Of the three shows commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina currently on view at the main visual art venues in New Orleans, the Contemporary Art Center’s “REVERB: Past, Present, Future” confronts its defining event most directly.
That’s both its biggest draw, as well as its most apparent weakness.
Curated by New York-based Isolde Brielmaier, “REVERB” includes work by 38 artists — and it says a lot about the quality and breadth of the art scene in New Orleans over the past decade that there’s little overlap between the roster here and in the Ogden’s enormous “Louisiana Contemporary” group show across the street. Both shows are filled with strong work.
Aside from a brief statement at the show’s entrance, “REVERB” is almost wholly absent of explicit curatorial commentary, much less any specific background or contextual information on the artists or their work. (In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you could view the show as a wryly updated version of the CAC’s contentious 2012 “Spaces” show, which focused on three artist-run spaces in the nascent St. Claude arts district; here, a disproportionate amount of work is credited to the same number of big-ticket Julia Street commercial galleries.)
Fortunately, “REVERB” relies on a mostly cohesive installation to tease out several broad and readily identifiable themes in post-Katrina art in New Orleans.
One of the most prominent of those themes, of course, is the various ways the storm affected the physical fabric of every layer of life in the city, including its art.
Several works that clearly reference Katrina are collected on the CAC’s first floor. Highlights include Charlie Varley’s photographs documenting understated moments of surreal beauty (a celestial shaft of sunlight illuminating the ravaged interior of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome; a pair of plaster Madonnas on a road in New Orleans East) in the immediate days and weeks after the storm.
A mesmerizing mechanical piece by Abigail Clark makes visible notions of loss and displacement inherent in the city’s post-Katrina narrative. And the jagged edges and exposed layers of drywall and vintage wallpaper in an architectural installation reminiscent of a segment of storm-ravaged home by Carlie Trosclair are both terrifying and beautiful.
Similar themes continue throughout much of the art on the second floor, where visitors are confronted by Stephanie Patton’s “It will happen when you least expect it.” Occupying an entire wall and made out of pieces of stuffed mattress quilting, it communicates equal parts comfort and menace.
Works by Ben Diller and Cynthia Giachetti, Anita Cooke, and Rontherin Ratliff all incorporate found materials, some of which were salvaged from the wreckage of the storm. Ratliff’s wall assemblages of rusted springs and flaking window frames occupy a Katrina-haunted conceptual space between presence and decay, and have an especially powerful resonance.
That emphasis on explicitly Katrina-related motifs, however, is also responsible for the show’s biggest drawback. While it claims to explore the past, present, and future of post-Katrina artistic production in New Orleans, “REVERB” overwhelmingly favors the first two-thirds of that equation.
It’s somewhat of a missed opportunity, especially since there are several artists here — including Angel P., Skylar Fein, Courtney Egan , Norah Lovell, Carl Joe Williams and Sidonie Villere — who provide a tantalizing glimpse of where the currents of New Orleans art might be drifting in the future.
As it stands, however, there’s plenty of work in “REVERB” that shows where we’ve been, but not nearly as much that gives an indication of where art in New Orleans is going.