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Dead Man's Float



I thought we were done with art about Hurricane Katrina. I hoped we were, because many of us are still dealing with the storm's legacy in one way or another, and I don't want to think about it any more than I must. But now that a certain amount of Katrina-related work has turned up around town in the Prospect.1 biennial, it seems that Katrina art from another perspective is not such a bad thing after all. The work of one nonProspect artist, Milton Rosa-Ortiz, is a case in point. Inspired by those who stayed to rebuild their lives and the city after the storm, Rosa-Ortiz says, "I was struck by the incredible energy and stamina that the people of New Orleans have shown as they've carried on with their lives."

Even so, his Revivir installation is based on something very morbid: images of dead bodies in the floodwaters that were broadcast repeatedly on TV news coverage. Here Rosa-Ortiz recreates them in an idealized form as figures that seem to float suspended in the air. In fact, he spent weeks making glue, plaster and glass-bead body casts of living New Orleanians whose forms now float like spirits unaffected by gravity. Subtly iridescent, they radiate light in forms that range from the sleekness of Rodin's nudes to the familiar heft of the habitués of local watering holes.

Dramatically alluring, Revivir is an antidote of sorts, an exorcism of the horror and grotesquerie of those hellish days. Like some of the storm-based pieces in Prospect.1, it's a benediction, a blessing of the departed while suggesting the return of their spirit and energy in a new form.

Beauty mingled with incongruity is a theme in Rosa-Ortiz's work. Protect the Bridge is a delicate sculptural abstraction of the Danziger Bridge, the infamous site where police mistakenly fired on flood survivors stranded on the bridge. Recreated in suspended brass bullet casings, he says he made it as "a nonjudgmental observation." A return to hope appears in Found Alive, an iridescent map of sites where hundreds of missing persons were found unharmed. A constellation of diamond-like little crystals set in pins on black silk, it miniaturizes some of the mortally ethereal sensibilities seen in earlier works by artists such as Ross Bleckner. A more decorative Invasive Species series lacks the punch or specificity of the others, but all reflect the freshness that Rosa-Ortiz brings to work that, at its best, transforms tragedy into visual poetry.

Speaking of spirits, one of the most visually striking events this All Hallows' Eve occurred at the place known as the Brickyard in the Marigny, a large, desolate, rubble-strewn site on Chartres Street where a molasses refinery once stood. You really had to be there because, even though some things remain, nothing will be quite the same as it was in the hours leading up to midnight and beyond. Some of the more wonderfully dramatic things include AdrinaAdrina's Ice Bed, a four-poster bed carved from ice illuminated from within, and Elliott Coon's River of Fire, a meandering trench of water with propane-fueled flames bubbling up from below, illuminating a small, life-size house made from mirrors. It was all magical stuff, as was Modern Witchcraft, a slow-motion performance by Tora Lopez and Emiliano Maggi. And then there were things recalled more as apparitions as the evening meandered into the witching hour amid spirits of all sorts — including London artist Louise Riley's quirky Seasons of Love fabric sculptures located in the aptly named "Conceptual Bar," itself topped by a big "OK" neon sign by Matt Vis and Tony Campbell which, as primal fire and ice glowed all around, affirmed that all was indeed OK.

Milton Rosa-Ortiz's Revivir sculptural installation transforms tragedy into visual poetry.
  • Milton Rosa-Ortiz's Revivir sculptural installation transforms tragedy into visual poetry.

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