One oft-repeated cliché holds that it’s the little things in life that count, while another says bigger is better.
Guess which side the Ogden’s new show is on?
“BIG” collects pieces from the Ogden’s permanent collection that are “typically hidden from public view due to their complicated size,” according to a museum statement.
It’s a simple (perhaps overly simple) curatorial premise that nonetheless allows viewers the opportunity to connect with some of the lesser-known gems in the museum’s collection.
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The show begins on an appropriately big note with Robert Gordy’s “Boxville Tangle #4” (1972), a dizzying composition of pulsating, abstracted nude figures who appear to be leaping over and through a landscape strewn with ribbonlike forms and geometric shapes. In its formal repetitions, it almost resembles a psychedelic video game, created a decade before such things became part of visual culture. But its scale creates a disorienting sense of depth and almost makes the work more its own self-contained environment than just a two-dimensional painting.
A sense of play is also foregrounded in a trio of canvases from the early 1960s by Kendall Shaw in which silhouettes of football, basketball and baseball players are set against spare expanses of primary colors. The effect is something like an Americanized version of a Matisse collage, focusing on the dynamic movement of the figures.
Although scale is an integral component of all of the pieces in the show, its effect on the work is more apparent in some examples than others. The crowd of hundreds of minimalistic faces — represented by little more than two dots and a horizontal line — in Hunt Slonem’s “Guardians” (2005) wouldn’t be as discomfiting if there weren’t so many of them, staring dispassionately yet insistently at the viewer from the canvas.
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Similarly, Jim Roche’s “Loch Ness Mama” (1970) would be little more than an amusingly cartoonlike doohickey had it been it created on tabletop scale. But here, coiled out over 10 feet in the middle of the Ogden’s fifth-floor gallery, it becomes something more phantasmagorical, even threatening: One wonders from what massive depths this bizarrely hermaphroditic creature emerged and, more disturbingly, whether there are more just like it ready to slither their way into the space.
Some paintings in the show, like a wonderful “visionary imagist” canvas by Justin Forbes, present a more-or-less straightforward narrative. But the more interesting pieces in “BIG” tend to be the ones that require a little more digging to make sense of.
That set includes the piece that Ogden curator Bradley Sumrall calls one of the most important works of art in the museum’s collection: Jeffrey Cook’s extraordinary “Makin’ of a Melody” (2002), an intricate mixed-media assemblage that is as much a depiction of the Central City neighborhood in which Cook was raised as it is a self-portrait of the artist himself.
Forms suggesting crumbling vernacular architecture are juxtaposed with bright Caribbean colors and swatches of African fabrics, along with visual references to Cook’s fellow artist Clementine Hunter and his close friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. Cook also inserted himself into the piece symbolically via a figure of a stuffed bird, tracing his own evolution as an artist and an individual via the visual metaphor of a bird being freed from a cage.
Even more intriguingly, the piece contains hidden pockets of archival material among its boxes and folds that were discovered accidentally while the piece was being moved after it had entered the Ogden’s collection, including invitations and a piece of ribbon from the Ogden’s opening ceremony. Sumrall says there are likely still objects hidden within the piece that have yet to reveal themselves.
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Hidden secrets also are part of Tora Lopez’s “The Pearl” (2010), which at first seems like an unassuming piece of minimalist sculpture. But the nearby wall text explains that it’s composed of waste material from an artist residency program at Eiffel Society: The smooth plastered surface of the 4-foot-diameter sphere conceals a bolus of bits of plastic, string, foil, fingernails and hair.
Like the best of the works in the exhibition, it shows that good things — or at least unexpected things — often come in big packages too.
WHEN: Through Feb. 17
WHERE: Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., New Orleans
INFO: (504) 539-9650; ogdenmuseum.org