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Life Support

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This column is ordinarily concerned with aesthetics, but ever since hurricane Katrina, the fate of the New Orleans art scene and the progress of the city's recovery have seemed so intertwined that the art community has become attuned to political processes as never before. Of particular concern is the fate of the African-American art community. While much of the New Orleans art scene is engaged in the process of rebuilding and trying to get back to normal, many black artists remain displaced even now, part of a diaspora that includes not only little-known folk artists and Mardi Gras Indians, but also community leaders such as John Scott, Chandra McCormack and Keith Calhoun.

We've all either heard or experienced how the trauma of losing one's home seems to affect everything else, leaving some of us unsettled, or worse. The experience of John Scott, our best-known African-American sculptor and much-loved mentor to generations of art students at Xavier University, provides a stark example of how Katrina's trauma can trigger ominous aftershocks. Scott had for years suffered with a lung condition brought on or exacerbated by exposure to the welding fumes he encountered in the process of creating his colorful metal sculptures. According to his gallery dealer, Arthur Roger, it was something the 66-year-old Scott knew he would have to deal with at some point, but when he and his family evacuated to Houston and he learned that his home and New Orleans East studio had been severely flooded, his condition seemed to worsen overnight. So much so, that his lungs became all but useless. Fortunately, Scott was in a city with some good hospitals, and he was soon placed on an organ transplant waiting list. But his lung transplant surgery, no sure thing even under the best of circumstances, was unsuccessful. Because of the extreme trauma of such invasive surgery, his body was kept in a medically induced coma until a replacement set of lungs could be found. A second operation took place last week, and the prognosis is good.

"His spirit is strong and he's communicating to the extent that he can, considering that he's still under heavy sedation," says Roger.

A recipient of many grants and awards, including major public and private commissions, Scott is part of an exclusive circle of America's top African-American sculptors, so his story will be closely followed. But his experience exemplifies the trauma suffered by thousands of regular folks displaced from a city where home and neighborhood are uniquely central to life itself.

Another African-American artist displaced by hurricane Katrina is Dennis Holt, whose provocative mixed-media works at Barrister's convey unsettling visions of urban life in limbo. Something of a mystery man, the elusive Holt is a thirtysomething Ninth Ward native, a landscaper and emerging artist who has been staying in Mississippi with relatives, returning sporadically to work and deliver paintings. His graffiti-like images bristle with a sort of raw, urban funk, a streetwise visual argot like the guttural polyphony of a Mardi Indian chant or the insinuating nonsense syllables that Professor Longhair once uttered to the unwary. Before Down South is a collage-painting in which playing cards turn up like omens, so a deuce of spades hangs over a street dude seemingly caged behind a grid as a girl holds a baby next to a six of hearts under the shadow of a pistol. History Hop is a ragged, jagged composition using repetition of lines and forms to convey something of the sonic boom of amplified gangsta rap and, by extension, its unholy matrimony of street crime and capitalism. Enough is Enough says it all. Several painted panels, including a hand imprinted with the schematic of a Luger, a set of handcuffs and a stack of low denomination greenbacks are framed with more greenbacks and graffiti-like painted scrawls. Holt's jarringly rugged works are powerful, poetic evocations of the blighted mean streets. Just how mean those streets remain is up to the politicians in charge of the recovery.

Dennis Holt's mixed-media painting, Before Down - South, is a powerful, poetic evocation of urban chaos.
  • Dennis Holt's mixed-media painting, Before Down South, is a powerful, poetic evocation of urban chaos.

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