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Review: A Nkisi for Jeffrey Cook

A memorial retrospective of the local sculptor’s work runs at Boyd Satellite

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Years ago at an informal art exhibit, I encountered some box sculptures that looked almost as if bits of old wood and wayward objects had arranged themselves into little spirit houses made from fragments of memories and traces of souls. The artist was Central City native Jeffrey Cook, whose career as a dancer had taken him around the world, but he remained fascinated by his grandmother's Hoodoo rituals he experienced as a child. His life experiences made it easy to relate to both African art and surrealist sculpture, which he seamlessly incorporated into his found object assemblages. Over time, Cook became quite successful. His work was widely collected, and his future looked bright — until Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. He survived, but his psyche was shattered by the death and destruction he found around him.

  Cook was 48 when he died in 2009, but his unique spirit enlivens this memorial retrospective exhibit comprising works loaned by many collectors, including Andy Antippas, Ron Bechet, Pia Ehrhardt and Stella Jones. Many works are untitled, but one large spirit vessel assemblage (pictured) summarizes his vision via a melange of ropes, bones, gourds and fibers arrayed around an African hat protruding like an anatomical appendage flanked by canoe oars on either side. Dangling below, encased in the dark, waxy resins that give the piece its rich patina, are a series of brooms that hark to his grandma's Hoodoo spiritual purification rituals involving brooms and Florida water. Related themes appear in a series of "shield" sculptures including an Appreciation Shield for Ole George (dedicated to George Dureau), in which a framework of dark poles support a fabric shroud inscribed with mysterious markings. Jacob's Ladder is a spare, modernist metal shield influenced by legendary Xavier University art professor John T. Scott. Amid all this, Cook's early box sculptures seem even more iconic than they did when I first encountered them years ago, perhaps because they now stand as reliquaries housing the irrepressible Cook spirit that Xavier University art professor Ron Bechet says "keeps him alive: Jeffrey was of — and is — New Orleans." Through Feb. 25. Boyd | Satellite, 440 Julia St., (504) 581-2440; www.boydsatellitegallery.com.

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