Water has always been central to the identity of New Orleans. Not only is it the main reason the city exists as an important port metropolis in the first place; it’s also the natural force most responsible for its potential destruction, as a certain event that took place nine years ago this August made all too clear.
This month, a group show at the LeMieux Galleries in the Warehouse District looks at the ways water affects the imaginations and day-to-day lives of people in our communities and those further afield.
Curated by gallery co-director Christy Wood, “Water Water Everywhere” includes over 30 works by two dozen artists working in a variety of media, including painting, mixed-media sculpture and photography.
All were chosen to focus attention on what Wood identifies as crucial issues.
“Water is such an important topic, especially here in Louisiana,” she said. “Our coastlines are shrinking, our Gulf is being polluted, our streets are flooding. We are constantly reminded how important water is to our existence, yet how devastating it can be.”
To that end, “Water Water Everywhere” isn’t merely a symbolic visual survey: 10 percent of sale proceeds will be donated to water.org, an organization that advocates for safe drinking water and basic sanitation services in developing communities around the world.
Some of the artists in the show take a fantastical or dreamlike approach to their subject matter. Paintings by Michael Dandely, Nathan Durfee and Kathleen Lolley prominently feature allegorical figures in water-based environments.
The bearded and tattooed old man in his elaborately scaly headdress stitching a starfish in Durfee’s “Putting the Sea Back Together” is perhaps the most engaging, and the most poignant.
Other artists in the show treat its theme in a more realistic manner.
At first glance, Aron Belka’s “Bayou La Loutre” might be just another picturesque depiction of an abandoned fishing boat run aground on the shore of a watery byway.
But Belka says it was painted following a visit to Plaquemines Parish to record the destruction of Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
“(The painting) reminds me of the power of the water which surrounds our communities,” he said. “It creates, but it can also destroy our livelihoods.”
Belka also explained that his technique further reflects the painting’s subject matter.
“There were times when I was violently applying the paint, thinking about the forces pushing this boat around,” he said of its creation.
Elsewhere in the show, paintings by Deedra Ludwig, Margaret Tolbert and Kate Trepagnier convey more abstract impressions of wet environments.
Meanwhile, Theresa Honeywell’s vintage tattoo-inspired tableau exhorting viewers to “Fear the Sea” exists in a medium unto itself, composed of stunningly intricate lacelike layers of “thread on thread” via a special sewing technique she developed herself.
Although the show includes works by artists outside of the New Orleans area, specific motifs from the city figure prominently in several pieces.
Kathryn Hunter uses a vintage postcard and embroidery thread to depict the iconic equestrian statue of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at the end of Esplanade Avenue surrounded by rising water, while Leslie Elliottsmith’s photomontage transports a pristine shotgun house to a moody and surreal bayou landscape.
And a mixed-media assemblage by Shannon Landis Hansen brilliantly conveys the dynamic relationship between the wetlands and the built environment, which characterizes the landscape of southern Louisiana.
“I have always been fascinated by how things change in time,” she said. “New creations grow out of the ruins of what came before.”
Composed of mosaic tiles and bits of broken china and decorative figurines, “Our House” depicts a dwelling propped up on columns in and upon which lurk fragments of human and animal figures.
Given the context, it isn’t difficult to imagine them as broken victims of a flood or other water-borne catastrophe.
Yet, that house perched on top of the wreckage remains somehow exquisitely vulnerable and invincibly solid at the same time. It’s a fitting monument to the contradictions that arise from being surrounded by water.