Junk! No one doubts what it is -- we usually know it when we see it -- yet it is more mysterious than we think, suggesting different things to different people. This city, once a mighty citadel of decorous dereliction, has of late fallen victim to the pervasive scourge of gratuitous gentrification, yet we remain a world leader in discarded or orphaned objects. Artists and New Orleanians have long nurtured a love affair with tarnished and moldering grot, and in fact the art history of "found objects" is rich and noble. While "assemblage," or junk sculpture, has tended to fall into either the boxed variety a la Joseph Cornell, or the unboxed sort associated with Duchamp and the surrealists, Audra Kohout excels in both.
Indeed, it is a tribute to her convoluted and labyrinthine psyche that her latest work is unlike any of the above. The tone is very other, more like those curiously lurid doll photos by the wonderfully warped German surrealist, Hans Bellmer. In fact, Kohout uses many doll parts among other odd bits of refuse in a kind of paradoxical role playing, a magic theater of the mind. Only here the actors exist in miniature, a condition that in no way impedes their ability to enact their psychologically charged rituals as lover, voyeur, sadomasochist, clown or what have you. Predator and Muse, a box sculpture, features two figures -- one with wooden legs and the head of a stag, the other a little porcelain figurine with a dreamy, poetic look and long, shapely doll legs -- trysting in a wallpaper forest. The stag man holds an optical eye piece as he nuzzles her breast, his fine set of antlers setting an imposingly macho tone. Yet, that collar around his neck, with its attached chain, makes it unclear who's really in charge here in this ethereally ragtag take on Beauty and the Beast.
Random Thought features a clown with a long, rubbery nose and manic, leering eyes, looking through a telescope aimed at a little window-like frame. Through it you can see an up-thrust pair of doll legs in a scene not unlike those Bourbon Street clubs with randomly opened windows or doors revealing scantily clad dancers. Here the clown, like a predatory Ronald McDonald, has quite a view, yet even this seemingly straightforward scene of titillation and lust in miniature is mitigated by a mystery figure, a tiny porcelain ballerina raising a big, antique key over her head and inserting it into the little window. What is she up to -- complicity or redemption?
Overture features two lady dolls making out. Both have finely formed heads that look much younger than their bodies, which are rusty yet apparently agile. The doll on top wears an animal horn and dried flowers for a hat while passionately kissing her passive partner, who wears a wasp nest on her head and a Garbo-like look on her face. And they do seem lost in each other, but closer inspection reveals fine cords connecting their limbs to a pale white hand poking through the paisley wallpaper above -- a puppet master of amour. Is it just a sideshow, or a reminder of the unseen forces that impel us all from within?
And we may wonder how junky things -- those orphaned, derelict or discarded objects that ordinarily live in life's shadows -- can be so evocative. It all has to do with their symbolic significance, their ability to resonate when placed in certain relationships with each other, arrangements that tap into their inner essence as reliquaries of human experience.
Desire features a centaur-like beast with a horse's body and a doll's head and legs. It wears a bird cage for a hat and hovers over an armless female figure with long, shapely legs. She is bound suspended in a metal hoop by many cords, and while mysterious, open to interpretation, it is not complete without the presence of you, the viewer, to fill in the blanks for yourself.
Even then, its import might be registered yet remain unspoken, because these works convey things that exist beyond ordinary language and must be registered internally, in those private places of the psyche where only we have the key. It takes a special touch, and in these brilliantly crafted works Kohout displays a unique vision that is personal in meaning yet universal in its scope.
- Go figure: Audra Kohout's mysterious Desire i>, from her Dialogue of Gesture show at Heriard-Cimino, requires the viewer to fill in the blanks.