It was Shakespeare's character Jacques, in As You Like It, who opined, 'All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women merely players." Shakespeare meant for this to sound redundant and world-weary; there were no SUVs, iPods or Internet cafes in 16th century England, so it was understood that people's lives were acted out on the streets for all to see. In modern America, most street theater has been replaced by a more private and mass-mediated existence. Only in the few remaining pedestrian cities do the streets still double as stages, but this City Stage expo at the CAC explores instances where public and private lives intersect in various modes and media, in unexpected eruptions of spontaneous theatrical happenstance.
Curated by Claire Tancons, City Stage navigates the fine line between the static and the dynamic, between image and performance, while exploring various spaces as sites for spectacles of all sorts. The result is an unusual mix of local as well as East and West Coast artists working in a wide variety of media reflecting an even wider range of visionary sensibilities.
The Fullness of Time, by Boston-based filmmaker Cauleen Smith, is a dramatic video that furthers her use of African-American science-fiction motifs to explore contemporary social issues. In this case, a Soul Sister from outer space is on a mission to explore some funky planet called Earth but ends up in post-Katrina New Orleans, specifically the Lower Ninth Ward and Gert Town. Played convincingly by accomplished vocalist Troi Bechet, Fullness is ponderous and low tech, yet convincing in its conjuring of a surreal alternate reality that acerbically comments on the no less surreal but much more familiar realities of New Orleans and America today.
Jeffrey Cook's Old Man Debris sculpture extends his oeuvre of African-American fetish pieces cobbled from junk found on New Orleans streets, something he's done convincingly for the past 20 years. But check out the adjacent video and note that this is actually Cook's costume in 7 Days of Paradise, a multimedia opera in which Cook, a former dancer with the Los Angeles Repertory Company, played a leading role. Unlike Fullness, this video clip is only an excerpt, but it provides a whole new dimension to his ongoing work in the neo-Afro-fetish field. I think it also may have been Cook who 'discovered" the work of Bruce A. Davenport Jr., whose line drawings on poster board of local high school marching bands reflect an almost militant regard for order and numerical accuracy, which makes complete sense for this particular subject matter even as it renders imagery reminiscent of Native American figure painting or even Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The notion of the stage as urban spectacle is taken more literally in the work of Adrian Price, whose painted, near-life-size female icons inspired by the pop fashions of the 1960s and '70s take us to a lost netherworld of the collective unconscious somewhere between suburban fashion shows, biblical narratives and the cheesy magazine ads of decades past.
New York artist Mickalene Thomas' Lovely Six Foota " a large photograph of a 'soul sistah" in a domestic environment like something from a mid-1970s Barry White album jacket " makes a provocative sort of social statement in a post-blaxploitation mode, and Colin Miller's clever photographic self-portraits of himself as a glib TV news anchor preening and beaming as planes crash into the Twin Towers behind him extends the metaphor of mass media as a strange dream. But the most enigmatic piece in the show is Adia Millett's totalizing environmental installation that transforms the oval gallery into a surreal space where shoes rest in neatly ordered patterns on the wall and vintage chairs are illuminated by light from portholes above them. Somewhere between Orwell and Lewis Carroll, this takes us to a surreal, vertiginous and improbable space " not unlike life in America today.
- Adrian Price's Great Tower in Flat Land suggests a pop-culture netherworld somewhere between suburban fashion shows and the cheesy magazine ads of decades past.