Friday, August 28, 2015

Shake It Off?

Screen Shot of Yahoo News Page

When I went to sign into my Yahoo Mail account I saw a headline I probably shouldn't have clicked on: "Taylor Swift-Approved Mural 'Lifts' New Orleans After Katrina." 

The article was about a mural by Kelsea Montague recently installed in Downtown New Orleans and presented by Downtown Development District (DDD) and Pelican Bomb. I could ignore the embarrassing mention of pop celebrity approval. I could ignore the absurd idea that if New Orleans needs a "lift" it could be accomplished by a mural. I could even try to ignore that this "lifting" of New Orleans is occurring "After Katrina." Hurricane Katrina was a horror-filled, complex catastrophe. And while rebuilding is an ongoing effort, I assure you that the good people of New Orleans have not been sitting slumped-shouldered for ten years, waiting for a mural. This headline is simplistic and condescending. 

But, I told myself, it's just a Yahoo News headline. WGNO had a similar one, though it leaves Katrina out of it: "Uplifting Mural Approved by Taylor Swift now in New Orleans." And there were others (I couldn't help it; I went looking for them). I get it. This is how headlines work and this is the way news covers whatever they place under the banner of art. The yahoo article goes on to  instruct, "Look closely at Montague's mural and you'll recognize iconic New Orleans symbols like Mardi Gras masks and beads." The promotion on the DDD website claims that the wings "celebrate the city's unique natural and cultural landscapes." Beads and Masks. 

This project was brought to us by the Downtown Development District and Pelican Bomb. The DDD's mission as stated on their website is "To drive the development of Downtown New Orleans and be the catalyst for a prosperous, stimulating, innovative heart of the Crescent City." I have absolutely no problem with the DDD presenting downtown with this mural. It is a fun-loving, tourist-ready, photogenic piece of promotion linked with eye-catching celebrity endorsement, in other words right up their alley. I would have seen the headline, rolled my eyes, and clicked on to my inbox see what junk mail needed dealing with...if it wasn't for Pelican Bomb. 

When Pelican Bomb first appeared in 2011, it was a good-looking website on which to find art listings that listed real art and writing that contextualized the work of local artists in the broader context of contemporary art. Pelican Bomb recently reconfigured its mission. Their website now states: "At Pelican Bomb, we see ourselves as architects of a new arts infrastructure in New Orleans." 

I am not going to apply rigorous art critique to this mural. Looking at Montague's website I can pretty confidently say that she is not looking for an art review. If I met her I would congratulate her on the success of her business and the opportunities for travel that the murals have afforded her. My issue is with Pelican Bomb.

Is this really what Pelican Bomb envisions when they speak of a "new arts infrastructure" in New Orleans? Is this the type of work that their infrastructure will support? In New Orleans, the word "art" covers so many objects and activities that the term is rendered almost meaningless. Pelican Bomb, I thought that is what you were for, for the discussion and promotion of real contemporary artists, for solidarity. I thought you were here to say to artists, to art lovers, You're not alone. We know what you mean when you say "art." 

I believe art is not a backdrop, a photo op, or selfie fodder. Art is not easy or easily explained. Art is not always understood or supported but art matters in part because it is different than everything else we do as humans. It is deeply impractical but we do it anyway and always have. The best art is usually ushered into existence quietly and with very few "likes" on Facebook. This is the art that could use an upgraded infrastructure in New Orleans. We need art organizations that support art, not confuse it with products or stunts to benefit tourism and commerce. We need art organizations that acknowledge what artists do is unique, that art should not strive for instant, popular approval. In the big picture, I know this mural is not a crisis, and that if Pelican Bomb continues to support projects like this it will not be a tragedy. Still, contrary to the muralist's intention, it's kind of a downer. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

11th Hour Review

Image Courtesy of the Joshua Edward Bennett
Joshua Edward Bennett, Ceniztanos 
Good Children, New Orleans

This show closes today. 

1. You have to see this work in person. Online it becomes graphic when in fact it is sculptural. The installation is impressive and part of the experience of the work.

2. This show is a total experience. The lighting and sound piece, the handmade sconces, aluminum string curtain, and benches lend the space the character of a chapel or meditation room without that quality feeling overwrought. Compared to the more developed art in the show, this is furniture and atmosphere that achieves its goal without over-reaching or detracting from the art.

3. The work itself consisted of walk-mounted pieces that were sculptural and sculptural pieces, which retained their two-dimensional roots. The wall-mounted pieces were made of wood and layered painted aluminum. Three chalices on pedestals with mirrored surfaces were built of stacks of cut rings. I could go on describing the work but the way I experienced it was immediate and not analytical. It was on a second pass that I began to try to decipher how they were made.

4. There are two works that incorporate the image of a chain, one large and one smaller. The larger was structurally admirable and very attractive. While evidently a serious endeavor to fabricate, it did not rise above high-end design. I found the chain motif both too empty and too loaded, not in sync with the rest of the show, but not opposing it in an interesting way. 

5. Is this Ayahuasca art? It’s true, there is something of the Western artist meets DMT-inspired spirituality. There is a piece in two parts that resembles an Inca totem character. The most fine-lined abstractions have a trip-on-this attraction. When the artist confirmed that he had spent time in South America (Peru) I was interested but not surprised. (I didn’t ask about Ayahuasca.) But the fabricated, machine-assisted geometry, the obvious labor and sober attention to each piece save these works from being woo-woo. There is influence without cultural pickpocketing.

6. These objects surpass psychedelia or abstract decoration, though they utilize the vocabulary of both. Some pieces were more optically complex and others more directly geometric. Their coexistence in the show made me think of how the brain, or more accurately consciousness, has different and polar modes: waking and sleeping, sensory and cerebral,  active and passive. In the end what I can say is that this work was expansive and visually intelligent. I am not sure if that will make sense without seeing the work. The artwork engages the viewer to the detriment of distraction. It promotes being in the moment, which is to say meditation, which is to say, the experience of art.

7. Titles. This is a touchy subject with me. I applaud this artist’s solution. I don’t want to write it here because I always look at the work without titles first and want to allow other viewers the same discovery. Suffice it to say that he went beyond Untitled, my default preference in a lot of cases.

8. Adam, thanks for the tip. Joshua Edward Bennett, thanks for the experience. What a cool homecoming.