Sunday, January 18, 2009

New Year's in New Orleans

I traveled to New Orleans for New Year's with friends and to see what I could of their brand new Prospect.1 biennial. The work of the 81 artists associated with the biennial was dispersed across the city, and co-mingled with the work of local artists. One large ex-furniture store, now partially a police precinct, had one gallery of a biennial artist and three or four of local artists. Another location was an expansive, abandoned school that had been converted into artist's studios. It was a lot of fun to see into the heart of a very active art scene without having to do any networking.

The biennial locations also lead into the heart of the devastation in the Ninth Ward. Along the river were clustered a half-dozen new homes paid for by Brad Pitt's "Make It Right" foundation. You can see them here.

The most memorable piece was in the deepest destruction of the Ninth Ward. The vacuum felt as one journeyed through the abandoned tracts of housing was echoed by an assemblage sculpture by Nari Ward in a lonely gutted church (above). It was made up of salvaged exercise equipment and mirrors . The water mark in the church was very high, just about a foot under the ridge of the ceiling; note the sagging ceiling fan.

Other high-points were:

(Above, top-left) LED fireworks and massage chairs by Cai Guo-Qiang, who orchestrated the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. The massage chairs were lined up as an invitation to contemplate the piece. Matisse famously said that art should be " a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair".

(Above, top-right) Mardi Gras Indian costumes by Victor Harris of Fi-Yi-Yi at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). These costumes were part of an African-American tradition begun when Mardi Gras celebrations were segregated, and are a cultural precedent of Africa Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation.

(Above, bottom-left) A nine-to-one ratio see-saw by Pedro Reyes at the Contemporary Art Center. Though I liked its shape a lot, it was slightly rickety.

(Above, bottom-right) An installation by Stephen Rhodes that we dubbed 'The Hall of Killer Robotic Presidents', which was entertaining in its inclusion of the animatronic presidents of Disneyland.

Harry Shearer interviewed the founder and curator of Prospect New Orleans a couple of weeks ago. The mp3 file for the January 4th show, and a link to the Le Show podcast.

NOMA had a work by a baroque painter I am fond of, Alessandro Magnasco. His work is a bridge between Titian, El Greco, Goya and even Kirchner, and is imaginative, spacious and stylized. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a handful of his paintings that I often visit. (Miscellaneous paintings by Magnasco above.)

Scott drove us an hour out of the city to a sculpture garden made by the visionary artist Kenny Hill. Hill was a brick layer by trade, and between 1990 and the millennium he lived alone and made a garden of figures, columns, and a lighthouse out of grout, rebar, brick and wire mesh. Scott related that Hill was in fact squatting, and left when the municipality pressured him to start paying taxes on the land. He has not been heard from since. The figures had the poignancy of Romanesque sculpture. The garden reminded me of projects like Ferdinand Cheval's Ideal Palace, the Watts Towers, and Opus 40. (Here are some Flickr hits for Kenny Hill's garden.)

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