What is Southern art? That’s the question the Ogden Museum has been answering in different ways since its inception.
On one hand, the answer is simple: You only have to look at the states on the wall label for each work in the museum’s collection to realize that the distinction is primarily one of geography.
But while geography might unite the disparate artists and styles represented in the Ogden’s collection, the particulars of that common identity can get a little more complicated.
That multidimensional aspect of Southern art is explored in the Ogden’s current survey of works from its permanent collection, titled — what else? — “A Sense of Place.” The first part of the exhibition was on view at the Ogden last year; the current show continues with a new selection of work by 42 artists.
“ ‘Sense of place’ is a phrase we use a lot here at the museum to describe how an artist expresses a relationship to their environment in their work,” said exhibition curator Bradley Sumrall. “So it seemed fitting to use it as the title for these shows.”
Far from trotting out a random assortment of objects from the Ogden’s storerooms, Sumrall has grouped the works in “Sense of Place” by common themes: landscapes, portraits, abstract paintings, and images of animals and flowers each get their own dedicated gallery.
The groupings each shed some light on the tremendous diversity of the works which fall under the “Southern art” umbrella, while offering some tantalizing visual evidence of how they collectively differ from art made in other parts of the country.
In the portrait section, Adrian Deckbar’s full-length 1981 study of a young man with period-perfect feathered hair and dolphin shorts is several worlds away from fellow Louisiana artist Noel Rockmore’s trio of noble, stern-faced musicians from Preservation Hall.
Yet, the soft tropical light and color palette of the former and the rich cultural subtext of the latter leave little doubt as to where they were created.
The “Southern-ness” of some of the art in the Ogden’s collection is even more explicit in a pair of mixed media pieces that share opposite sides of a wall at the exhibition’s entrance.
Jeffery Cook’s 2002 assemblage “Makin’ of a Melody” incorporates direct references to his Central City neighborhood along with more oblique symbolism: look for the initials “C.H.,” which refer to the revered folk artist Clementine Hunter (who also appears in the show).
Sumrall says that the piece also contains hidden poems and other objects, which had remained unseen by anyone besides Cook himself until some of the boxes which contain them accidentally fell open when the piece was being moved.
On the other side of the wall, the place that’s the subject of Jimmy Descant’s “My Baser Self Lives Here” couldn’t be more clear either: The work is shaped like a map of Louisiana.
Yet, Descant, who created the piece during a multimedia event at the Ogden in 2012, also includes objects, words, and images unique to his own experience as a Louisiana artist in post-Katrina exile. For these artists, a “sense of place” is as much about the specifics as the general.
A Southern sense of place even informs the abstract works in the show, which Sumrall points out would seem to be the most resistant to indicating where they were created. Sam Gilliam’s sweeping “Drape Work” (1970) is a standout, somehow calling to mind both the monumentality of Abstract Expressionism and the elaborate drapery of Carnival tableaux.
“Sense of Place 2” also includes a gallery dedicated to New Orleans’ own George Dureau, who died last month. “As the ‘baroque bohemian’ of the French Quarter, Dureau’s work really showed what a sense of place in art is all about,” said Sumrall.
Dureau’s large-scale paintings in the exhibition include an exuberant triptych depicting a group of male figures cavorting on a beach. But his drawings are the quieter treasures here, including a 1971 study of a young man that Sumrall says was the first contemporary artwork acquired by Roger Ogden, and an enigmatic self-portrait from the same year in which the artist has depicted himself open-mouthed, as if caught in conversation.
Dureau’s work is just one highlight of a show filled with many such moments illuminating what it means when we speak of Southern art.
“Expressing a sense of place varies from artist to artist,” said Sumrall. “It’s one thing that makes the work in our collection so interesting.”