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Sea Change


One of the more salient truths about art is that it changes with the context of the times. This is a two-way street. Something great like Leonardo's beautifully painted and weirdly psychological Mona Lisa is timeless, as relevant today as when it was created. And if Vermeer's stark, eerie radiance was more than 17th century Holland could handle -- he died broke -- he's considered totally blue chip today. The good stuff holds or even gains relevance as times change, while lesser works fall by the wayside.

Made in New Orleans, an exhibition originally curated for Space 301, Mobile, Ala.'s contemporary-art showcase, is a cross-section of contemporary local artworks. After its original curator blew away with Katrina, Jacqueline Bishop agreed to do it while holed up in Mobile, Ala., in September, a mere few weeks before it was to open. Somehow she pulled together a show that conveys a representative sense of contemporary New Orleans art. What the participating artists didn't know at the time was that the storm had left our own contemporary showcase, the CAC, with its roof, windows, offices and electrical systems in shreds. With hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and no timeline for reopening, nothing could be scheduled. Serendipitously, Made in New Orleans became available just as the CAC was starting to gear up again. The result is one of the more stunning surveys of contemporary New Orleans art in years.

A catalog is available from its original Mobile incarnation, and while it's nicely done, it doesn't begin to convey the sense of what we see here. Survey shows are a lot like gumbo, the ingredients either work well together or they don't. Remarkably for such a diverse mix of artists, everything comes together. This also reflects the superlative installation by the CAC staff, or what's left of it. So somehow David Haliday's exquisite Pearl Earring portrait of a black girl with a wild baroque hairdo works seamlessly with Karoline Schleh's delicate mixed-media collages of early 20th century letters with old stamps and mysterious writing bound with thread to antique nails. Just as Mary Jane Parker's painted grids of plants and pebbles somehow complement George Dureau's grittily eloquent portrait of a black boxer, and Douglas Bourgeois' Crescent City Emanations collage of old cartons of Rex crab boil, Crystal hot sauce and the like.

Allison Stewart's Crosscurrents #15 recalls the mysteries of the wetlands as reflections of the sky and leaves meld with the more shadowy life forms below. Ron Bechet's tangled landscapes, Robert Warrens' surreal painted parables of human folly, and Elizabeth Shannon's eloquent photographs of old tire dumps portrayed as romantic landscapes suggest apocalyptic human transgressions on the natural world. In short, it's a great show. Not only does it all fit together beautifully, it is also the rare expo of work by contemporary local blue-chip artists under one roof.

Ordinarily, such works might only be seen together in theme exhibits. While it's true that someone who closely follows local art might have seen some of these pieces before, no one has ever seen them together in the same place in the current post-Katrina context. To see them now is to see them anew. Like seeing, lucidly for the first time, what this city is all about: an urban hothouse where the weathered old buildings often look as organic as the tropical foliage that surrounds them, a place where new idioms of music, food and art are born, a city of raucous sounds and blinding light as well as a certain subtle magic that whispers in the quiet shadows of the night.

Consequently, there was something of an uproar in the art community when the daily paper opined that the CAC would become as "extinct" as a "dinosaur" if it kept showing such "stodgy" fare. Participating artists say the show had not yet been installed at the time of the critic's visit, and to many it resembled kicking someone while they were down. But maybe it's a clash of cultures. Newspapers push timeliness, even if that means covering an event before it happens. The art world prefers a more considered approach, and if this came across like an ambush, it's probably not the first time.

Allison Stewart's  Crosscurrents #15 recalls the - mysteries of the wetlands in a show that provides a fresh - look at contemporary New Orleans art.
  • Allison Stewart's Crosscurrents #15 recalls the mysteries of the wetlands in a show that provides a fresh look at contemporary New Orleans art.

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