One of the most informative moments in SPACES, the latest exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, is a timeline of the birth of the St. Claude art scene handwritten in black charcoal pencil on the wall.
Born out of the reinvigoration of community action in post-Katrina New Orleans, bolstered by the adrenaline shot of Prospect.1, hard working artist collectives popped up across the city in 2008, including Press Street’s Antenna Gallery, Good Children, and The Front, which aggressively show many artists from the St. Claude District. While worlds of change have occurred in the microcosm of New Orleans in the last half-decade, the genuine and honest dedication to making and showing art by these three cooperatives has remained the same. That is why SPACES, an exhibition bringing the work of these three collectives together under one roof, is disappointing; not for the art but for the lack of curatorial inspiration that should have highlighted this positivity.
While there is a boot-strap spirit to each of these organizations, they operate with very distinct tones. This highlights the first part of the problem with this exhibition: there is no clarity of form within the show. Artists from each organization are scattered around the room, lacking a clear tone to unite the work. The exhibition brings together disparate conversations that are often at odds with each other. For example, Sophie Lvoff and Nate T. Martin’s Untitled (Primary) is a lush archival pigment print of a purple tavern at dusk. Sophie Lvoff’s photograph speaks to the vibrancy of early American color photography through lens of New Orleans surfaces. Writer Nate T. Martin adds a short vignette that sketches a child’s perception of driving in a rental car with her father and waiting outside a bar. The combination of text and image paints a visceral picture of innocence and vulnerability in a mundane world. Lvoff and Nathan’s work is located next to Ryan Watkins-Hughes cynical installation See St. Claude. Audiences of the show are prompted to step up to the photo, snap a shot of themselves photo booth style and email the photo to see-stclaude.tumblr.com. At this site the artist writes: “The See St. Claude photo booth allows gallery visitors to see the St. Claude arts District from the comforts and safety of the CAC.” This satirical approach to bringing art lovers to St. Claude directly references the insulation of certain neighborhoods in the city. The combination of the work of Watkins-Hughes and Lvoff and Nathan is certainly thought provoking, but leaves the viewer in the uncertain position of attempting to connect these two very disparate attitudes.
Using a 1969 exhibition curated by Jennifer Licht at the Museum of Modern Art as the model for this exhibition, the space is developed around innovative approaches to interacting with museum space. Licht described this show as “an exhibition in which the installation becomes the actual realization of the work of art and rooms must be planned and built according to the artists’ needs, challenging the usual role of the museum.” This may be the stated intention of SPACES, however, many of the works are plopped into the CAC’s space, rather than the gallery being formatted to fit the work. Case in point, only three of the over forty artists were asked to actually make site-specific installations; Rachel Avena Brown, Bob Snead, and Jonathan Traviesa. Brown’s installation is a collaboration with Antenna Gallery artist James Goedert. D-Cern Space brings together stop motion animation and knitted yarn. On a large tv monitor an animation of the floor plans of each participating gallery are brought together and torn apart. Knit green squares form patterns around the tv monitor, insinuating the shape of the Large Hadron Collider. Brown and Goedert seek to define a new space, one in which these galleries work more closely in tandem. D-Cern Space suggests what this exhibition could have been if each artist included in this show had the opportunity to install a thoughtfully prepared work.
Dave Greber’s three channel video installation The Front on Display is a wiseass satire on the perception of the artist as a rock star. All the members of The Front trade quips on this video reel of a photo shoot. Teenage boy-bandesque statements are made such as, “that’s when people are really at their best- when they are making posters” and “I’ve got some stuff to say, and it’s really important.” The sarcasm drips from the tv screen onto the floor, unfortunately drowning out other works. Any other surrounding pieces that aren’t 100% aggressive, such as Jerald L. White’s photographs, are easily overlooked.
The cultural history of New Orleans is by nature a collective one. The galleries represented in this show come out of the tradition of working within neighborhoods to achieve goals that bureaucratic inadequacies are unable to accomplish. Antenna Gallery, The Front, and Good Children Gallery have all leveraged the resources of their members in order to build a community around visual art. CAC’s curatorial job does this achievement a disservice by creating discordant tones. I trust though that these spaces will continue to do what they do best–make visually interesting and thought provoking works.