Photo of John Otte, courtesy of the estate of John Otte
My new article for Oxford American Magazine is out on the website. It’s a memoriam for curator/artist John Otte who passed in New Orleans on October 3, 2012. He was one of the shining stars of recent NOLA art, and he created what I believe to be the most significant exhibition of art in the city in recent memory, if not in it’s history. Check out the article and find out why by following this link> http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2012/nov/05/only-stair-doesnt-creak-john-otte/
by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
Dumpstaphunk. It’s a band: a New Orleans band, to be exact. It is headed by Ivan Neville, who descends from New Orleans musical royalty. If you haven’t heard of him or guessed yet, Ivan is Aaron Neville’s son and a nephew to the rest of the Neville Brothers. You could say that the Neville Brothers represent a hefty brick in the foundation of contemporary New Orleans music. They, along with Dr. John, are the progenitors of a mix of soul and funk that typified Crescent City music in the 70’s and the 80’s. The Neville Brothers’ legacy flows through Ivan’s Dumpstaphunk: a heady, sweaty, stanky (this is no typo) fusion of musicians and musical styles that coalesce under the banner of funk. It’s dirty music for a good time in a downtown dumpster, and it typifies the aesthetic of New Orleans. Pick up two, three or four pieces of funkiness, slap ’em together and make some magic.
You may be wondering why I’m going on about Dumpstaphunk. Isn’t this an art blog after all!?! Yes it is! However, the aesthetic of Ivan Neville’s band has much in common with the multimedia installation/group exhibition/mindf*!k I’m about to school you on. Its title is “Constant Abrasive Irritation Produces the Pearl: A Disease of the Oyster.” The irreverently reverent title comes from a quip rebel comedian Lenny Bruce made about the state and function of artists in repressive societies. Bruce correctly identified that, for the powers that be, artists generally represent a disease on the body politic, even though they typically bring beauty, truth, meaning and/or fresh perspectives into the world.
The exhibition is currently running at the residence/speak easy/restaurant/exhibition space known as The Pearl in the St. Claude Arts District of NOLA. Jay, the owner, in conjunction with curator John Otte, decided the Bruce quip would be the perfect title for an unconventional group exhibition at the Pearl (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), which is a satellite space for this year’s Prospect New Orleans 2 Biennial.
Walking into the Pearl in the midst of “Constant Abrasive Irritation Produces the Pearl: A Disease of the Oyster” is like walking into the visual equivalent of Dumpstaphunk. The place is loaded to the rafters with old junk, modern technology, personal mementos, home furnishings, a bar, a kitchen and a ton of art that either jumps out and grabs you by the eyeballs or sinks into the miasma of it all in the warm and woozy darkness of the space. Every nook and cranny is chock-full of funky goodness, so much so that it’s difficult to differentiate what is art and what is not at times. There are exhibition cards that accompany each piece of art, but like everything else in the Pearl, they tend to be consumed by the overwhelming profusion of it all. The things that do pop-out from the din are the videos, which are deployed on walls, in the bathroom, behind doors, on the ceiling, on screens and television sets, over a jacuzzi and even inside a trash heap. It’s as if the television program “Hoarders” were presenting a “very special” edition devoted to psychotic art collectors, and it is pure unbelievable, unrestrained f*!king New Orleans genius of the highest caliber!
The artists participating in the exhibition are Adrina Drina, Johnathan Bouknight, Susannah Bridges-Burley, Elliot Coon, John Curry, Dawn A DeDeaux, Lee Deigaard, Jessica Goldfinch, Kim Phillips, Courtney Egan, Margaret Evangeline, Fereydoon Family, Jessica Goldfinch, Dave Greber, Brain Guidry, Sally Heller, Kathleen Loe, Aristides Logothetis, Jenifer Odem, John Otte, Anastasia Pelias, Michele Schuff, Gary Stephan, Paige Valente, and Dalona Wardlaw.
It’s truly difficult and unfair to point out individual artists’ works that surpassed others in the exhibition since the whole crew deserves acclaim. However, a few noteworthy pieces come to mind. Unfortunately, I couldn’t spend the enormous amount of time I needed to get all the details of the exhibition down the night I visited.
So, here’s a haphazard and incomplete list of the art that struck me.
First and foremost, Courtney Egan’s video projection of flowers blooming in the Pearl’s bathtub. OMG! This piece is STUNNING! It is a poetic marriage of technology, nature and site specificity that will forever be running in one corner of my mind for the rest of my life!
Aristides Logothetis’ mixed media collages, referring to money and guns and shrink-wrapped in plastic, are chilling and discreet reminders of the darkness, violence and insatiable greed and desperation lurking in the shadows of the city. Conversely, Lee Diegaard’s small scale fauna-related videos in the hallway and behind a door were a surprising treat.
An oval video showcasing a continuous and wavy reflection of leaves in water that was being shown in the barroom was mesmerizing. I believe Dawn Dedeaux produced this one, but I’m not entirely sure. A truly exquisite and unusual abstract painting involving crystals and torn canvas (I don’t know who completed it) was also in the barroom along with a powerful “chevron” painting from Brian Guidry. An edited version of the 70’s nature program “Wild Kingdom” by Guidry is also on display. The artist deleted all the human speech from the program which focuses on Jane Goodall’s African gorilla research. The editing underscores the unnatural and stilted behavior of humans in a natural setting.
In the side yard, a really powerful and anxiety-inducing video by a performance artist was on view. In the video the white artist exposes himself through a chain-link fence to a crowd of black people in what I believe is South Africa. They begin to write on his body. Some of the writing is hopeful and inspirational, while others are vindictive and malicious. While viewing, I was wondering if a shanking was about to go down, but that never came. In a city like New Orleans, where black and white people work and play so closely together, yet are still so far apart in many ways, the video really hit home . We still have a long way to go in terms of racial equality, and there are no easy solutions, reparations or punishments to hand out. The video posits that what is required is a sincere willingness to open oneself to another in the face of fear and any illusion of separateness.
Anastasia Pelias’ three channel, schizophrenic video mash-up of her favorite oyster shucker consoling her while shucking after the BP oil spill is anything but reassuring. It’s proximity to the kitchen gives one some pause about what’s going on in there. Jennifer Odom’s white sculpture beside Pelias’ film looks like a barnacle encrusted cushion devouring a stool.
Last but certainly not least, is Dave Greber’s insanely clever video which satirizes the fact that many people want to cover-up the horrors of the BP Oil Spill and forget about it. In this giddy video, a cadre of smiling people dressed in white walk hand-in-hand on the post-spill beach while flowers bloom around the video’s edges. It called “Join Us Today.”
In the rush of my night in the St. Claude Arts District, in the chaos of the short time that I spent at The Pearl, I lost track of many things. I didn’t have time to make sense of all the chaos. However, looking back on “Constant Abrasive Irritation Produces the Pearl: A Disease of the Oyster,” I see a microcosm of everything that I love and hate about New Orleans, everything that time forgot and the future has yet to reveal. This exhibition is an artistic crossroads and nexus point from which all the currents of the Crescent City flow. It’s a monumental achievement housed in a dive bar and a love letter to the city written on faded and crumbling walls. Long live the dumpstaphunk! May we find the pearls of wisdom in it every time we dive in! Abrasions, be damned!
The exhibition began on Saturday October 22, 2011 and will remain open on Saturdays and Sundays (5 pm – 9 pm) and by appointment. In addition, The Pearl will serve as a gathering place for the public throughout the Prospect 2 run. Tapas, drinks, coffee and tea will be served every Saturday and Sunday 5pm – 9pm. Additional Sunday night Pearl parties to be announced.
by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
Author’s note: Please see the earlier post “Prospect New Orleans 2: Digging for Gold in the Crescent City (Part 1)” on this site for the beginning of this story
Our visit to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art was complete, and the afternoon was turning into the evening. Time was not our friend at the moment. My wife and I made a b-line for Julia Street which is the main thoroughfare through the traditional Arts District in NOLA where most of the blue-chip galleries are. The promise of Arthur Roger Gallery, Gallery Bienvenu and the Heriard-Cimino Gallery dangled in front of my nose. I especially wanted to see what was inside Arthur Roger Gallery: An exhibition of photography and sculpture by famed film-provocateur John Waters and the multi-media art of rising New Orleans art star Dave Greber who has his roots in the St. Claude Arts District as a member of the Front Gallery. Alas, we got to Julia Street and every gallery was closed. All we could do is look through the windows and doors of the darkened and vacant spaces and sigh.
Throughout all of this, my wife was becoming increasingly hungrier and suffering from a headache. To be honest, I was dealing with one too, but I was medicating myself with regular doses of ibuprofen, regardless of whether I had food in my stomach or not. I’m stupid that way. In my jacked-up mode of thinking, art takes precedence over the well-being of my stomach lining. Anyway, I love my wife unconditionally, but she has a tendency to not take care of herself when the time is right, which would have been in the lull between arriving in NOLA and waiting for entrance into our hostel. We were in a dilemma. I figured the only easy way to obtain food for us was to sit down at a restaurant in the area we were in or somewhere in the French Quarter because the next destination was the St. Claude Arts District, and I’ve heard that it’s a notoriously difficult place to find a meal, especially since I was unfamiliar with the area. However, we also had to find a way to get down to the Prospect New Orleans 2 Visitors Center quick so that we could get onto a shuttle to St. Claude. For some reason, I felt that with every minute that passed, the chances of getting a map and a shuttle from the center seemed to dwindle.
We decided to hail a cab from Julia St. to Rampart and Esplanade. $10 later, we arrived only to find that the Prospect New Orleans Visitors Center had just closed ten minutes earlier. A couple from Houston was stranded there as well. They were talking to some guy who I thought was a volunteer. He was on the phone with somebody, telling them about our predicament. That’s when we learned that we could have boarded a shuttle from the W Hotel in the Arts District – the f*#king district we just left! Thanks CAC volunteers!!!
Just as I was about to blow a gasket, Stephanie Patton and Brian Guidry drive by and spot us. Both are artists who divide there time between NOLA and Lafayette. Both of them are also close friends to my wife and myself. They end up making the block and picking my wife and I up to whisk us to St. Claude. Patton and Guidry both had openings at their respective galleries on St. Claude that night. I felt really bad about leaving the Houston couple behind, but all of a sudden, time and space began to bend. We were in warp speed and couldn’t quibble about the misfortune of strangers.
We arrived at Stephanie Patton’s gallery, the Front, which is a co-op run by a handful of NOLA artists. Most of the galleries in the St. Claude Arts district operate in the same way with member artists taking on the duties of being the galerist and curator for the exhibitions as well as producing the art. On display in the gallery was Patton’s solo exhibition “General Hospital.” The exhibition is a poignant and funny visual exploration of the healing process which necessarily needs to take place after tragedy strikes. Inside the gallery, viewers are treated to some of the most well-crafted objects on display at P.2. Pills, a door, a pair of angel wings, a large curvilinear spiral and handmade lettering which spells out “Friends Forever” are hung exquisitely on the walls. Each object is made from either mattress covering or white, vinyl leather that has been upholstered. However, the centerpiece of the exhibition is Patton’s 1 hour and 50 minute long video of the artist squeezing lemons, making lemonade and then stuffing the used rinds with cotton batting and sewing them up so as to make them “whole” again. The whole video is based on the colloquialism “making lemons into lemonade” or turning tragedy into triumph, and it is riveting. As far as exhibitions go as a whole, “General Hospital” was the best/most well thought-out one I saw on my trip to P.2. The proof came in the fact that Patton had sold four pieces from the exhibition. Two now belonged to gallerist Arthur Roger and a well-respected collector from Los Angeles.
Also on view at the Front, was a strange group project from the co-op members that staked it’s claim on the back yard. They called it “The Crave”: a combination of the words cave and rave. It was a hastily built geodesic dome made of PVC pipe, visqueen, and god knows what else that housed an air conditioner, some really DIY sculpture that looked like refuse turned into a vase of flowers and a ring of stalagmites, and a watery video projection. Musical accompaniment was provided by a DJ right outside of it. The first thing that came to my mind was the phrase “underground disco oil spill.” I found out that this was the second version of “The Crave.” The Front members had actually built another one that had been destroyed by 40 mph winds the week before. The whole thing was ridiculous, but well appreciated.
Next up, we heard that a local BBQ entrepreneur had set up shop in front of the Good Children Gallery across the street. It was definitely time to eat! My wife and I made our way over there like white lightning. The food was looking good, but he didn’t have anything to drink, so while my wife waited on our BBQ, I made my way to a local convenience store to buy some water. I got a little bourbon while I was there, too! *** For future reference, if any of you ever want to impress this critic, giving me bourbon is a great place to start.*** So I returned to the sidewalk before the gallery just in time for the BBQ to be ready! My wife and I found a spot next door on a stoop to eat, and we tore into our food like rabid wolves! It was like BBQ from Heaven!
After our stoop BBQ, I noticed that there was something going on right beside us between the stoop and the gallery next door. Surprise! A pop-up gallery had just popped-up in the garage right by us while we were eating! It was the Rusty Pelican Gallery, owned and operated by the couple who owned the stoop we were just sitting on. I walked into the garage-come-gallery to find a wonderland of mechanical and light sculptures made from old rusty metal, incandescent lights, doll parts, and other assorted detritus. There were also some really good paintings and drawings inside. My wife and I were so impressed, we bought 2 really cool, metal scull, refrigerator magnets to remember the place.
Next, we entered the Good Children Gallery. It was a zoo inside! St. Claude had hit its stride by this point, and the place was filled with people. This made it really difficult to document the work there, but I managed for the most part. Each individual piece from the Good Children co-op members was good, but they could have stood to have more breathing room for the disparate works on display. The exhibition seemed cramped and disjointed. That’s the ever-present problem with group shows in small spaces. I’m sure the amount of people packed intot he place didn’t help either. But there were some pieces that stood out for me. Artist Lala Rancik takes top honors for her comic black and white, split-screen video of herself doing slapstick in an antique domestic setting. Srdjan Loncar provided a funny piece about a fictitious business which “fixes” broken things by covering them with photographs to make them look fixed. The artist duo Generic Art Solutions displayed two of their light boxes which incorporate somewhat holographic pictures of policemen in what I thought was riot gear. These images reminded me of the Ring Wraiths in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. They pack a punch and are unbelievably menacing, despite having a strip club marquee feel to them as well. Brian Guidry’s lone painting in the show was an abstract, hard-edged, precisionist master stroke as well, which separated it from the pack.
After our visit to Good Children, my wife and I took a trip with Brian Guidry and artist Emee Morgan to the Pearl, a home/speak easy that had been converted to an art venue as well. We arrived at the intersection that the Pearl is located on, and Brian said jokingly while pointing to various residences, “It’s not this mansion, or this one, or this one! It’s this place with all the junk and the weeds!” Indeed it was, Brian! Indeed it was! We walked up a set of old wooden stairs into an ante-chamber overflowing with art and junk. It was dark and it was hard to distinguish one from the other. Occasionally, I would find an exhibition card that announced that what I was looking at was art. Once, I got further into the Pearl, the things that stood out from the miasma of it all were the videos which were all over the place. It felt like the house/speak easy/gallery was somewhere between dead and alive. It was dreamy and unreal, yet so in-your-face! Most of the place was only lit by ambient light coming from colored lights and the video projections. The place seemed to be an endless maze of sights and sounds, some comforting some creepy, some downright gut-wrenching. It was everything I needed from the biennial but I didn’t know I needed. The work was crammed into this space, lost among all the domesticity and the junk, but it didn’t matter because it worked as a whole. You could even get a drink there and order some food from fully stocked kitchen! It was amazing! It said everything one needs to know about New Orleans in the 21st century, and I loved it! I was so impressed with it, that a took a video of the whole spectacle from the front door to the back yard, and I’ll be posting it soon! Some of the highlights for me were Coutney Egan’s film projection of flowers in bloom in the bath tub inside the bathroom, Brian Guidry’s edited video of an episode of “Wild Kingdom,” Dave Greber’s video of ridiculously happy cult members on the beach after the oil spill, Lee Deigaard’s peekaboo videos in the central hallway, a video of a white South African artist making himself vulnerable to the black South Africans who congregate around him on the streets of what I think is Johannesburg, Anastasia Pelias’ devilishly clever three channel video that turns the consoling words and rhythms of her favorite oyster shucker into a psychotic, post-oil spill rant and a weird little installation in the middle of the Pearl that involves some kind of monster sculpture behind a window – I think!?! No matter, in THIS cramped space, it all worked and became a seamless gesamtkunstwerk that is a triumph, and a credit to all involved. I left the pearl with my mind blown wide open, which is good because it made me ready for what happened next.
As we pulled up to St. Claude St on our way back to Good Children, we saw IT … and IT was like vision, a dream within a dream. The minute we saw IT, we stopped in the middle of the intersection, and abandoned our vehicle. IT was a black truck being pulled by a team of people down St. Claude Avenue, emerging out of the darkness into the surrounding light from the street lamps and neon signs. I’ve never seen anything like IT. This was artist William Pope.L’s “Blink.” As it moved by us, I could barely take a breath. Once the truck was past, I could see the slideshow of images that had been mounted to the back of the truck: a selection of images curated from images that had been sent to Pope.L from New Orleanians responding to the questions “What do you dream, when you dream of New Orleans?’ and “What do you see when you wake up?” It was incredibly moving, and I’ll never forget the experience.
Emee left us to return to a friend’s house to sleep. She was exhausted from a full half a week of assisting with interviews of art insiders for Joy Glidden’s PBS show “Art Index.” We promised each other we’d meet up for coffee the next morning.
After all was said and done … after all the openings … and all the spectacle … after all the art talk … after midnight, Brian Guidry, Stephanie Patton, my wife and I made our fumbling way down to the Lost Love Lounge for some excellent Vietnamese food and drinks (we got lost on the way there). Some of the Good Children and the Front artists met us there. We met the “Sex Ponies” while we were there. They were a group of Amazonian women wearing skin-tight vinyl, corsets, horse-bridles with long ponytails dangling off their rears and mohawk manes. They canoodled with the patrons. At one point, the chef got one of the buttons on his shirt caught in one of their tails. There was also this girl dressed in 1940’s garb doing jigs, “dropping it like it’s hot,” and pole dancing very poorly to the music on the jukebox. The funny thing was that the music was generally down tempo, if not depressing. One of the songs she was dancing to was Johnny Cash’s cover of the NIN classic “Hurt.” Only in New Orleans …
We left the Lost Love Lounge hung over from the whole day but at peace with what we accomplished. Brian and Stephanie returned us to our hostel, and we said goodnight. I turned the key to the lock on the front door of The St. Vincent Guest House. It didn’t work. Another guest was with us: the staff had neglected to give him a key to the front door. We felt a little defeated. Then, another guest who had been staying there longer walked up and helped us. “You have to pull the latch while you turn the key, ” he said. We walked in, said our “thank you’s” and retired to our room to dream dreams of Crescent City Gold in complete exhaustion and satisfaction.
Author’s Note: Stay tuned for Part 3: Coffee Talk, sunday in the T-LOT, Staple Goods, running out of steam in the Quarter and what it all meant. Plus in-depth reviews and pics and videos of all the P.2 Exhibitions I’ve seen so far!