Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Road Trip: New Orleans

Robert Boyd

My friend Mark emailed and said, "I'm going to be in New Orleans for business--you want to come and hang out?" Why not? I have been taking road trips, long and short, to see art all year. New Orleans was always on my "want to visit" list.

Before this trip, I knew practically nothing about the city. The last time I spent any appreciable time there was for the King Tut exhibit. In 1977. My knowledge of New Orleans could be summed up like so:
  • I read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
  • I read Coming Through Slaughter  by Michael Ondaatje.
  • I watched two seasons of Treme.
  • I felt horror at the devastation of New Orleans by Katrina and anger at the incompetent, politicized response to it by the Federal government and the Louisiana Republican party.
And that's about it. As for art in New Orleans, I had heard that the new biennial, Prospect, was pretty good.

So inevitably, any response I have to the city and its art will be superficial. And what I saw was intriguing enough that I want to go back, hopefully armed with a little more knowledge. (For example, I wish I had known about Inside Art New Orleans before I visited.) But since I've had basically two days of grazing in the art world of New Orleans, I'll talk about what I saw.

 A parade on LaSalle St.

These photographs were about the last ones I took in New Orleans. I was trying to leave town and managed to make a series of wrong turns. I think I was on LaSalle St. near Louisiana Ave. And suddenly I was in the middle of a parade. There were brass bands playing jazz and dressed up in colorful outfits. This was a "second line," the parades that occur in parts of New Orleans around various festivals and sometimes for no reason at all. I like Houston, but you just can't imagine anything like this ever happening in Houston. The day before, I had bought a book at Faulkner House bookstore (a small but very choice bookstore in the French quarter) called The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans by Ned Sublette. This sprawling book told both the personal story of Sublette's year in New Orleans as well as diving deep into aspects of New Orleans--particularly its crime (unfathomably horrendous) and its music (deep, rich and ubiquitous). And that's the art one thinks of when one thinks of New Orleans. Music is everywhere, including on the street between me and going home. Of all the reasons to be delayed 30 minutes for my return trip, this was the best possible one.

But that begs the question. Given that this is a city of music, of jazz and r&b and funk and hip-hop, is there a place for visual art? And does the visual art of the New Orleans have anything to do with its music? Believe me, you can see plenty of kitschy jazz-related art in the French Quarter, both in overpriced tourist galleries and from street vendors in Jackson Square. But if you make your way over to the New Orleans Museum of Art (yes, the same place I saw King Tut back in 1977) before October 15, you can see some truly excellent art by Ralston Crawford that has a direct relationship to New Orleans jazz.

Ralston Crawford is best known as a Precisionist painter. This was the school of American modernist painters who took the industrial landscape of America as their subject. When you think of Crawford, you think of work like Vertical Building.

Ralston Crawford, Vertical Building, 1934, oil on canvas, 40 1/8" x 34 1/8"

And Precisionist art, with its emphasis on industry, clean lines, buildings, etc., is perhaps the least jazzy American modern visual art style. I mean, when you look at a Stuart Davis painting, you hear jazz. Charles Sheeler, not so much.

But at the exhibit, Charles Ralston and Jazz, we see an entirely different side of Ralston.  The first surprise is that the show consists mostly of photography. Ralston taught in New Orleans off and on and apparently visited it frequently in the 1950s and 60s. While in town, he took photos of city-scapes (which one would expect) but also people on the street, in the second lines, and in nightclubs. He was about recording the living jazz history of New Orleans--a history which he felt was coming to an end. He photographed players, but also bartenders and waitresses and the people who were, in a sense, part of the support network for working jazz musicians. And to photograph in segregated African American clubs like the Dew Drop Inn, he actually had to get permits from the city. New Orleans took its segregation very seriously.

Ralston Crawford, Joe Tillman, tenor saxophone, at the Dew Drop inn, 1952, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2" x 7 5/8"

Ralston Crawford, Second Line Marchers, 1961, gelatin silver print, 6 9/16" x 9 1/2"

Ralston Crawford, "Wooden" Joe Nichols with his granddaughter, ca. 1950-60s, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2" x 7 5/8"

Crawford also designed covers for a series of Riverside LPs concentrating on New Orleans traditional jazz. The impression one gets is of a serious jazz aficionado.

The show juxtaposes his photos with his late paintings and graphic work. Crawford took many photos of New Orleans cemeteries which he used as sources for paintings. It's fascinating to see the process of abstraction from its origin, a photo, through drawings and paintings.

Ralston Crawford, Basin Street, 1974, gelatin silver print, 12 3/8" x 8 1/2"

Ralston Crawford, Basin Street Cemetery, 1975, oil on linen, 17" x 21"

But of all the art I saw in New Orleans, Ralston Crawford was the only art that dealt with New Orleans' music in any obvious way except, as I mentioned, in the French Quarter. The French Quarter is a very strange place. There's Bourbon Street, of course. Ned Sublette described Bourbon Street as "an alcoholism theme park. It's a fundamental part of New Orleans's brand to be a zona franca for messy public drunkeness. There are live cover bands playing high-volume crap-rock at three thirty on Monday afternoon." That more than anything shocked me--hearing a band playing a Journey cover on Bourbon Street. In a city full of great jazz and funk musicians, this is what tourists want to hear? Even the strip joints are inauthentic--there was the Hustler Club and Barely Legal (Los Angeles imports), Deja Vu (Seattle import), Scores (NYC import) and Ricks (Houston import, RICK on Nasdaq). (This display of flesh gave me a million dollar idea--a strip club where none of the dancers have tattoos.)

Away from Bourbon St., the French Quarter is less boisterous, but still very much open for the tourist dollar. There are many restaurants, including the venerable Antoine's (since 1840) and antique shops (perfect if you want to replicate the 19th century whorehouse look), and lots of art galleries. They were almost all horrible. We spoke to a gallerist who said that the French Quarter used to house good quality galleries, but the tourist trade had eventually taken over. These are galleries for drunk people who know nothing about art.

Todd White painting

So how drunk would you have to be to buy this picture of a blowsy party girl taking off her little black dress for you?

But think twice! This piece is by Todd White--America's Artist. (For some reason, this American artist's work was being sold at the Galerie d’Art Francais.) This kind of art was typical, and the ne plus ultra of bad French Quarter art was the Rodrigue store.

His gallery on Royal St. has an interesting history as a venue for New Orlean's local psychics, and naturally the building is alleged to be haunted. But the shop is filled with George Rodrigue's  ridiculous blue dogs, the one idea with legs he's had and has been beating to death ever since. But he seems quite beloved in New Orleans--and I think it may be in part because of the many charitable works he did in response to Hurricane Katrina.

George Rodrigue, We Stand Together, 2006, steel, aluminum, chrome and polychrome acrylic paint

So even the New Orleans Museum of Art has an enormous Rodrigue in its sculpture garden. I guess I can't blame Rodrigue for riding this wave, but I don't understand why this image should be so popular that people want the ten thousandth knock-off painting of it.

Leandro Erlich, Window and Ladder--Too Late for Help, 2008, Metal ladder, steel, fiberglass

This was another piece I saw in the pleasant sculpture garden at NOMA. Houstonians will remember Leandro Erlich from his time in the CORE program. At first glance, Window and Ladder--Too Late for Help seems like a kind of cheesy optical illusion. But when you read that it was originally installed in the Lower Ninth Ward as part of the Prospect 1, the first New Orleans biennial, it has more resonance. And perhaps a viewer from New Orleans gets that instantly, without having to read the plaque.

The French Quarter wasn't a total bust. The Shop [sic] on Royal St. is a gallery that specializes in "low brow" art, the kind you might read about in Juxtapoz or Hi-Fructose. The contemporary art world I usually travel in does its best to pretend this kind of art doesn't exist. It is art that is not theorized, if you know what I mean. But it ends up intersecting with the "mainstream" art world in unexpected ways, and has done so since at least 1992, when Robert Williams' paintings were shown at MOCA in LA as part of the Helter Skelter show. The story I heard was that Mike Kelley suggested Williams for inclusion to curator Paul Schimmel. In any case, this crossing over was evident at The Shop, which had an excellent selection of carvings by the great Camp Bosworth.

Camp Bosworth, Austin Road Trip, carved wood, 30.5" x 17.5" x 3"

And some Houston readers may remember the book-spine installation by Mike Stilkey at The Rice Gallery in 2007.

piece by Mike Stilkey, ink and acrylic on stacked books

As you'll find with Yard Dog, a similar gallery in Austin, the work is cluttered and hung salon style. Not for The Shop is the practice of a clean white cube and lots of work stored in the back. And The Shop has a sense of humor that tends to be lacking in more mainstream galleries, as can be seen in this wall full of small Jeremy Tinder paintings.

Jeremy Tinder paintings and a note about Leonardo DiCaprio.

One aspect of this kind of art that is highly valued by its aficionados is the bravura display of drawing skill. I was quite impressed by the drawing prowess of Jason D'Aquino in his tiny matchbook series.

Jason D'Aquino, Kiss Me and Die, graphite on matchbook, 10" x 13" framed.

The Shop with all its eccentricities was a bright spot in an area otherwise filled with bad art. So Saturday, after beignets and book-shopping, Mark and I headed over to Julia Street, where the high end galleries mostly are.

The first one we visited was Callan Contemporary, which was showing work by Alabaman artist Raine Bedsole.

Raine Bedsole, assorted oars, mixed media, various sizes

Raine Bedsole, Coral Painting no. 5, 2012, watercolor, plaster, antique papers

Raine Bedsole, Long Boat, 2012, vellum, wire, wood on a steel structure

The work is perfectly pleasant but doesn't feel like the artist stretched very hard to make it. It is altogether too comfortable. It fails to challenge the viewer enough to go beyond being decorative. But as decorative objects, there is a lot to enjoy. Bedsole is a marvelous craftsman and a very sensitive draughtsman.

The next gallery we saw was Heriard-Cimino Gallery which had an exhibit up by New Orleans artist Aaron McNamee. McNamee laminates pages from given periodicals (comic books, magazines, newspapers) to forma a solid object. He then sands the surface of the object. This may remind some readers of the technique of Woody Golden, but McNamee doesn't use the sanding to sculpt the work as Golden does, but instead he sands the pieces to create patterns on the surface--patterns that may remind one of corroded metal or woodgrain. Furthermore, a time-based process is at work. Each piece is made from a run of the periodical in question--for instance, a complete year of Arizona Highways.

Aaron McNamee, Complete Year Arizona Highways (January 1977-December 1977), 2012, magazines and glue, 34" x 55"

Aaron McNamee, Complete Year Smithsonian (January 1977-December 1977), 2012, magazines and glue, 46 1/2" x 74 1/2"

The first question is I have is where did there magazines come from?  McNamee, who was born in 1977, certainly didn't subscribe to The Smithsonian or Arizona Highways. Maybe his parents did and were hoarders, or more likely he purchased them from an old magazines dealer. For McNamee, there must be an appeal to work on these objects made from material that is the same age as himself. But not all the work is built around that idea.

Aaron McNamee, Complete Run Terror Inc (#1-#13, July 1992-July 1993), 2012, comics and glue, 20 1/2" x 13 1/2"

Aaron McNamee, Complete Run U.S. War Machine (#1-#12, December 2001-January 2002), 2012, comics and glue, 20 1/2" x 13 1/2"

McNamee also performs this lamination and sanding technique on a variety of old comic books. These are comics that McNamee could conceivably purchased for himself when they came out. But whether he purchased them for himself or through a dealer, they probably aren't worth much in the comic collectors market. Nonetheless, many in that market would be appalled at what McNamee has done. Comics collectors take preservation of even the most insignificant comics very seriously.

What I like about these is that through the swirling chaos of color and value left from McNamee's sanding, you can catch little images that manage to survive. For instance, one can see a figure wearing a mask in the upper right quadrant of Complete Run U.S. War Machine (#1-#12, December 2001-January 2002). This is an agent of A.I.M., a highly technological group of bad-guys in the Marvel superhero universe.

But the largest piece in the exhibit is the most important and is the one that brings it all back to New Orleans.

Aaron McNamee, Complete Year Times-Picayune (August 3, 2010 to August 2, 2011), 2012, newspaper and glue, 12 panels, each panel 66" x 9" x 1.5"

These planks leaning against the wall instantly made me think of John McCracken. The contrast is amusing--McNamee's crudely-sanded, grungy planks compared to the shiny perfection of McCracken's. But the more important thing is the source of these. Lined up in a row like this, they feel like a memorial, And in a way, this piece is a memorial. The Times-Picayune, as of September 30, is no longer a daily paper. I believe it will now be published three times a week. The Newhouse family, which owns the paper, turned down offers to buy the paper in order to commence their experiment of creating a hybrid online/offline paper.  McNamee would have known this as he created this work. It feels like the last twist of the knife against the beleaguered city by Katrina. McNamee created this row of steles out of a year's worth of the Times-Picayune.

We spoke to the gallery owner, Jeanne Cimino, and she was spitting mad about the Times-Picayune situation. And she said she was thinking of moving the gallery to San Francisco. The two were not directly connected, and indeed she had nothing bad to say about New Orleans per se, but it's hard not to conclude that it's tough to make it in a city that can't even retain a daily newspaper.

Down the street was Arthur Roger Gallery, which seemed a bit like McClain Gallery in Houston--a blue chip gallery focused primarily on out-of-town artists. When we were there, they were just starting to take down an exhibit by Rob Wynne. The work was whimsical and arch.

Rob Wynne, Disregard, 2001, embroidery and pigment on canvas, 54" x 39"

Rob Wynne, Quiver, 2012, poured and mirrored glass, 23" x 35"

In the back, they had a variety of work by out-of-town artists.

piece by John Waters at Arthur Rogers

And among these pieces were two by Houston artists.

piece by Joseph Havel at Arthur Rogers

piece by Mark Flood at Arthur Rogers

At the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery was a group juried show called the 16th Annual No Dead Artists show. The jurors were Eric Shiner, Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, Amanda Coulson, Director of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas and founder and Artistic Director of the VOLTA Fair, and collector Thomas Coleman. As always with such shows, it was a mixed bag. But there was plenty there to like.

 Abhidnya Ghuge, Halls without walls, room to feel in, The door awaits, your return within, 2012, print on 7200 paper plates from wood cut print made for this piece, acrylic paint, site specific installation

This piece makes me want to paraphrase Hennessy Youngman: "7200 paper plates=art."

 Ira Upin, Chapter 7--Fat Cat (from the Strong Man Series), 2010, oil on panel, 36" x 36"

This series of painting of men of a certain age who project various kinds of strength or power reflects Ira Upin's matter-of-fact statement (I won't call it an artist's statement, exactly): "Coming from a practical background I didn't really believe I could survive as an artist until I graduated from graduate school and realized that painting was all I wanted to do. At that point, my focus was always on how to facilitate my ability to make art. I eventually was able to survive financially by moving to a neighborhood where real estate was cheap. I acquired enough property to have a place to live, a studio, and rental income to be an artist full time." It's about getting to a certain point in life where it's not a struggle anymore; where you have some mastery over your situation. By focusing on this in his statement, Upin in a way reinforces his paintings' theme.

Edward Ramsay-Moran, pieces from "In Here, Out There" series, 2012, inkjet ink on archival paper, 10" x 8" each

And a Houston-area artist is represented--Edward Ramsay-Moran, whose work was also in the Big Show at Lawndale this year, shows a series of faces cut-away to show sometimes cosmic, sometimes disturbing things inside.

Edward Ramsay-Moran, piece from "In Here, Out There" series, 2012, inkjet ink on archival paper, 10" x 8"

I shouldn't be surprised that New Orleans galleries show Houston-area artists. After all, Houston galleries show New Orleans artists. Relative to the rest of the art world, Houston and New Orleans are on the same block and it would be weird it there weren't artistic exchange between the two cities.

We made one more gallery stop--not worth mentioning--and then had drinks and dinner at Root, which I highly recommend.

The next day Mark was off for New York early in the morning. I slept in, checked out of my hotel, and went to the New Orleans Museum of Art, as I mentioned above. While driving around the neighborhood before the museum opened, I came across this:

Lawn art on Bayou St. John

This piece of lawn art was in front of a house at the intersection of Moss and Wilson on Bayou St. John. After seeing so much art gallery art, it was a relief to see some lawn art.

Lawn art on Bayou St. John

And this house was teeming with lawn art. The form was ceramic objects stacked and held upright by an unseen pole. There were even street signs that had this treatment (I wonder if the artist asked permission from the city, or if she just did it.)

But I still felt after all this that I was missing a big part of the New Orleans art scene. Except for this charming bit of lawn art, all the art I had seen was in museums or commercial art galleries. So I went back downtown to check out an artists-run place I had read about, Parse. It seemed like a longshot--it was Sunday after all. But I managed to make show up just as a tenant of the building was entering. He asked the two people who ran the gallery, Margot Walsh and Ricardo Barba, if I could come in, and they agreed.

It's tough for a gallery in the city

The show was by an artist named Avery Lawrence. Without it being specifically about New Orleans, his exhibit, Arranging Suitcases, seemed to reflect New Orleans. His old-fashioned showmanship (and the acting in the video, which felt similar to silent film acting) made me think of traditional jazz and men wearing suits and vests and ties in the New Orleans heat. The quixotic activities, the canal, the horn, the wallpaper (hand silkscreened, I believe!) and chintz all felt very New Orleans to me. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. But I was quite taken by his videos and installation.

Avery Lawrence, Arranging Suitcases installation view

Avery Lawrence, Arranging Suitcases drawings

Avery Lawrence, Arranging Suitcases installation view

One final piece of New Orleans art, that links it back to literature.

William Ludwig, Ignatius J. Reilly as Portrayed by William McConnell, 1996, bronze, lifesize

This statue by William Ludwig of Ignatius J. Reilly, protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, stands in front of the Chateau Bourbon Hotel, which itself sits on the former location of the D.H. Holmes department store, an important location in the novel. The statue actually portrays an actor, William McConnell, who played the part of Reilly in a stage adaptation of the novel (thus linking three artforms--theater, prose fiction, and sculpture). While the judgmental misanthrope Reilly is hardly the typical New Orleanian, he shares the city's eccentricity and self-absorbtion. And I can't help but love a city that immortalizes its most famous fictional character in bronze.


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