Blink and you miss it -- so many choice little factoids turn up in the mass media, suddenly appearing then disappearing like raindrops in the ocean. What caught my eye this time was a syndicated news story about Stonehenge. It seems archaeologists recently discovered the nearby remains of an ancient settlement. But the big news is they found clear evidence that the inhabitants of this 4,700-year-old village celebrated an annual winter festival that may have been the earliest Mardi Gras. Maybe they found some fossilized king cakes -- I've found a few myself -- but the evidence added up to the earliest Carnival on record. So we now have a pretty good idea what Stonehenge was actually used for. It must have been the reviewing stand where the village elders toasted the king of Carnival. Hey, what else could it be?
OK, OK, don't quote me on that. In any event, the Brits got seriously off track and precious little remains of their Shrove Tuesday. Fortunately, Carnival in New Orleans survived in a much purer form, unadulterated by superfluous centuries of civilization. Evidence of that, if any were needed, can be seen in Michael Meads' La Ofrenda exhibition of Carnival and other rituals at Palma. Despite hailing from heavily protestant Alabama, Meads succeeds in capturing something of the almost Roman decadence of Mardi Gras in those years before Katrina's surge inundated the city, including Mead's Lakeview studio and much of the art in it. Yet these surviving works are gaudily revealing of a Fellini-like extravagance that somehow evokes notions of New Orleans as the ancient capital of an empire that never was.
If our Mardi Gras harks to ancient Rome, then Meads' French Quarter is its Coliseum where tourists, drunks, drag queens and street preachers encounter each other in scenes of incongruous counterpoint. His vision is very florid and over the top, but much of it rings true as an eyewitness account of the laissez faire lifestyles of a sometimes literally naked city. Take The Medusa at Peter's Party. Here a hunky if debauched looking guy wearing nothing but a Roman mini-toga, beads and some snakes in his hair stands blowing bubbles at a costume party. The room, a mass of pulsating puckered flesh decked in feathers, sequins and costume jewelry, is crawling with zany characters in what is clearly one of those Satyricon-on-the-bayou sorts of shindigs, and if you've never found yourself at one, either accidentally or on purpose, then you may have heard tales. But Meads has a jaded eye, and his smarmy frat boys hustling beads at parades, like most of his characters, have a rather louche look about them. If it all seems too much, check out the more normal situations such as his St. Patrick's Day Parade on St. Charles Avenue, in which every carefully drawn detail suggests a story within a story, and where the spectators look more Irish than the parade marchers. But hey, this is N'Awlins, where even the ethnic groups are multicultural.
The most spectacular pieces are large and minutely detailed tableaux such as Le Boeuf Gras, an ornate view of a fatted ox float, perhaps a reference to the title, La Ofrenda -- Latin for "the offering." Amazingly, he drew them in graphite -- or pencil, for those of you who never took a studio art class. And that ain't easy, but Meads makes it all breezy with candid views of the things we never really believed we saw even when we saw them.
Moments in Time is the most recent group expo staged by the Photography Alliance. A mixed bag, it includes some superb older images ranging from Michael P. Smith's spiritual church series, Mark Sindler's Versailles Gardens Vietnamese community documentary shots and Richard Sexton's elegant and decadent interiors, to more recent visions of local street life, musicians and other characters by the likes of Shannon Brinkman, Judy Cooper and Jonathan Traviesa among others. Here the most obviously and poetically post-K prints are Frank Relle's nocturnal streetscapes of old New Orleans homes, battered but still standing and, like the rest of us, patiently awaiting whatever lies just over the horizon.
- St. Patrick's Day Parade, 2000, is typical of Michael Mead's elaborate drawings in which every detail hints at stories within stories.