Sunday, October 28, 2012

New Orleans Coda

Robert Boyd

When I wrote about the art I saw in New Orleans, I left out one striking piece because I couldn't identify it. It was in a doorway on Royal Street in the French Quarter. It was right next to the Shop, which I wrote about in my previous post. I asked the owner what it was, and he said that he thought it had been done by some conceptual artist named "Janna Morgan."


The mystery installation on Royal Street

The piece definitely drew my attention--at first with the irregular pattern of black shapes. I could see right away that they were negative images of newspaper clippings. Closer examination determined that they were all obituaries. I thought of The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed by Dario Robleto, another piece comprised of obituaries. But this piece seemed more ragged and urgent and less elegiac than Robleto's stately meditation of age.

So I Googled "Janna Morgan" in every iteration I could think of. The closest I could find was a New Orleans artist named Jana Napoli, whose work looked like it could include something like this, even though I found nothing on her website about this particular piece. So I emailed her and asked her if it was hers.

A few days later, I got an email from an artist named Jan Gilbert. She was the one who made the piece. I liked how a misheard name lead to an email to the wrong person who nonetheless got it to the right person. I like to think this indicates a tight-knit artistic scene in New Orleans. But actually, it mainly indicates how lucky I was. Jana Napoli is Jan Gilbert's studio mate, and the two have collaborated on projects.

Here is how the work, A Call to Disarm, was described in Gilbert's press release:
Jan Gilbert’s site-specific installation for the building’s vestibule, also springs from the act of collecting, in this case obituaries of New Orleans gunshot victims, and the culture of commemorative t-shirts which has arisen to honor those lost to violence.  Gilbert says: “I was traveling in a group with a young man.  His brother had been buried the day before - one of the many lost by gunshot on the street.  When I returned home, I found and tore out the obituary in an insignificant gesture of commemoration and placed it next to my bed.  The next day there was another lost soul torn from the pages, and then another, and another. Hundreds later, the stack is staggering.  The TIMES PICAYUNE, since Katrina, no longer details ‘by gunshot’ in its obits.” 
By placing these obituaries in a backlit curtain that could be seen from the street, Gilbert hoped that people would have chance encounters with the work. Royal Street is a heavily pedestrian block, and as its in the French Quarter, many of the pedestrians are from out of town. If they stop and read a little, they will see a different New Orleans from the louche vacation spot they've come to enjoy. I'm sure the local Chamber of Commerce loves that. But its no secret that New Orleans is a place where people settle things with guns.



Jan Gilbert, A Call to Disarm, 2011

This work was done as a satellite work for Prospect.2. Prospect New Orleans is the biennial art festival that has been a real bright spot in the New Orleans art scene. I had heard good things about it, but what really made me sit up and notice was what what Tony Fitzpatrick wrote:
New Orleans’ art scene has been on the rise since the success of Prospect:1, the New Orleans Biennial, which New York curator Dan Cameron opened three years after Katrina hit the gulf coast with about 30 times the force of the atom bomb.

Unlike other biennials in the world, Prospect:1 had no centralized “Pavilion.” Instead, the whole city of New Orleans was used. From the Lower Ninth Ward to St. Bernard, Jefferson, Faubourg Marigny, East Lakeview and Gentilly to the Bywater, every neighborhood was included, and it was a brilliant strategy. Cameron knew that anyone covering New Orleans' first biennial would have to traverse the whole city, and take measure of New Orleans while it recovered from disaster, dispossession and furious loss. They would also see a culture of no surrender and fierce pride.
In short, by taking measure of the city and its art, in its totality, even the most callous of critics would be seduced by the charming knot of contradictions that New Orleans is. ["Lost Angel" by Tony Fitzpatrick, March 23, 2012, No.9]
I will definitely be there for Prospect.3--and more. Gilbert recommended the Contemporary Art Center, which looks pretty interesting. And I missed the St. Claude Arts District altogether when I visited. An art scene apparently existed in this area before Katrina, but post Katrina it really expanded.
[Paul] Chan's activism was part of a diverse convergence of influences that helped set the stage for launching the leading St. Claude co-op galleries, some founding members of which had also been recipients of studio residency grants from New York's Lower Manhattan Cultural Council from November, 2005 to May, 2006, part of a wave of interest in local art and artists on the part of national foundations that continues to this day. Such experiences provided local artists with inspiring examples of how intelligently run non-profit arts institutions can make a significant difference through meaningful community engagement.

By 2008, the three most high profile co-op or collective galleries  were all up and running. All three are on St. Claude and all are broadly representative of the district. The first to open was the the Good Children Gallery, which was inspired by the original name for St. Claude Avenue--“Rue des Bons Enfants”--colloquially translated as “Good Children Street,” followed by the Antenna Gallery, part of the Press Street Literary and Visual Arts Collective, followed by The Front. ["The St. Claude Arts District: A Brief History," D. Eric Bookhardt, New Orleans Art Insider, September 30, 2012]
This is an excerpt from a very long post about the history of the St. Claude Arts District from just before Katrina until now. New Orleans Art Insider is one of two very good art blogs in town. The other is Constance, which is the blog arm of a design company. Both of these blogs are excellent, and when you consider how small New Orleans is compared to Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio, it's astonishing that there is so much blogging activity.

I guess all this is another way of saying how little I saw last time I was in New Orleans. It makes me want to return as soon as possible to see some more.

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