In case you're one of the six or seven people who haven't heard, December is photography month in New Orleans. Indeed, many galleries and even some nongalleries are fairly overflowing with photos. That is the good news. The bad news is that there are so many exhibitions and group shows featuring work by so many photographers that it's sort of overwhelming, so for now I'm going to focus on some shows that are a little more unusual and out of the mainstream than most.
Louviere + Vanessa comprise a photo duo so low profile that, even after seeing occasional samplings of their stuff over the years, I didn't even know they were local. It just so happens that Jeff Louvier and Vanessa Brown live in Bywater, and if their New Orleans exposure has been limited they make up for it with an extensive resume of exhibits staged all across America and around the world. And staged is the word, because their magical narratives in photographs suggest surreal dramas from the subconscious, or maybe the alternative life forms of a medieval alchemist. And while hardly medieval, the cheap, latter 20th century Holga cameras they favor had Chinese plastic lenses that were curiously archaic in their optical effects. They also seem to use whatever else is at hand including, in this Chloroform series, lots of large tropical plants. The photographs themselves are big and crinkly, printed on an obscure Japanese paper stock, with images that suggest post-apocalyptic science fiction or aboriginal creation myths set in a tropical, yet somehow ashen, land. Chloroform, Sursum recalls the Icarus myth, only this begoggled man-who-fell-to-earth appears outfitted with wings of super-size elephant ear leaves that might have wilted when he got too close to the sun. He now appears to be gasping for air, ozone or nitrous oxide, having crashed on some remote, enchanted atoll, maybe Grand Isle or Avery Island. His female counterpart appears in images such as Chlorofemina, Loup Garou as a kind of lupine female stilt walker loping across fields of cane stubble, scaring itinerant sea birds as she confronts them eye-to-eye. Dramatic, dreamy and authentic, this Chloroform series recalls the work of artists as diverse as Odd Nerdrum, Joel Peter Witkin and Dieter Appelt. Experimental and often challenging, Louviere + Vanessa appear to be reaching their stride.
Jennifer Shaw also favors Holgas, though her images are printed on conventional paper. In these close-up views of natural phenomena, expired roses, wasp nests, spiders, mushrooms and bees are all rendered with the poetically vaporous definition and loopy luminosity that have endeared the Holga's aberrant lenses to generations of photo freaks. So botanical images such as Curly Vine or Old Rose suggest an archaic if myopic view of nature's cycles, while Three Mushrooms might have escaped from some darkly elegiac Baudelaire poem. Even so, Shaw is at her best in more urban settings, which her retrograde optics render with a certain archaic warmth and dislocated sense of wonder. And talk about disorienting, Jean Laughton's adjacent and sharply realized portraits of cowboys and Indians photographed in South Dakota might seem displaced, only they too are theatrical and dreamlike -- views of a not so wild West as a kind of photographic sideshow.
But the real sideshow is down the street at L'Art Noir, where the digital musings of Mark Mothersbaugh hold sway. Aptly titled Beautiful Mutants, they reflect his reclamation of lost, abandoned or forgotten old photo portraits from oblivion by applying the healing balm of 21st century digital technology. Retrofitted with more symmetrical and balanced features than any of us could ever possess, they reveal a perfection known only to demons, mutants and, of course, to Mothersbaugh, who for years guided his band, Devo, along a devolutionary trajectory of his own design.
Note: L'Art Noir and the Farrington Smith galleries will participate in the Marigny and Bywater Open Studios event this weekend from noon to 5 p.m. Dec. 16-17, when more than two dozen area artists open their doors to the public -- a great way to meet the artists in their natural habitat. See www.openstudioartists.org for more info.
- Louviere + Vanessa's Chloroform, Sursum recalls the Icarus myth melded with post-apocalyptic science fiction into a photographic magic narrative.