Elizabeth Shannon, Raft of the Medusa, 1978

Elizabeth Shannon, Raft of the Medusa, 1978

Then and Now: A Road of Trials To A Contemporary Art Scene in New Orleans

I was made almost unbearably happy by my interlude at Then and Now, Dan Cameron’s latest curatorial effort in New Orleans (between the Prospects), which he was asked to do to track the local history around Contemporary Arts Center’s 35th birthday. Exhibiting 14 Louisiana painters, sculptors, and installation artists who were there at CAC’s founding and from whose bodies of work Cameron pulled objects from then – the ‘70s – and now – the 2000-2010 decade – Cameron as a curator just keeps getting better. This show manages to be edgy yet spacious, revelatory of that wacky excellent 1970s spirit of founding. It never seems to need to hammer on the keys over just how (heavy pause) long these artists – Wayne Amedee, Lynda Benglis, Douglas Bourgeois, Dawn Dedeaux, George Dureau, Lin Emery, Gene Koss, Martin Payton, Jim Richard, Elizabeth Shannon, Keith Sonnier, Robert Tannen, Robert Warrens, and Clifton Webb – have been around; whether the new work is as good as the old work; does the scene hold? You get the point. And it does hold.

And it makes for what in retrospect seems a seer’s visual history. (Question, though: Where is Tina Girouard?) Some of these founding artists of contemporary in Nola, it seems, rented studio spaces in old factories that informs the material history: like Elizabeth Shannon using architectural salvage out of Fauna Awning Co. at 1212 Royal. Back then the green lettered Dawn Dedeaux CB radio booths were places you could communicate remotely from spots around town. In duller suburban settings, Keith Sonnier’s scanners ominously droned the weather report.

Meantime painters Douglas Bourgeois, George Dureau, Robert Warrens did all sorts of stuff from highly allegorical send-ups (Warrens) to Bourgeois’s loving portraits in colors befitting Agnes Pelton, to Jim Richard’s incredible painting Big Red. Bourgeois is my personal favorite but these are excellent painters all.

Douglas Bourgeois, Iko Ikon

Douglas Bourgeois, Iko Ikon

Even six years post-storm, this great city remains a place entirely itself and remarkable. It was the collective American malign neglect that saw levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina and an official response afterward that failed poor black Americans beyond words. But what is cheering and astonishing now is how great, critically involved, the new 30-something contemporary art new scene is proving to be. That’s for the next post.

I want to pause though at Robert Tannen’s bridges, or the passage across “floating transient worlds” (phrase by zen master Hakuin). In 1975 Tannen’s salvage sculpture was made of planks, chain and stones, and with rearview looks flimsy enough for any brave feet however metaphoric. “The Drying and Washing Away Whirlpool Machine” is Tannen’s title for his 2011 comment via a black Whirlpool dryer that tumbles small wooden houses. Taped to the machine cover is a handwritten caution warning “the action of the machine is LOUD.”

Robert Tannen

Robert Tannen's 1970s sculpture is a bridge over the floating transient world

Robert Tannen, The Drying and Washing Away Whirlpool Machine, 2011

Robert Tannen, The Drying and Washing Away Whirlpool Machine, 2011

One of this crew at least has achieved international in fame : namely, Lynda Benglis, now of Santa Fe and New York (and India), fresh off her career retrospective at New York’s New Museum. But to see her 1970s knot piece here reminds you, yes, Lynda Benglis in the 1970s hailed from Louisiana, bravely twisted fabric, and made herself famous by strapping on a dildo for an ad in Artforum – an act of art fiat that seems all the more bold because of the company she kept and that sense of mutual empowerment.

This show overall gives the lie to any idea that apotheosis – Cindy Sherman to the left hand of God -should be any artist’s goal. Cameron strikes with Then and Now, other parts of the monomyth: Initiation, the road of trials, atonement, supernatural aid. These artists will give that to you in buckets.

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