarizing likes the works of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950’s and 60’s. A painting such as “Let There Be Floyd” illustrates this well. Out of a morass of scumbled, individual gestures in gray, orange, green, brown, blue and black, the name Floyd emerges to the right of the canvas. Whether this is an homage to an actual person or the band Pink Floyd, I don’t know. What I do think I know is that Collier is painting an abstract portrait of Floyd: one that relies on sense memory and disparate recollections rather than the sum total of who Floyd is physically. Its as if Collier is quoting Shakespeare in paint: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Collier’s abstract work operates as painting turned into a dream – a collage of the discreet moments of his life, and, by extension, ours as well.
The quote above from Jean Arp, the 20th century Dadaist, is not only appropriate to this article for its general reference to produce and art. Specifically, there’s quite a bit of Arp in the work of Staple Goods’ William DePauw. Much like Arp, DePauw focuses on fragments and how they fit together to form a new vocabulary of expression – one that is quasi-abstract and intuitive, rather than explicit. Besides the occasional drawing or painting, DePauw is primarily a ceramicist and a sculptor. In the past, he has focused on creating singular objects that are palimpsests of fragments from nature, human culture and geometric form. With his current work at Staple Goods, DePauw has inverted his usual process. Here, groupings of separate sculptures work in unison. Each individual sculpture operates like a word within a poetic sentence or a phrase. Individually, each sculpture has meaning; yet, when they are combined, the meaning of each object shifts in order to serve the ultimate expression of each grouping. For instance, DePauw’s “Invasive Species” is a grouping of a simplified human skull, a crow and a handful of small terra cotta shapes. The title calls to mind such things as Burmese pythons and African killer bees; however, such things are no where in sight. What we are left to contemplate is possibly the idea that we are the invasive species? Is death, itself, the invasive species? Is our brain and the way we perceive and order the world, as evidenced by the presence of the abstract, terra cotta shapes, somehow the alien in the grand scheme of things? What’s great about DePauw’s groupings is that they force engagement and demand a personal relationship with the viewer in order to extract meaning from them.
Daniel Kelly IV presents a large-scale drawing/painting on paper titled “Becoming Series 10.” Kelly has an au currant obsession with reinvestigating modernist architecture and what it signifies to us in our time. In “Becoming Series 10,” Kelly overlays a carefully rendered modernist villa in yellow with two more schematic renderings. All the separate drawings display a vertical thrust, despite their horizontality, due to the presence of pylons which elevate them above their surroundings (which are left out of the work). Together they operate as one ghostly figure, and Kelly accentuates this with a series of red lines slashing vertically through the center of the work. It is as if he has painted the soul of modernism: a soul that is essentially austere, violent, and bent on hierarchical domination. It is also the seed from which our current world is built upon. Considering that there’s been much talk lately in philosophical circles about the new aesthetic of metamodernism – a blending of modernist and post-modernist principles, it’s important for us all to understand what modernism was and what is worth saving from the 20th century’s radicalism. In a very real sense, Kelly’s work explores this philosophical terrain.
Anne C Nelson is an artist concerned with the spaces we take for granted – the spaces whose only purpose is to exist between other spaces of action and determinacy. These are known as interstitial spaces, and the term can be applied to the spaces that exist between the walls of buildings or organs in animal bodies. It can also be applied to zones of time without any discernible progress. In many ways, contemporary abstraction was made for this sort of subject, and Nelson uses it to good effect. Her “3 Inch Architectural Drawing,” which is actually 36″ x 48″, has the feeling of an inconsequential and dilapidated space in a home. Individual passages that seem to mimic broken plaster, torn wallpaper, rotting wood, mildewed stucco and desecrated punched tin all come together on the canvas in the way of a collage to articulate neglected space. In “Everything That Rises Must,” Nelson abstractly paints the ineffable moment that exists between the rise of an object and its inevitable fall back to earth. This is a moment of infinite stillness and grace, yet it’s also rife with sadness and longing for the magical moment to continue. Every physicist out there can tell one that anything is possible in the universe of infinite possibility in which we live; however, the probability of ever seeing an object continue to float and never fall is infinitesimally slim to none. This zone in time, marked by the absence of progress either up or down, is one of Nelson’s interstices.
In both the showrooms of Staple Goods, patrons of “Fresh Produce” are treated to two views of some pretty unorthodox chandeliers, but there is no lighting involved in these objects – just political commentary by way of some uncanny found object assemblage. These are the works of Cynthia Scott, the unofficial “queen of upcycling” in New Orleans. Scott regularly works with found materials so as to address the political and environmental concerns we all face today at the turn of the century. Whereas the dadaists used found objects and assemblage to shock the public into an awareness of the surreal and absurd all around them, POP artists usurped everyday objects for their blunt coolness and ubiquity, and conceptual artists used everyday objects for the meaning and metaphors which lie underneath their surfaces, Scott uses found objects to comment on how many objects are out there to find in the endless tide of waste and detritus that we as a civilization discard into the environment. Scott connects these objects to the environment through some creative naming, substituting the name of the imperiled barrier islands at the eastern-most tip of Louisiana for the word chandelier. “Chandeleur (The Fighters)” is a multicolored chandelier made from plastic baskets, ties and tubes filled with a substance which looks black as crude. The sculptural object certainly looks festive. However, plastic is a byproduct of the oil industry, and this industry has done much to alter and devastate the environment in Louisiana from creating canals through sensitive marshlands that continue to introduce salt water into the mainland to the 2010 BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico which ruined the landscape and wildlife on the islands in question. The second chandelier, titled “Chandeleur (The Fishers),” is devoted to the fishermen of Louisiana. Scott created the piece from found wire objects that mimic the wire traps that fishermen use. The artist adorns her chandelier with little wire boats as well. The two chandeliers call to mind the schism that exists between the two distinct industries, one (the oil industry)bent on the absolute exploitation of the natural environment, and the other (the seafood industry) which is concerned more with sustaining the natural environment for years to come.
So, the members of Staple Goods Gallery are offering some serious food for thought with “Fresh Produce.” There may not be much in the way of quantity, yet everything in the exhibition exudes quality, which is more than anyone can say about a typical visit to the grocery store in the 21st century. As far as visual sustenance goes, the exhibition is more than satisfying.
Thomasine Bartlett and Minka Stoyanova
“Hot Mamas of KK Projects”
Detail of Thomasine Bartlett and Minka Stoyanova’s “Hot Mamas of KK Projects”
“Expecting the Unusual”
oil on cnvas
“Let There Be Floyd”
oil on cnvas
“The Certainty of Opposition”
oil on cnvas
“Objects at Rest”
Daniel Kelly IV
“Becoming Series 10”
painting/drawing on paper
Anne C. Nelson
“3 Inch Architectural Drawing”
Anne C. Nelson
“Everything That Rises Must”
“Chandeleur (The Fighters)”
salvaged plastics, string and oil-like fluid
“Chandeleur (The Fishers)”
salvaged objects, string and handmade boats
“Fresh Produce” is on view at Staple Goods Gallery, 1340 St. Roch Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117, until January 29, 2012.
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.