"There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans."
The above statement, made by Thomas Jefferson in a letter that predates the Louisiana Purchase, suggests this city's subversive qualities were well known even then. For Jefferson the problem was strategic; New Orleans was a "back door" by which alien influences could destabilize the new republic, so he sent his emissaries to Paris to try to buy it from the French. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, ending up with the entire Louisiana territory, but his naming of New Orleans as potentially the gravest threat to America was an especially interesting insight.
Of course, Jefferson got it right; New Orleans is still a subversive place, at least as far as most of Calvinist America is concerned -- no Puritans or Protestant Ethic types need apply. But that will likely be whitewashed by most bicentennial histories, so Barrister's Gallery director Andy Antippas decided to strike first with this alternative view of Louisiana as seen by an assortment of alternative art suspects. For Antippas, the real history appears to be written between the lines, in the footnotes to the footnotes, and the show is about as quirky as one might expect.
Of course, the most indelible stain on the state and nation was the institution of slavery, and African-American history is the subject of several of these works. Jeffrey Cook's Chalkboard for Toussaint L'Overture is an assemblage of dark wooden boards, chain and rope that somehow suggest slave ships, antique paddocks and African art. Inscribed in chalk are the words "France, Spain, Toussaint, Haiti, Napoleon, Jefferson, $15,000,000," a reference to how Napoleon, defeated by ragtag Haitian rebels, saw the Louisiana territory as a potential quagmire that he could no longer afford -- hence his acceptance of the lowball American offer. Dmitri Fouquet gives us a glimpse into those old slavery days in his lively Congo Square painting of a slave dance at that fabled location, probably on a balmy Sunday afternoon. But Willie Birch mixes the distant past with the more recent past in Black Men of Labor, a traditional African garment adorned with fetishes and shells, but also painted with images of marching figures holding banners from the African-American Labor Day parades that were once major events about town, way back in the 20th century.
Time is further scrambled in Michael Wilmon's Admiral Nelson Bombarding Tourists in the French Quarter, a charming rendering of British warships anchored just off Jackson Square, shelling the hell out of every tourist trap in the immediate area in what amounts to a swashbuckling episode of ballistic time travel. More peaceable is John Lawson's Louisiana Sideshow, an oversized mock Time magazine cover featuring Napoleon and Jefferson with flames lapping from below and empty ovals where gallery visitors can insert their own faces.
If this sounds zany, it gets zanier in works such as Authentic Naive Style Early Louisiana Regimental Confederate Dildo by Patrick Lichty, which is what it sounds like, complete with stars and bars, and Jimmy Descant's Manifest Deathstiny, a satiric text and image rant against the recent militarism. John Greco's Specimens for Jefferson, a box sculpture of broken vials, bones, forceps and monkey skull, is a darkly striking statement perhaps only obliquely related to local history. And Julie Crozat's historical painting, The Emperor Has No Pants, in which a pant-less Napoleon poses at his escritoire amidst the litter of a discarded bust of Jefferson and Louisiana bill of sale, is no less provocatively ambiguous.
But there is nothing coy about Ed Dorado's Politico Corpo Creedo, a hopelessly infantile visual screed featuring a defaced picture of Gov. Mike Foster captioned "C'est le Bon Ton ..." with "Bon Ton" X-ed out and replaced with "Buffoon." Also included is a photo of President Bush at a lectern surrounded by toy soldiers and captioned "F--k the world's children, f--k the environment, f--k the poor; All War All the Time for my buddies and my pals." Then there is the photo of a gloating Mary Landrieu captioned "You skanky whore, I win! (Dec. 7, 2002)," and you get the picture; the whole thing is utterly tasteless, an appalling affront to all that is proper and correct. Which is probably why it, among other, equally offensive works, may be so satisfying at some embarrassingly visceral level.
- Julie Crozat's The Emperor Has No Pants epitomizes the provocatively ambiguous nature of some of the works displayed in Barrister's take on the bicentennial celebration of the Louisiana Purchase.