If you’re looking for a definitive statement on what it means to be a female artist in New Orleans in 2016, “La Femme” won’t be the place to find it.
But this sprawling exhibition at the New Orleans Arts Center on St. Claude Avenue in the Bywater offers so many engaging examples of art by women in and around the city that such statements are beside the point.
Curated by New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation Executive Director Don Marshall, “La Femme” includes work by more than 120 artists, each of whom is represented by between one and four works in the show. You don’t have to do much math to realize there’s a lot to take in.
The scale of the show also means that looking for common threads that tie together all of the works on display is difficult, if not impossible: There are just too many styles and points of view from which to draw any sort of meaningful generalizations. Think of it more as a reasonably comprehensive survey of female-focused artistic practice in New Orleans than a show with a nuanced curatorial vision.
Still, part of the fun of the show is teasing out dialogues and shared themes between works in different sections of the appealingly ramshackle exhibition space. Approached in this way, the exhibition becomes a kind of treasure hunt.
So once you find, say, Norah Lovell’s quartet of diminutive canvases incorporating designs from antique wallpaper, you may think about comparing them with Katrina Andry’s much larger piece nearby exploring class and racial conflict. Despite their considerable differences in scale and intent, both make use of strong colors and abstract elements to stunning formal effect.
Similarly, Mary Monk’s serene depiction of distant light over an expanse of Bywater rooftops shares a meditative sensibility with Eleanor M. Smith’s pair of carefully observed nature studies. Carol Peebles’ masterful academic portraits on one side of the gallery are a stylistic counterpart to Ronna S. Harris’ precisely rendered male nudes on the other.
But don’t overlook the occasional work that stands out by virtue of its singularity, like Beverly Kimble Davis’ powerful folk art evocation of the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. It’s truly in a class by itself.
Some of the best photography in the show is work by artists taking pictures of other artists.
Elsa Hahne captures New Orleans bounce legend Cheeky Blakk outside the storm-ravaged husk of her childhood home in the Lower 9th Ward, while Tina Freeman depicts some of her fellow artists (including the late Ersy Schwartz, caught in midconversation with her canine companion) in the more ordered but no less evocative environments of their studios.
And Judy Cooper’s portraits of iconic older female artists are affecting tributes to the creative spirit.
But it’s the mixed-media work that provides some of the most memorable moments in “La Femme.”
Jan Gilbert’s collages fuse images and found objects to create quietly enigmatic rebuses. Richly textured wall pieces by Hasmig Vartanian and Anita Cooke blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture. Louise Mouton Johnson’s shadow boxes incorporate quilting techniques, while Victoria Posey’s tribute to artist Frida Kahlo, literally dripping with blood-red jewels, is rich in detail and association.
And Muffin Bernstein’s hypnotic butterfly mandalas and Babette Beaulieu’s hanging assemblage composed of sticks and branches covered with cryptic fragments of printed material both use natural forms as starting points for haunting works of art.
Any drawbacks of the show are directly attributable to its ambitious scale. While a few free-floating panels suspended from the ceiling provide extra wall space in the gallery, much of the art could have benefited from more breathing room. And an occasionally distracting variation in quality among the works is probably to be expected in an exhibition of this size.
For all of its logistical drawbacks, however, “La Femme” remains a great opportunity for a wide-ranging look at the incredible range of work being produced by female artists in New Orleans. Don’t miss it.