If you’re looking for the most cutting-edge art in New Orleans right now, you won’t find it in the current exhibition at The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Not that that’s where you’d be likely to look anyway. Over the years, a robust series of THNOC’s exhibitions have put the emphasis squarely on the historic and New Orleans, roughly in equal measure.
Still, there are a few interesting surprises in store among the several dozen works on display in a current exhibition at THNOC’s Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art on Chartres Street: “Recent Acquisitions in Louisiana Art, 2010-2014” features works have been added to the institution’s permanent collection over the past half decade.
Even the fact that THNOC maintains and regularly adds to a large permanent art collection may be surprising to those more accustomed to its research facilities and program of special exhibitions, like last year’s excellent Boswell Sisters show and the current “Andrew Jackson: Hero of New Orleans” show (on view through March 29) at its Royal Street location.
But “Recent Acquisitions” provides a tantalizing glimpse into THNOC’s rich art holdings, which include decorative arts and furniture in addition to paintings and photographs.
Start with the gallery on the left after you enter the (unmarked) white door to the galleries on Chartres Street and you’ll encounter one of the standout works in the show: Douglas Bourgeois’ “Burning Orchard Night Club” is a fantastic fever dream of a mythical New Orleans hot spot populated with dozens of colorful characters and depicted with the artist’s signature attention to detail — right down to each heavily mascara’d eyelash and glamorously pouty lip.
Aside from being one of the more contemporary pieces in the collection (and providing an interesting thematic comparison with Lawrence Christie Edwardson’s “Quadroon Ball” on the opposite wall), it’s also one of the more visually captivating. And it’s another reminder that the Louisiana born-and-bred Bourgeois’ work at the Contemporary Arts Center was one of the highlights of the international Prospect.3 triennial exhibition last fall.
Not all the work in the show stands out as much as Bourgeois’ does.
Still, some of the wall pairings here at least illustrate a uniquely Louisianian take on 20th century art history.
Willard Cooper‘s boldly outlined depiction of an industrial landscape in Shreveport contrasts with two impressionistic canvases by the Woodward brothers (Ellsworth and William) hanging nearby, and show how the gradual transition from traditional landscape and genre painting to modernist movements like cubism played out on a local level. (A painting by Paul Ninas, another central figure in the development of modern art in Louisiana, is also included in the show.)
Elsewhere in the galleries, keep an eye out for a few more out-of-the-ordinary moments among what is otherwise mostly a selection of pleasant if not especially challenging art.
A heroic nude male figure from the 1940s by Leonard Theobald Flettrich feels like a typical academic study of its kind until you see the sickle in his hand and an outstretched hand in a puddle of blood at his feet. (The title “Cain and Abel” should clue you in to what’s going on.) The nattily dressed audience members in Dr. Lester E. Simmons’ “Jelly Roll Morton” seem to be staring at the viewer of the painting as much as they are the early jazz legend on stage.
And Gene Howard Rogas’ “Constructing the Overpass” takes as prosaic a subject as highway construction and elevates it to the surreal with its depiction of three support structures that look like monumental (and headless) classical Greek sculptures.
Finally, don’t overlook THNOC’s collection of recently acquired late 18th- and 19th-century miniature portraits which get a case all to themselves.
With their virtuosic level of minute detail and opulent frames and settings (made of materials including gold, silver, ivory, silk and human hair), they have an outsized presence in proportion to their diminutive size and make more of an impression than the wall-sized portraits in an adjacent gallery.
They’re among the hidden jewels in a collection that deserves a closer look.