To make sense of the bewildering multitude of objects in the extraordinary “Empire” at the Newcomb Art Museum, start with the wallpaper.
Designed by Los Angeles-based exhibition curators David Allen Burns and Austin Young, who together collaborate as Fallen Fruit, the wallpaper in the four galleries was custom made for the installation.
One is a picture-perfect print of oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, carnival beads and toilet paper (the duo visited New Orleans to collect source material after the Tucks parade). Another features exotic figures from vintage Carnival floats. And the largest room in the show is covered in a gorgeous print of some of the flowers that cover New Orleans in their scent and color.
But Fallen Fruit asks you to consider those images more closely: Those flowers are all non-native and invasive species, and the oak print underscores the essential strangeness of man-made material like plastic beads and toilet paper as “natural” parts of the environment. And those Carnival scenes are based on outmoded stereotypes of Native Americans.
All of which should prepare you for looking at the objects in the exhibition with a critical eye: If every picture tells a story, “Empire” is a virtually limitless library of New Orleans’ fables, quirks, traditions and cherished delusions about itself.
The installation, which was co-commissioned by Newcomb with A Studio in the Woods and Pelican Bomb, consists of hundreds of paintings, photographs, sculptures, books, scale models, printed ephemera and miscellany from nearly a dozen Tulane-affiliated archives including the Hogan Jazz Archive and Amistad Research Center.
Walking around the galleries feels like stumbling upon a particularly eclectic antique shop or the best garage sale in the world, and the effect is both exhilarating and disorienting as you attempt to draw connections between the overwhelming assortment of random objects — all of which relate to the 300-year history of New Orleans in some way.
A shelf of dusty books with titles like “The Empire & the Glory” and “Scenes de la Vie Francaise” seem to conceal some kind of intractable meta-narrative about the French culture from which New Orleans emerged.
Closer to the present, other accumulations of objects become testament to the still-lingering scars inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on Tulane’s archives and on the city as whole. Paintings rescued from the floodwaters wait in a pile to be restored. A nearby cabinet bears an imprint of the flood line on its surface.
More subtly, the exhibition teases out hidden histories of various cultures and populations of New Orleans. Old jazz records and books resonate with two immense pieces of furniture rescued from long-vanished Storyville salons to illustrate aspects of the indigenous musical form most associated with the city, while portraits of mostly anonymous individuals — especially women and African-Americans — are reminders that not everyone has achieved equal representation in its official historical record.
And objects relating to the queer histories of New Orleans are scattered throughout the show like so many glittery pieces of the city’s mosaic: an invitation to a gay Mardi Gras ball in one case, a denim vest adorned with pins advertising various gay events (which tellingly seem to end toward the end of the 1980s) on top of another.
There’s something worthwhile to look at just about everywhere here, and you can spend several hours finding new things to study — even as you soon come to realize that making a coherent narrative out of them would be an impossible task.
But the show isn’t asking you to make sense of it all. In fact, its message is a relatively simple one: As we celebrate the last 300 years of our collective history, the process of how that history is selected, contextualized and communicated is worth examining.
“Empire” reminds us how what we call “history” is an always subjective and often random association of events and objects that don’t necessarily tell the complete story. It’s a simple concept that could have become a gimmick if the objects chosen by Burns and Young to illustrate the concept weren’t so consistently intriguing: who knew that we as a city have all this … stuff lying around?
You may not come away from the show with a cohesive understanding of New Orleans history. But you will come away with an appreciation of how much you don’t know about it — and how much there is to discover.
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WHEN: Through July 7
WHERE: Newcomb Art MuseumTulane University
INFO: (504) 865-5328; newcombartmuseum.tulane.edu