It probably would have made for great reality TV: 15 artists from around the world on a scavenger hunt, trying to make art with only what they could find. As an exhibit, the results are mixed, as artists veered off in divergent directions, leaving us with a somewhat rambling expo. Yet, it can be interesting despite the randomness " if we leave our preconceptions at the door. No, it's not about Katrina as some have suggested. It is about working within strict limitations. In his curator's statement, Dan Cameron noted that the improvisational approach was chosen to reflect 'parallels between New Orleans and its process of recovery and recent developments in the idea of art as social communication." But that was as far as it went. The rest was up to the artists. As on reality TV, they were set loose in a strange land and expected to make do with whatever they could find. Typically, what they found was lots of debris, but ideas and even mysteries were also part of the mix. What may be a little confusing to some is the process-oriented nature of so much of the work. For instance, Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes crafted a small outdoor pavilion off the Contemporary Art Center site at 828 Camp St. This recalls native tribal huts as well as the favelas surrounding Rio, the improvised shanties where one-quarter of the city's residents live. On Saturday, Feb. 23, Lopes and his team smeared their bodies with mud and staged a drum and dance ritual before applying more mud to the structure's frame. Also from Brazil, Sao Paulo-based artist Henrique Oliveira crafted a huge cloud from discarded bedding and pillows. Hanging provocatively over the lobby, it elevates symbols of homelessness to the more transcendent realm of dreams. Neither artist's work makes any direct connection to Katrina, yet certain thematic parallels are noteworthy.
One of the few who deals directly with Katrina-related issues is Mario Rizzi, whose photographs and audio recordings document the experiences of Hispanic recovery workers in multimedia portraits of the people many New Orleanians rely on without actually knowing much about them. Rizzo makes them real. Then there's Ellen Harvey, a UK artist based in New York, who ran ads in The Times-Picayune inviting people who lost something irreplaceable to send a photo or written description. She then created 14 simple yet evocative paintings of the lost belongings to be given to those people when the show is over. Both artists' works function as a kind of poetic journalism, a subjective accounting of the imponderable.
Some employ the organic to suggest the intangible. Bruna Esposito is an Italian mixed-media artist whose work focuses on the sensory presence of everyday phenomena. Here she simmers bay leaves and local seasonings in bubbling vats, one adorned with a scavenged angel's wing, wafting the timeless aromas of Creole kitchens into the gallery. (If that sounds simplistic, it's not " those were the scents that haunted my dreams during periods of self-exile in Manhattan and Massachusetts.) Paula Hayes is a sculptor who works with living plants. She weaves Spanish moss in traditional crochet patterns sometimes tended by weaver Mary Summers, who makes sporadic cameo appearances. More monumental are Los Angeles sculptor Sean Duffy's Zen fountains assembled from discarded file cabinets, and New York sculptor Jason Middlebrook's benches made from old wooden beams. But credit for the most elaborate efforts go to Slovenia native Marjetica Potrc and Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho. Potrc gives us a whimsical water treatment facility with rainwater from the roof filtered down into installations such as a dual flush toilet and finally a holding pond before presumably evaporating back into the clouds in a closed, if metaphoric, system of hydrology. Meanwhile, Nugroho's painted creations in the oval gallery suggest an expressionistic epic in their own right, evoking an east Asian Dungeons & Dragons-like realm where the walls have eyes and swords fly.
- Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes, second from left, and crew perform a drum and dance ritual before applying mud to the walls of his improvised structure.