Now in its fourth year, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Louisiana Contemporary exhibition is more than just another summer group show.
According to its organizers, it’s an annual event intended “to promote contemporary art practices in the state of Louisiana, to provide exhibition space for the work of living artists, and to engage an audience that recognizes the vibrant visual culture of Louisiana and the role of New Orleans as a rising, international art center.”
More simply put, it’s a reasonably comprehensive if not objective look at the present state of visual art in Louisiana, weighted toward New Orleans.
Think of it as a snapshot of the current regional art scene.
With 119 pieces by 68 artists, chosen from more than 800 submissions by exhibition juror (and Prospect New Orleans executive director) Brooke Davis Anderson, there’s a lot to take in — and even knowing where to begin once you step off the elevator on the fifth floor can be a challenge.
Fortunately, while previous iterations of Louisiana Contemporary felt hampered by space constraints and indistinct curatorial perspectives, this year’s show benefits from Anderson’s identification of several broad themes linking various works as well as a more inviting and smartly organized installation of the exhibition by the Ogden staff.
One viewing strategy is to look for the artists chosen by Anderson for special commendation.
You may or may not agree that Natalie McLaurin’s ambiguously cloaked and costumed body casts deserved the Best in Show title, but it’s hard to dispute the formal appeal of first-place winner John Barnes’ wooden wall assemblages, and that second-place Carl Joe Williams’ “Paulette” is a captivating example of color, texture, detail and narrative.
And a multimedia installation by Martin Benson singled out for honorable mention, with its constantly shifting color palette and gentle sonic drone, lends a calming and suitably contemplative presence to the entire exhibition.
You can also follow Anderson’s lead and seek out examples of works that she identifies as falling under a handful of broad common themes, including landscape, spirituality and experimentation.
A series of colorful hanging sculptures by Cynthia Scott displayed throughout the exhibition, assembled from household objects like plastic colanders and addressing issues like genetically modified food production, emphatically fall in the latter category.
In one gallery, works including sculptures and wall pieces made of found objects and hair (which seems to be a popular artistic medium in Louisiana these days) by Elizabeth Derby, Dixon Stetler and Kristin Meyers, a meticulously arranged row of glitter-dipped chicken bones by Artemis Antippas and a pair of video pieces by Dylan Cruz Azaceta convey an uneasy, almost queasy physicality. (That’s meant as a compliment.) Collectively, they make up one of the more thematically cohesive passages in the show.
Not all of the best work in Louisiana Contemporary is aggressively experimental.
Some of the strongest pieces here are old-fashioned paintings on canvas, including a quietly virtuoistic study of churning water by Ronna Harris, a pair of colorful nature fantasies by Ed Smith and a formidable series of larger-than-life portraits by Ruth Owens (including one that was a highlight of the “Contemporary Artists Respond to the Baby Dolls” show at the McKenna Museum of African-American Art earlier this year.)
Of course, the show is also a reminder that “contemporary” art doesn’t always mean “good” art. A glaringly out-of-place neon piece by Ti-Rock Moore manages the neat trick of being both shrill and vapid at the same time.
And much of the photography in the show leans toward blandly pretty Louisiana landscapes and standard examples of New Orleans street photography. (Exceptions include Cecelia and Jose Fernandes’ engaging black-and-white diptychs exploring urban decay and celebration, L. Kasimu Harris’ provocative “staged reality” tableaux and Frank Relle’s menacingly atmospheric swamp studies.)
For all of the guideposts the exhibition provides, however, perhaps the best strategy is to simply dive right in without a game plan and see what catches your eye.
Finding hidden gems and compiling a list of your own personal favorites is a big part of the appeal of this kind of sprawling summer group show, and Louisiana Contemporary affords plenty of opportunities for exploration.
John d’Addario writes about art. He can be reached at email@example.com.