It's the show I was dreading. During the dark, postdiluvian days of last autumn when the city was mostly empty and its fate appeared far less certain than it does now, I often ran into Alan Gerson at the Rue de la Course on Magazine Street, the first major coffeehouse to reopen. It was there that he first mentioned his idea for a show of drowned or hurricane-damaged artwork, and while it sounded interesting at the time, I was wary of the "dwell" factor. Would it, months later, come across as dwelling, or even wallowing, in tragedy? Would the locals, after dealing with the storm's aftermath on a daily basis, finally succumb to Katrina fatigue?
It's a relief to report that it's an interesting show even if it's not always clear why. Part of it may have to do with the fact that it's a cross-section of some of the city's more intriguing artists, a selection that gives a sense of the overall tone and direction of New Orleans art before the storm -- once you get used to trying to visualize how it would look without the moldy or muddy residue, that is. Like the CAC's earlier, Made In New Orleans expo, Surviving features a mix of artists rarely featured together in one place. Another factor is what might be called the "Dada effect" after the first Western art movement to incorporate the laws of chance into the creative process. CAC curator David Rubin cites Marcel Duchamp, who upon being told that his monumental Large Glass sculpture had been broken in shipment, is said to have exclaimed, "Now it is complete!"
The show also benefits from narrative wall texts with quotes from each artist, one of Rubin's specialties. Typically consisting of a description of where the artist lived or worked before Katrina, what the storm did, and where things stand now, most resonate a kind of unalloyed authenticity. For instance, Silent Children, a mixed-media piece by Sibylle Peretti, languished on the moldy walls of a collector's flooded home, but her studio suffered an even worse fate: "There was nothing left but a big sand pit ... I lost my studio but not my ideas. I will just be out there making my work."
Jeffrey Cook, represented by some battered mixed-media constructions glazed with a fine patina of silt, waxed philosophical, "I stayed for the storm, but when I came back my house was looted. The roof came off the storage place so the inside got a lot of mold and mildew. To be honest, the experience made me realize I don't own anything."
Glass sculptor and Tulane instructor Gene Koss, represented by a sculptural drawing, reflected his roots on a Midwestern farm where his family's daily battle with nature was unending: "The damage made me angry, but I decided to turn the anger into creativity. I used the damaged pieces from a monumental sculpture and created a new sculpture. I plan to rebuild my studio and stay in New Orleans. The storm and the aftermath have made me a stronger person."
Found-object sculptor Audra Kohout's waterlogged mixed-media constructions and journal are accompanied by some of the most deeply psychological, or even poetic, observations. "My studio suffered tremendously, submerged in about four feet of water. Thankfully, I made a last minute effort to move the most important things (as it turns out) right above the water line. When sorting through the debris, my already discarded objects took on yet more significant meaning. I found myself becoming inspired! The entire experience has been quite emotional and has felt almost spiritual to me. I feel like the damage to my work has helped me to deal with more profound losses."
Like the conceptual Greetings From New Orleans show in the adjacent Spiral Gallery, Surviving reflects how people respond to the unexpected, only this is a worst-case scenario. The artists' remarks are all very different yet heartfelt, and their work actually comprises the backdrop for a highly personal form of process art: the art of healing. Of staring reality in the face and knowing that this is simply another moment in the eternal now, the ever-changing world that we create with every breath we take.
- Sibylle Peretti's mixed media Silent Children survived a collector's flooded home more or less intact, but the artist's studio was completely destroyed.