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Prospect.2: Mardi Gras Masterpiece

Prospect.2 New Orleans—the second edition of founder and artistic director Dan Cameron’s international biennial of contemporary art for what once was known as “the city that care forgot”—showcases a unique place and its richly heterogeneous culture in a way that could almost be called intimate.

That adjective, “intimate,” is not often used in the same sentence as the words “international biennial.” In part, Prospect.2’s effect could be chalked up to the dramatic shrinkage of the city-wide exhibition from 80 artists from 30 countries in 2008 to 27 artists from 9 countries in 2011. Cameron’s project has had financial and administrative woes, which included a more than $1 million budget overrun that brought the first iteration in at nearly $5 million, as well as withering prospects for fundraising due to the recession. Three years after the first biennial, Prospect.2, on view through January 29, 2012, opened late and on half the budget, but without losing its curatorial premise or its purpose: to focus a spotlight on New Orleans, which Cameron has called America’s Venice, and to help revitalize the post-Katrina city.

The biennial is losing its visionary prime mover, however. Cameron, who clearly loves my hometown and understands what makes it special, announced his resignation on October 22, the day Prospect.2 opened. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that he has been named chief curator of the Orange County Museum of Art, effective in January. One of his first tasks there will be the museum’s 2013 California Biennial. According to the Times, his appointment is seen as a renewal of the museum’s seriousness after a period of lost focus. Franklin Sirmans, head and curator of the department of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has recently been appointed artistic director of Prospect.3, which is scheduled for 2013.

Cameron told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that part of the reason he was stepping down was the long memory in New Orleans of the Prospect.1 debt and his hope that support from local financial backers will increase if it’s clear that “it’s not Dan’s biennial; it’s the city’s biennial.” But he will remain on the board of the biennial, which is organized by U.S. Biennial, Inc., a non-profit art organization he launched in 2007 to realize the critically acclaimed Prospect.1.

The interesting legacy that Cameron provides with Prospect.2 is larger than the pared-down show itself. It is proof that his biennial model can expand and contract effectively when the art is made or chosen for its affinity to the distinctive spirit, ethos and culture of the place and the situations in which it is shown. In this biennial, Cameron, who first visited in 1987 and owns a house in Tremé, is especially adept at inserting artworks into the urban architectural fabric that play in concert with or in counterpoint to the blues/jazz/soul/funk melody of this historic city. An international biennial of contemporary art does not have to be, by definition, a huge and spectacular extravaganza if it can be small and still attract an audience from the outside. How big the audience for Prospect.2 will be remains to be seen, but this show deserves attention for its exciting intersections.

Among already existing works that Cameron chose, four in particular position New Orleans in relation to the Mississippi delta. Icelander Ragnar Kjartansson brings The Man, a video of Delta blues legend Pinetop Perkins, who died in March at age 97, talking a little, smoking a lot and playing an out-of-tune upright piano in a field. American photographer William Eggleston shows his stunning, seldom-seen 1973 black-and-white series Nightclub Portraits and his pioneering 1974 Sony Portapak video Stranded in Canton. In the former, 28 unsparing, heroically scaled close-ups of bar and juke-joint patrons, who run the social gamut, fit seamlessly into New Orleans bar and club culture, while the latter’s cinéma-vérité video fragments of boozing, ranting and goofing friends were shot in Memphis, Greenwood, Sumner and New Orleans. The delta perspective opens wide, and from a completely different point of view, in An-My Lê’s large colour photographs of Vietnamese women and girls living in eastern New Orleans and in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Eastern New Orleans has a large Vietnamese community, started in the mid-1970s by immigrants who were attracted to a place whose sub-tropical climate and nearness to water reminded them of home. An-My Lê’s photographs foreground affinities in what at first would seem to be only differences.

All of the aforementioned works were shown in the old U.S. Mint, now part of the Louisiana State Museum, at the back of the French Quarter. As in its predecessor, artworks in Prospect.2 appear all over the city, in Tremé, City Park, the Lower Ninth Ward and the Warehouse District.

In the downtown, Francesco Vezzoli’s gilt bronze Portrait of Sophia Loren as the Muse of Antiquity (after Giorgio de Chirico) is the perfect new resident of the Piazza d’Italia, designed by postmodernist architect Charles Moore in 1978 and restored in 2004 after being dubbed “the first postmodern ruin.” Vezzoli’s celebrity muse, who clutches miniature architectural elements to her bosom, is an ironic figure who effortlessly turns the piazza into her film set.

The French conceptual and installation artist Sophie Calle moves into the 1850 House, in the Paris-inspired Pontalba Apartments on Jackson Square in the French Quarter. There, to engagingly provocative effect, she inserts 45 short texts from her ongoing True Stories, along with clothes and other objects, into the rooms and their period furnishings. It is as if she left the apartment just before the visitors arrived, intensifying the blend of reality, desire and fiction in her own work as well as the desire to rewrite the past or to fictionalize and romanticize history.

A few blocks away on Royal Street, New Orleans artist Dawn DeDeaux’s carnivalesque installation The Goddess Fortuna and her Dunces, in an Effort to Make Sense of it All transforms the famous courtyard of the 1816 Brulatour Mansion into an over-the-top theatrical fantasia. An extended play on John Kennedy Toole’s quintessential New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces, DeDeaux’s work includes sinister hooded figures peering down from the courtyard galleries, video projections of Sissy Bounce performers Katey Red and Big Freedia costumed as Fortuna, and a big iron bed with water burbling up in the centre of its rumpled sheets. There is more where there could have been less, but The Goddess Fortuna more than succeeds and gives the colourful street life of the French Quarter a run for its money.

Street culture, black history and African cultural influences permeate many of Prospect.2’s strongest works by international, national and local artists. Nicole Eisenman’s lush, mask-like Guy paintings are collaged with photos of African art, which float horizontally on the brushstrokes like long dashes. Two of my favourite artists in the biennial are the wonderful self-taught New Orleanians Bruce Davenport Jr. and Ashton T. Ramsey.

Davenport’s panoramic, pattern-filled drawings depict junior-high and high-school marching bands parading in the streets, as well as the people standing and watching them. The bands are training grounds for musicians and the parade is an integral part of New Orleans life and street culture, from the funeral to the neighbourhood second line (the informal procession that follows a brass band) to Mardi Gras. These drawings of high-stepping musicians are celebratory and elegiac at the same time, for they are full of loss. The majority of the bands he represents are from schools destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the six drawings are filled with R.I.P. memorials to schools and band teachers, autobiographical anecdotes, boasts, laments that New Orleans has no art critic, and the line “I see you looking.”

Ramsey’s decorated suits are related to Mardi Gras, too. He started off by helping his Mardi Gras Indian brother sew beads on his elaborately decorated suits, then invented his own faster and less expensive way of costuming by gluing newspaper photographs, texts and beads to men’s ties, jackets, trousers and wide-brimmed hats. A self-styled historian, he literally wears his life history, his philosophy and the history of New Orleans on his sleeves. Each suit has a theme announced by a word writ large, cut out and attached to his eyeglasses: “Melody,” “History,” “Haiti,” “Black ’n’ White,” “Freedom.” Down the left side of his “Freedom” jacket is a stream of cut-out words: “Ethics, honor, Freedom of Homeownership, The Issue is Trust, safe and clean schools, AIDs, Register and Vote, Freedom to Choose, Meditation, Equality, Creative, Disobey, Share.” Who can read this and think of New Orleans’ poorest neighbourhoods and not feel a mixture of gratitude (for Mr. Ramsey and his art) and shame?

Davenport and Ramsey are showing, respectively, at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art—the first time that Ramsey’s work is being exhibited in the context of contemporary art.

The two other standout artists for me are showing at the Newcomb Art Gallery: Nick Cave, who lives in Chicago, and Joyce J. Scott, who is from Baltimore.

Shown on mannequins, four of Cave’s Soundsuits become resplendent soft sculptures that completely conceal the body under cloth heavily decorated with various materials and needlework, such as crocheted doilies, buttons, beads and metallic brocade. A fifth suit, the one that most clearly signals its roots in African masks and ceremonial costumes, bristles with twigs. Made to be worn by a dancer, Cave’s suits move and make sounds and are the kin of the beaded and feathered carnival suits of New Orleans’ spectacular Mardi Indians.

Scott, who receives a full-on solo with a gallery full of small sculptures (made of beads, glass and found objects) and lacy wall pieces (like drawings made of wire and beads), draws on African art too; she appropriates and transforms African and porcelain figurines. Small wooden African figures of female nudes given yellow-beaded coifs and pubic hair are startling. A wooden figure, whose wide skirt is made of cast glass penises, fingers, eyes, trade beads and ex votos, recalls magical fetish and power figures. A remarkably fierce female head, gazed upon by cheap 18th-century-style porcelain figurines, is fashioned entirely from iridescent black beads. Other remarkable figures are made entirely of beads and glass.

Scott likes to play with stereotypes as she assaults given notions about race, power, slavery and colonization. Nowhere is her work more provocative and remarkable than in Lynching/Lynched Tree, an over-life-size, hollow, pink beadwork-and-glass figure of a terrified naked blonde woman high up in a live oak tree. Made for Prospect.2, the oddly fleshy sculpture, tied at wrists and ankles, hangs upside down from a branch. (Passersby walk underneath the tree, and don’t see her if they don’t look up.) Scott’s representation of a terrified and vulnerable woman is fiercely defiant in its evocation and inversion of the central metaphor of the haunting song “Strange Fruit.” Like many of the works in Prospect.2—and like New Orleans itself—Lynching/Lynched Tree is difficult to forget.

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