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By James A. Nadeau

This past week I spent some time in New Orleans for a conference. As I like to do whenever visiting a new city (or even an old one) I find the local gallery scene and check out the work being shown. I also had an ulterior motive, as I wanted to talk to gallerists and artists about the scene and recruit some of them to talk about their experiences post-Katrina. There has been a lot of mainstream media coverage on the artistic heritage of New Orleans but the majority has focused on its music and architectural history. What was going on with artists and galleries?

The French Quarter is chock full of galleries. Unfortunately quite a few of them are either antique dealers or tourist art shops. Certainly these stores have a role to play culturally but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I figured I was in the wrong neighborhood. I knew that the gallery “district” was some blocks away in the Warehouse area across the central business district but I wanted to see what was here. Much like our Newbury Street, there are gems hidden amongst the dross. It was here I discovered the A Gallery for Fine Photography.

I am a sucker for photography. I like looking at it. I like thinking about the processes that go into its production. The photo galleries are often the most interesting to me. The main floor of the A Gallery was dominated by a who’s who of photographic history: Karsh, Cameron, Diane Arbus. It was great fun to look at work that is rarely exhibited. These are the odd prints that get reproduced for shops like these. They were high quality and enthralling. It was nice to see Bellocq’s work in the town of their creation. Upstairs, however was where I discovered that the contemporary work was hung. This was an exhibition of photographs by a local art couple, Louviere and Vanessa.

Their work was striking. Titled InstinctExtinct the photographs are printed on gold leaf, referencing the orotones of Edward S. Curtis (whose work just happens to be hanging nearby). While beautifully rendered I was somewhat thrown by the concept behind the exhibition. According to their artist statement Louviere and Vanessa were investigating the human loss of instinct. How we humans are instead motivated by drives: those of “eros and destruction.” It was these motivations that lead them to the creation of these images. While I understand the theory and the concept I’m not quite sure that it was successfully integrated into the work. Certainly the imagery was intriguing and reminded me of the work of Joel-Peter Witkin (minus the more disturbing aspects). Two in particular, I Think I am and Up, Up and Decay were particularly engaging. The former an interesting visual play on the Cartesian concept of “I think therefore I am,” in this case involving a creature whose visage is both creepy and enthralling. The question is: is he being self-reflexive or are we? Does one think oneself into being? And if so what kind of being would one be? The latter photograph involves a lizard moving vertically up the canvas. This one I especially liked for its tactile quality. The dark tones contrasted nicely with the mottling of the gold leaf. There is a dreamlike quality to the work. It is an intriguing blend of subtlety and brashness. All that gold? It left me curious to see more of their work especially their films. Can this mood and tactility be carried through in a moving image? I’m not sure I agree with their notion (despite what Lacan and Freud have said about drives, I think people are more influenced by their instincts than they care to admit) but I think their attempts to flesh out these ideas are quite compelling.

Jumping across town to the official gallery district I came across the work of Raine Bedsole at the Gallery Bienvenu. Another New Orleans based artist, Bedsole’s work also had an interesting tactile quality to it. Her work evokes images of water and boats, not surprising given the context. Working with both 2-D and sculpture Bedsole’s art is both ethereal and understated. It had a power in its simple figuration that avoided cliché. The human figure is predominant in much of the 2-D work on display but I never felt that it was investigating a field overused. For me it worked on two levels. There was the simple figure on a background, which had the possibility of being seen as hackneyed. But upon further investigation details emerged. Simple writing, and in one painting the deconstruction of a map, shredded and applied to the canvas, or in another twigs and plaster, all evoking the bodies relationship to landscape in a way that brings home how much residents of the area are influenced and dependent upon their environment. Her sculptures of small boats also carry these metaphors of space and ones relationship to nature. Intimate in detail and made of many of the same materials as the paintings the boats hang on the wall, fragile and unearthly. I believe she has a show opening up at this gallery in May that will be well worth seeing. I am curious to see where she goes next.

One other artist whose work I liked was Luis Cruz Azaceta. His work was hung in the back room of the Arthur Roger Gallery. Originally presented in the exhibition "Katrina: Catastrophe and Catharsis," the work is a series of photographs printed on the bases of salvaged pots and pans. I only saw three of the pots hung and could only imagine how strong the original installation of 40 pots and pans must have been. What could have seemed gimmicky and trite comes across as a powerful reminder of the destruction and emotional toll Katrina caused on the community.

There were several other galleries in the district that I visited. Most of the work I saw was intriguing and smart. I spoke with gallery directors about their experiences and about the biennial, which ran from November of last year to January 18th. In a financial environment where we are all feeling a little constrained and concerned about the arts it is difficult to be hopeful. Yet everyone I spoke to felt that great things were happening in New Orleans. People loved being there. Artists loved being there. In neighborhoods destroyed by the storm artists are moving in and renovating and creating studio spaces. In stark contrast to the way the city of Boston chooses to treat artists, New Orleans is creating new areas where people are flocking to live and make art. It was heartening to see.

A Gallery for Fine Photography

"InstinctExtinct" is on view as of November 1st, 2008 at A Gallery.

Gallery Bienvenu

"Raine Bedsole" is on view at Gallery Bienvenu.

Arthur Roger Gallery

"Luis Cruz Azaceta" is on view at Arthur Roger Gallery.

All images are courtesy of the artist and their respective venue.

About Author

James Nadeau is an independent curator, video artist and writer based in Boston. He is editor of Our Daily RED, the blog of arts journal Big RED & Shiny. He is a graduate of the Comparative Media Studies department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He completed his undergraduate studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His video work has been screened internationally and he has presented papers on media and film at conferences nationally. He has programmed film and video in several festivals throughout New England and he is currently a technical instructor on film in the Literature Department at MIT. He is currently working on a manuscript on reality television under consideration by Lexington Books.

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