The World According to New Orleans

Ballroom Marfa

Through August 14
by Rachel Stevens

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      Dawn Dedeaux
      Steps Home
      30 x 48 x 43 inches
      Courtesy of the artist and Aurthur Rogers Gallery, New Orleans, LA
      Photo © Fredrik Nilsen

      View Gallery

      What would the art world look like if New Orleans were already a center? This was curator Dan Cameron’s “mind exercise” that catalyzed The World According to New Orleans, an exhibition at Ballroom Marfa that gestures toward introducing the art world of New Orleans to a wider, international art audience. As an art community New Orleans has, in the past, almost willfully refused influence from New York and other art centers. Characterized as insular, however, New Orleans already has an incredible mix of international cultures, including African, Native American, French, Spanish, Cuban and Haitian, that all play a role in the city’s cultural production.

      Some orientation to New Orleans’ art heritage is in order, and almost half of the Ballroom is devoted to important work from the later part of the 20th century. Most of this work is figurative in some way, showing ritual processions, characters from the local community and symbolic representations of spirituality and death. God told Sister Gertrude Morgan to paint and so she did—her self-taught paintings of religious subjects hang as testimony along one wall. Noel Rockmore’s more technically accomplished figurative paintings are reminiscent of the styles of a handful of art giants from the canon of 20th century art, but wholly uphold their own cryptic dynamism and beauty. Roy G. Ferdinand’s marker pen drawings warn of urban and spiritual ills. “Indians” dance in slow motion in celebration of Easter in a disintegrating film by Jules Cahn, and documentary photographs by Michael P. Smith show parades, musical processions, dancing, church and a funeral—performances revealing almost no apparent distinction between pleasure, spirituality and mourning.

      The elephant in the room is Hurricane Katrina or as residents would rather call it, according to Cameron, the “federal levee break of 2005.” The disaster directed the world’s attention toward this complex place and created a whole new condition from which the art community could reemerge. More than creating a blank slate, the flood, said artist Skylar Fein during a panel discussion on January 10th, “burnt the culture, but returned the nutrients to the cultural soil [as] a forest fire [does].” An art scene was born where previously there hadn’t been one, with a surge of collective art spaces and activity. New Orleans is now, says Fein, between floods, “like Weimar Germany [between the wars], a cauldron of culture.” As it grew, it also attracted artists and curators from elsewhere. Katrina prompted the New Orleans art world to leave the space of regionalism.

      The work of the last five years on view here still appears rooted in the culture and place of New Orleans, but more self-consciously. Although there are no explicit references to Katrina, there is an underlying tendency to refer to things that are absent or to address New Orleans as a troubled site that needs some care and attention. Deborah Luster’s vintage-looking grid of rich black and white photos show sites where recent murders have taken place. Skylar Fein’s American black flags communicate a kind of economic desperation with catchy retail discount slogans lining the stripes. Bruce Davenport’s marker pen drawings of high school marching bands in formation, though joyful in the expressions of the figures and in the geometric color patterns that are created by their arrangement, recall groups and traditions that have dispersed since the flood. Courtney Egan’s elegant video projections of ephemeral flora and fauna paired with sculptural objects—a yellow trumpet flower complete with dripping sound and a dry vessel, for example—promise sensuality, but convey an uncanny absence. In contrast Gina Phillips’ narrative painting Salvage Operation, made with fabric, thread and feathers, is tactile, material and present.

      Some pieces respond to Marfa as a site. Dawn Dedeaux’s illuminated Steps Home placed on a mostly empty lot, greeted us the night we drove into town, late and lost, from New York. Srdjan Loncar’s Fix-a-Thing pieces attend to small, broken moments in the Marfa landscape. Loncar molds missing parts, such as a railroad tie, from torn-up photographs he has made of the site, and installs them in situ. It is a gesture of kindness, but also of camouflaging, blending in. Dan Tague created metal texts for the courtyard, facing upward toward the bright sky, spelling out names of streets that no longer exist in New Orleans. The most discursive and immaterial piece in the show is Bons Enfants, spoken haikus in which students describe an eclectic array of New Orleans moments. Projected via an audio installation, this distillation of collective social experience transported from one site to another underscores what this show does best.

      About as remote a place as one can get for a vital contemporary art destination, Marfa is a specific and complex site with its own curious negotiations between a local culture and an international art world. As such it is an apropos choice for an exhibition about place, whose task is a negotiation between margin and center. Though not an artwork itself, The World According to New Orleans operates as what James Meyer calls a “functional site,” as it generates new discursive spaces for the art, artists and place-ness of both New Orleans and Marfa. It is worth requoting here what Miwon Kwon has already quoted in her 1997 essay “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity”:

      "[The functional site] is a process, an operation occurring between sites, a mapping of institutional and discursive filiations and the bodies that move between them (the artist's above all). It is an informational site, a locus of overlap of text, photographs and video recordings, physical places and things.... It is a temporary thing; a movement; a chain of meanings devoid of a particular focus."

      Although we may be nostalgic for the authenticity of the New Orleans that was, its new visibility and exchange of flows allow us to see the city as one of the "many dozens of potential art centers" that Cameron identified in the panel discussion as the current formation of the art world. Showing in Marfa is a first stop on the New Orleans artists’ transformation into contemporary-artists-as- globetrotters, and Marfa, though remote, delivers to the exhibition savvy art visitors from all over the globe. In an ideal world this nomadism and exposure will enable New Orleans as an art center without leveling its own potent cultural geography.

      Rachel Stevens is an artist and writer based in New York City.


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