Any tired old queen like me who has endured the New York art world for years heaves a world-weary sigh at the common New York assumption that the Big Apple has a stranglehold on cutting-edge contemporary art. While article after article recently from Al Jazeera to Talking Heads hero David Byrne points out that the seemingly unstoppable evolution of New York City from the cheap, decaying and yes, dangerous city to the playground for the wealthy has squashed honest and fearless artistic creation, New Yorkers, particularly in the art world, still love to boast about New York as the premier site of cultural creation. As Mike Kelley said in an interview in 2004 about the New York/Museum of Modern Art version of art history, “It’s based on pure bullshit.”
Turning my attention to perhaps less-moneyed art scenes elsewhere, I traveled to New Orleans over the holidays to delve into my long-held belief that New Orleans hosts a fascinating local art scene, one that perhaps hasn’t yet reached us art enthusiasts up North. If you know anything about me, it’s certainly no secret that I adore New Orleans from its swampy sleaze to its Tennessee Williams-related literary history in the French Quarter to my favorite voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
Between Sazeracs and Bloody Marys at the Carousel Bar, I wandered through a few of New Orleans contemporary art museums and galleries, completely inspired by what I saw and I don’t think it was just the cocktails (Save your judgments). Lacking the rent-panicked, ambition of their New York colleagues, the galleries and museums were filled with subversive, slightly terrifying and stunning art from local artists. From the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) to small galleries on Magazine Street, the New Orleans art scene has flourished past that damned (and damned cute) Blue Dog.
Rather than focus on the main exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s gorgeous and thought-provoking photographs of water across the globe, I want to highlight three local New Orleans artists who deserve a larger audience and a national (and even international) following. All women, many of these emerging artists have not shown extensively outside of Louisiana.
So grab yourself a hurricane (oh please, I know they’re strong. I only make them Category 5), turn on Dr. John and get ready to meet some amazing NOLA artists:
On the ground floor of the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans-born printmaker and artist Katrina Andry’s powerful, colorful and wonderfully jarring work delves into the insidious racial stereotypes that continue to haunt American society.
Presented in the CAC’s annual Visual Artists Network 2013 Annual Meeting Exhibition, a group show of artists who participated in VAN’s residency program combined with a New Orleans-based artist, Andry’s prints are joined by Los Angeles artist Castillo and photographer and activist Eric Gottesman. All three artists investigate race in their own respective mediums from Castillo’s monumental hairballs, made from synthetic hair, to Andry’s own stereotype-dominated visual landscape.
Constructing her own creative world full of pregnant unfit mothers, hypersexualized black women, welfare queens and strivers for white acceptance, Andry’s vividly colored prints are breath-taking, meaning they literally make the viewer stagger back with her brutal honesty and unwavering glimpse into the racialized stereotypes that dominate American culture. As Andry reveals in her artist statement, “My work challenges ideas about black people (Other) that once ago had scientific research qualifying them, and how these ideas or stereotypes have become a part of how we see each other whether consciously or unconsciously.”
In addition to her insightful incision of American culture, Andry’s works are downright beautiful, depicting an amalgamation of landscapes of patterns, color and sources. Playing with the notion of skin color, Andry’s subjects often seem to have painted masks over their faces, approaching race as a socially-constructed mask that one could take on or off.
With titles like “Unfit Mothers Make For Fit Nannies,” “The Jungle Bunny Gave You Fever. The Only Cure Is To Fuck The Bunny. She Wants It,” and “The Unfit Mommy And Her Spawn Will Wreck Your Comfortable Suburban Existence,” Andry cuts through America’s obsession with race, forcing the viewer to confront history, the legacy of racial stereotypes and their continued contemporary force. Like a print-making Kara Walker, everyone is implicated in Andry’s art.
While New Orleans-born Sarah Quintana is known more as a singer-songwriter than a fine artist, her musical series The Delta Demitasse, filmed by Kat Sotelo, unquestionably belongs in the realm of multidisciplinary art (as does most NOLA music, let’s be honest). Shown at the Contemporary Arts Center, Quintana’s The Delta Demitasse takes viewers directly to the roots of music coming out of the Mississippi Delta.
Created during her stint at the A Studio In The Woods residency in October 2012, Quintana uses the water of the Mississippi River as a source of inspiration and a musical instrument, combining sounds of water with a guitar, as well as numerous random found objects from cups, mason jars, drainpipes and a bathtub. Somewhere between composed and completely improvisational, Quintana’s sweet and earthy musical tribute to the Mississippi Delta and its place in musical history went hand-in-hand with the other water-themed installations at the Contemporary Art Center.
Like most New Orleans music from blues to jazz to cajun and folk, Quintana’s The Delta Demitasse uses sounds and instruments from the surrounding area, tying the music to the locale. Constructing an improvisational flow in her music that reflects the same flow of the Mississippi, Quintana’s musical experimentation paints an auditory portrait of the region.
Now what would a Filthy Dreams list be without an artist whose work is both slightly unsettling and strangely alluring like a David Lynch film? Well, Michele Basta-Smith’s surreal creations resemble the creatures a Victorian gentleman would see on an opium trip and trust me, that is a compliment.
Visiting the Coup D’Oeil Art Consortium on Magazine Street, I caught a glimpse of Michele Basta-Smith’s sculpture “Opal,” an illuminated Victorian-looking gown made of sewn wax paper with delicate illustrations and naturally, a set of very realistic breasts. Merging the bodily with the whimsical, the lurid with the floral, “Opal” was stunningly beautiful and yet, a little Silence of the Lambs, particularly with the explosion of paper instead of a head. A hallucinatory mix of femininity and an eerie, psychological horror, “Opal” undoubtedly was a memorable introduction to Basta-Smith’s art.
Born in the hairdo capital of the world, Baltimore, Basta-Smith works both in painting and sculpture, creating her own identifiable artistic world. Fascinated by the juxtaposition of the natural world with mythology, Basta-Smith’s nightmarish creatures revel in the divisions between the pretty and the hideous.