Everyone has a general idea of what the term “contemporary art” refers to. But defining it in more specific terms is another matter.
And its definition gets more complicated in New Orleans, where even the most current art often engages the city itself and its three centuries of history as its subject matter.
So presenting an overview of the contemporary art scene in New Orleans over the last four decades is a daunting task. Fortunately, “Art of the City: Post-Modern to Post-Katrina” more than meets the challenge.
As the inaugural exhibition in the newly renovated Historic New Orleans Collection buildings at 520 Royal Street in the French Quarter, “Art of the City” sprawls among three floors, two large main exhibition spaces, an open mezzanine and smaller interstitial spaces around the building complex.
A hidden, centuries-old well. A self-playing organ. A virtual-reality elevator ride. An interactive map of the French Quarter.
The show’s subtitle establishes rough chronological tent poles for the exhibition, which starts with works associated with the 1984 World’s Fair and continues to the present. Of the 75 works in the show, 35 are from the Historic New Orleans Collection’s own collections, with the remainder on loan from public and private institutions.
The building’s layout occasionally makes the central exhibition narrative seem more convoluted than it is. But also gives the experience the feeling of a treasure hunt: You’re never quite sure what you’re going to encounter as you explore the space.
Curator Jan Gilbert has addressed the sometimes awkward flow of the building. Groupings break down the volume of work into manageable sections, from a massive city map in the first floor gallery chronicling milestones in the history of public art in the city to smaller passages where more intimate works, like George Dureau’s sketch of his Dauphine Street balcony and George Febres’s surreal pair of baby shoes that appear to made from preserved alligator heads, are allowed space to dialogue with each other.
From outside, the double-gallery house at 1122 Jackson Avenue resembles many such town houses in New Orleans’ Garden District.
For Gilbert, who assembled "Art of the City" over a nearly three-year period, the show is an opportunity to look at the urban landscape of New Orleans by concentrating on motifs like the Mississippi River or the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s like walking through New Orleans, and maybe especially the French Quarter, where you see things out of the corner of your eye that lead you somewhere unexpected,” said Gilbert.
There’s a huge amount of first-class work here, and while the excellent catalog and detailed wall labels for each piece do a great job of helping put everything in context, the sheer quantity of art offers visitors a chance to tease out throughlines and connections between works for themselves.
“I’ve been very much interested in making those connections when selecting artists and pieces for the show,” said Gilbert. “And I’m even more interested in seeing what kind of associations and connections visitors will bring to the experience.”
Selecting particular works for closer inspection in a show so consistently packed with visual pleasures and surprises at every turn is difficult. But any list of highlights would have to include Robin Reynolds’ “New Orleans: Between Heaven and Hell,” a seven-foot panorama drawing in which an attenuated stretch of the New Orleans riverfront seems to have detached itself from the rest of the planet and is floating in space, with a frieze of literally hundreds of scenes from the city’s history below.
Douglas Bourgeois’ “Burning Orchard Nightclub” is another knockout, a depiction of a fantasy French Quarter bar populated by scores of glittery, glamorous denizens in high 80s drag. It’s hung near Ersy Schwartz’s “The Asylum,” a fantastic tableau of winged and masked figures cavorting on a giant chessboard — which is as potent a depiction of the creativity and strangeness of New Orleans carnival culture as you’re likely to find anywhere, despite (or maybe in keeping with) its title.
The spirit of magical realism that imbues these and many other works in the show is complemented by more down-to-earth, but no less evocative paintings of the New Orleans cityscape by Mac Ball, Michael Deas, Simon Gunning and Shirley Rabe Masinter. Other standout pieces by Dapper Bruce Lafitte and Krista Jurisch translate the fabric of the city in terms of pattern and color.
Photography is another strong presence in the show, with stellar examples by Neil Alexander, Harold Baquet, Sesthasak Boonchai, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Judy Cooper, John Lawrence, Deborah Luster and Joshua Mann Pailet.
In the main upstairs gallery, Rontherin Ratliff’s trio of half-submerged houses hover like fragments from a dream alongside Jason Poirier’s startlingly lifelike mannequin of Ernie K-Doe (dressed with the performer’s own sequined and bedazzled articles of clothing), while a fantastic painting of K-Doe himself by Max Bernardi holds court from a nearby corner. And don’t miss Gina Phillips’s delightful fabric piece depicting Fats Domino serenely hovering above the Industrial Canal as he ascends to a higher place.
In fact, it’s almost too much to take in during a single visit. Fortunately for locals, “Art of the City” will be on view until Oct. 6 — and repeat viewings of the show will be practically mandatory in order to properly appreciate its scope and the complex histories it conveys.
“Here (in New Orleans), time and experience are especially layered,” said Gilbert. “We can’t help but move in circles, moving backward as well as forwards.”
“Art of the City: Post-Modern to Post-Katrina”
Presented by The Helis Foundation
WHERE: Historic New Orleans Collection, 520 Royal Street
WHEN: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed Mondays) through Oct. 6