It can only be considered a hopeful sign on this city's long and convoluted road to recovery: there is now a Steve Martin art gallery on Julia Street. While some will no doubt argue that Martin has had a gallery on Julia for years, that is a mere technicality that totally misses the point. The Steve Martin Studio at 624 Julia St. is not really on the street, but above it. You go down a hall and up a flight of stairs to get there. The new space, Steve Martin Fine Art at 604 Julia St., is actually on the street, with no circuitous alleys, corridors or stairs to traverse -- no small thing in a city that, unlike New York or San Francisco, is unaccustomed to clambering up stairs to look at art. Like Jonathan Ferrara, who recently forsook his second floor aerie on Carondelet for ground floor certitude on Julia, Martin Fine Art director Kelley Mitchell seems thrilled at the prospect. But having two spaces on Julia is only the latest ripple in this ongoing art world saga.
The odyssey of Steve Martin's gallery, post-Katrina, is in some ways epitomized by the new space's featured artist, Mark T. Smith, of Miami. True to his instincts as a one-time investment broker, Martin in the wake of the storm saw that it would take time for the local scene to recover, so his response was to go where the action already was. Soon Steve Martin Fine Art of Miami was showing some of New Orleans' best-known artists, a roster ranging from Alan Gerson and John Geldersma to Raine Bedsole and Blake Boyd. If the export of local art to the burgeoning Miami market (annually augmented by the Art Basel Miami Beach mega-art fair) is an intriguing development, it cuts both ways with Florida and Miami artists turning up at Martin's New Orleans exhibition spaces. Which brings us to the case of Miami artist Mark T. Smith whose colorful paintings inaugurate the new Martin Fine Art space at 604 St. Julia on White Linen Night. This builds on an established trend of New Orleans galleries, most notably Heriard-Cimino at 440 Julia St., exhibiting and developing interest in Miami artists.
Mark Smith's paintings are light and breezy, with lots of tropical colors, Afro-Caribbean influences and riffs reminiscent of Henri Matisse, Niki de St. Phalle, William Tolliver and -- surprise! -- Steve Martin's own work. (Artists often see genius in other artists whose work invites comparison with their own.) My favorite is Blue Nude, a jazzy Aztec-Voodoo mama with an electric aura and a sunny aureole, not to mention feet reminiscent of Quetzalcoatl, the famous feathered serpent of ancient Mexico. Most of the rest of his stuff is similar in tone, flamboyant, colorful and about as atmospheric as a blood orange margarita. Red Horse is another psychedelic jazz vision, a fiery steed replete with a smorgasbord of voodoo and other exotic symbols arranged seemingly at randomly in a kind of Aztec-Cubist approach to composition.
A longtime resident of New York before moving to Miami in 2003, Smith prides himself on what he calls his "gravity-defying work that explodes with color, passion and seemingly effortless workmanship." Hmmm. The sort of artist whose bio photographs present him wearing wrap-around shades as he puffs on a cheroot la Leroy Neiman. Smith is a Pratt Institute (1990) graduate who was a featured artist for Absolute Vodka at age 26, and was in 2002 commissioned by Daimler-Chrysler to hand paint a PT Cruiser to be exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival. Since moving South, he has participated in Art Basel-Miami, that city's signature annual art fair, and in recent years his work has found its way into the holdings of collectors such as Jay Leno, Neil Diamond and Elton John. In other words, Smith's work is perhaps best described as colorful and fun, and that is no doubt as it should be because, however much we may love Anselm Kiefer, his stuff just wouldn't look right as part of White Linen Night. Ditto Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst. But Mark T. Smith? A perfect fit, breezy as a PT Cruiser or weekend in Cannes -- and a pretty fair way to kick off Steve Martin's latest gallery project as well.
- Blue Nude, by Mark T. Smith, reflects the Miami artist's smorgasbord of exotic stylistic influences and breezy dramatic flair.