In 1961, the Museum of Modern Art mounted the exhibition The Art of Assemblage. It was the first time the term was put into popular use, and it presented assemblage as the most important innovation in modern art after abstraction. Rooted in the junk and funk art of Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp, assemblage gave artists a new way to work with the side effects of modern mass production by juxtaposing readymade objets trouves, found objects, into a poetry of unexpected associations.
In New Orleans, assemblage art merged seamlessly with the old local tendency to make altars and fetishes out of otherwise ordinary things, investing them with deeply personal meanings. This harks to art's ancient origins in shamanism, magic and spiritual expression, a talismanic quality seen in the work of leading local assemblage artists such as Audra Kohout. Of late, Matt James -- aka "Matjames" -- has added his own personal touch to the idiom, which sometimes seems very personal indeed, with implied narratives and pithy folk philosophy, all of which are evident in this New Constructions show at Barrister's.
Actually, this is filled with as much pathos as a country music festival. Desire Is Not Honest or Kind sets the tone. Here a wooden framework painted Day-Glo yellow holds a crumpled old photo of a maniacally grinning girl amid scraps of ripped-up letters and straw, the remains of a nest complete with tiny bird bones. The girl looks very 1950s and everything seems nostalgic, vintage, suffused with bittersweet irony. More direct is Hurt, an altar with a red cubist heart bristling with pins like a voodoo doll. There Was a Time -- a weathered box with a photo of a dapper black man behind rows of pointy pencils wrapped with thread and embellished with clock gears -- seems less plaintive, at first. Around his head like a Byzantine halo is a disk covered with scribbling. It turns out to be a poem -- about solitude.
Some are merely psychological. In the Morning, a tall wooden box, features a photo of a 19th century man. The box is lined with little bundles of kitchen matches obsessively wrapped in thread. In front of the photo are sharpened pencils like staves, and it all suggests a Byzantine altar to obsession. Though not a native, James reflects a local tendency to dramatize memories and imaginative ruminations into little personal reliquaries. This bittersweet collection is his most fully realized work to date.
Seattle area artist Annie Shows has Louisiana roots, but her delicately ethereal assemblages appear formal and classical and attuned to the historical glory days of cubism and surrealism. Which is not to say they are im-personal, though they are surely more Mozart than Tammy Wynette in tone. They can also be austere. White Box, a construction of whitewashed wooden strips, is very architectonic, yet vaguely nautical. The wood strips, like bits of old lath, slender planks and miscellaneous trim stock, have been painted with something white that cracked precisely at the seams when it dried, giving the meticulously balanced composition an oddly brittle quality, as if etched in kaolin, the white clay used in fine ceramics. The result is a dream vault, a nautical apparition bleached by moonlight.
Others feature scraps of cloth, rice paper with Japanese characters, newsprint, postage stamps, gossamer gears and pieces of watch mechanisms all arranged in a kind of formal if mystical delicacy. Sometimes there are broad expanses of nothingness, or at least, nothing much. Florence is a kind of paper cutout in the shape of an architectural pediment or Italianate pillar, all blank but for an engraving of Florence in the center and some filigree at the top. Here the blankness is minimal, an enigmatic counterpoint to the precise art historical busyness of the adjacent pieces. Chinese Man appears nonchalant, with rectilinear scraps of faded crimson paper in offhand cubist arrangements. Centered in all this is a printed scene, perhaps a label, with an antique Asian warrior clutching a sword and pennant. But context is everything, and cubist paper scraps whisper Paris, transmuting the scene into a time capsule, a portal into a realm of allusion and innuendo, with a hint of misplaced epiphany like the memory of an elusive scent, vaguely familiar yet long forgotten.
- This detail of In the Morning, from artist Matjames' most fully realized work to date, suggests a Byzantine altar to obsession.