by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
“Art is a fruit that grows in man, like a fruit on a plant, or a child in its mother’s womb.” – Jean Arp, artist
It is a fantastical peculiarity of language in New Orleans and other parts of South Louisiana that few outsiders understand. This peculiarity, one among many, is the phrase “makin’ groceries.” It derives from the French phrase “faire son marche’” or “to do one’s market shopping.” The verb “faire” can either be used to connote “to do” or “to make.” Thanks to the poetic imprecision of the French language and a typically bull-in-the-china-shop translation into English, we in South Louisiana now “make groceries” when we go shopping. It is as if we whip the goods we buy into being from thin air. When one thinks about it, the phrase is particularly artistic in nature.
This notion becomes evident in the grand scheme of a tightly curated exhibition currently running at Staple Goods Gallery in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans. The name of the gallery derives from the history of the building in which it is housed. In its previous incarnation, the building was used as a corner grocery store. The gallery’s co-op members decided to pay tribute to this history through the name, as well as the gallery’s motto: “We believe that art is a staple of life, not a luxury.” Hence, Staple Goods’ members decided to mount an exhibition titled “Fresh Produce,” which highlights recent work from the collective for the gallery’s present run as a Prospect New Orleans 2 Biennial Satellite. Nary a fruit or vegetable is in sight within the gallery; however, it’s pretty evident that making thoughtful and articulate art is high on this collective’s list. Gallery members included in the present version of the exhibition are Thomasine Barlett and Minka Stoyanova, Aaron Collier, William DePauw, Daniel Kelly IV, Anne C. Nelson, and Cynthia Scott.
The mother and daughter team of Thomasine Bartlett and Minka Stoyanova offer a mid-sized photograph that documents a series of living tableaux the pair orchestrated for the exhibition “Hot Night” at the now-defunct KK Projects/Life is Art Foundation. The photograph is titled “Hot Mammas of KK Projects” after the tableaux they produced which were titled “Hot Mammas” in toto. According to the “Hot Night” press release, Bartlett and Stoyanova aimed to “recreate period ensembles depicting 6 Louisiana women whose lives predate Air Conditioning. Live model/performers sit, sweat, and remove clothing as they attempt to endure the late summer heat, a reflection of fashion’s unerring battle with environment.” I never saw the original tableaux myself, but Bartlett and Stoyanova’s photograph manages to quicken the pulse, even though it’s pretty tame by contemporary standards. It recalls Ernest J. Bellocq‘s feted photographs of New Orleans prostitutes in the notorious red light district of Storyville. Bellocq lovingly and lustfully photographed these women of the night around the turn of the last century. There’s also something of the titillation of Jean August Dominique Ingres’s 19th century harem paintings in Bartlett and Stoyanova’s photograph. However, the commentary that accompanies the photograph cuts through the “heat” to bring awareness of the constriction and brutality that women have endured through the ages in the name of fashion, especially in terms of undergarments such as corsets. Yet another thing that adds a layer of complication to the photograph is the fact that it depicts a happening at KK Projects. The name of the artistic enterprise lives in infamy now in New Orleans, as owner Kirsha Kaechele has abandoned her project space, which has fallen into disrepair since she left the city, to pursue other creative endeavors. They say that fashion is fickle; apparently, Kaechele is as well. As for Bartlett and Stoyanova’s photograph, the descriptives “complicated” and “loaded” don’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Speaking of complicated and loaded things, three paintings by artist Aaron Collier are on view in “Fresh Produce.” Collier is a bit of a bipolar artist. One minute he’s drawing highly refined, conceptual/representational drawings and the next minute he’s cramming gestural and geometric abstraction onto a single oil canvas (typically gesture wins). Either way, it’s a game with high stakes that involves an exploration of discreet moments set against the backdrop of eternity. When viewing Collier’s abstract work which is on display here, one becomes more aware of time and the individual moments that form the fabric of one’s life within it through the accretion of colorful gestures on his canvases. Whereas most abstraction has the feeling of holding together – of unifying to become one thing – Collier’s abstraction always seems to be on the verge of exploding into its constituent parts. It’s as if his canvases and the human perception of time are the only things holding them together. In this way, his paintings seem incidental, rather than summarizing likes the works of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950′s and 60′s. A painting such as “Let There Be Floyd” illustrates this well. Out of a morass of scumbled, individual gestures in gray, orange, green, brown, blue and black, the name Floyd emerges to the right of the canvas. Whether this is an homage to an actual person or the band Pink Floyd, I don’t know. What I do think I know is that Collier is painting an abstract portrait of Floyd: one that relies on sense memory and disparate recollections rather than the sum total of who Floyd is physically. Its as if Collier is quoting Shakespeare in paint: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Collier’s abstract work operates as painting turned into a dream – a collage of the discreet moments of his life, and, by extension, ours as well.
The quote above from Jean Arp, the 20th century Dadaist, is not only appropriate to this article for its general reference to produce and art. Specifically, there’s quite a bit of Arp in the work of Staple Goods’ William DePauw. Much like Arp, DePauw focuses on fragments and how they fit together to form a new vocabulary of expression – one that is quasi-abstract and intuitive, rather than explicit. Besides the occasional drawing or painting, DePauw is primarily a ceramicist and a sculptor. In the past, he has focused on creating singular objects that are palimpsests of fragments from nature, human culture and geometric form. With his current work at Staple Goods, DePauw has inverted his usual process. Here, groupings of separate sculptures work in unison. Each individual sculpture operates like a word within a poetic sentence or a phrase. Individually, each sculpture has meaning; yet, when they are combined, the meaning of each object shifts in order to serve the ultimate expression of each grouping. For instance, DePauw’s “Invasive Species” is a grouping of a simplified human skull, a crow and a handful of small terra cotta shapes. The title calls to mind such things as Burmese pythons and African killer bees; however, such things are no where in sight. What we are left to contemplate is possibly the idea that we are the invasive species? Is death, itself, the invasive species? Is our brain and the way we perceive and order the world, as evidenced by the presence of the abstract, terra cotta shapes, somehow the alien in the grand scheme of things? What’s great about DePauw’s groupings is that they force engagement and demand a personal relationship with the viewer in order to extract meaning from them.
Daniel Kelly IV presents a large-scale drawing/painting on paper titled “Becoming Series 10.” Kelly has an au currant obsession with reinvestigating modernist architecture and what it signifies to us in our time. In “Becoming Series 10,” Kelly overlays a carefully rendered modernist villa in yellow with two more schematic renderings. All the separate drawings display a vertical thrust, despite their horizontality, due to the presence of pylons which elevate them above their surroundings (which are left out of the work). Together they operate as one ghostly figure, and Kelly accentuates this with a series of red lines slashing vertically through the center of the work. It is as if he has painted the soul of modernism: a soul that is essentially austere, violent, and bent on hierarchical domination. It is also the seed from which our current world is built upon. Considering that there’s been much talk lately in philosophical circles about the new aesthetic of metamodernism – a blending of modernist and post-modernist principles, it’s important for us all to understand what modernism was and what is worth saving from the 20th century’s radicalism. In a very real sense, Kelly’s work explores this philosophical terrain.
Anne C Nelson is an artist concerned with the spaces we take for granted – the spaces whose only purpose is to exist between other spaces of action and determinacy. These are known as interstitial spaces, and the term can be applied to the spaces that exist between the walls of buildings or organs in animal bodies. It can also be applied to zones of time without any discernible progress. In many ways, contemporary abstraction was made for this sort of subject, and Nelson uses it to good effect. Her “3 Inch Architectural Drawing,” which is actually 36″ x 48″, has the feeling of an inconsequential and dilapidated space in a home. Individual passages that seem to mimic broken plaster, torn wallpaper, rotting wood, mildewed stucco and desecrated punched tin all come together on the canvas in the way of a collage to articulate neglected space. In “Everything That Rises Must,” Nelson abstractly paints the ineffable moment that exists between the rise of an object and its inevitable fall back to earth. This is a moment of infinite stillness and grace, yet it’s also rife with sadness and longing for the magical moment to continue. Every physicist out there can tell one that anything is possible in the universe of infinite possibility in which we live; however, the probability of ever seeing an object continue to float and never fall is infinitesimally slim to none. This zone in time, marked by the absence of progress either up or down, is one of Nelson’s interstices.
In both the showrooms of Staple Goods, patrons of “Fresh Produce” are treated to two views of some pretty unorthodox chandeliers, but there is no lighting involved in these objects – just political commentary by way of some uncanny found object assemblage. These are the works of Cynthia Scott, the unofficial “queen of upcycling” in New Orleans. Scott regularly works with found materials so as to address the political and environmental concerns we all face today at the turn of the century. Whereas the dadaists used found objects and assemblage to shock the public into an awareness of the surreal and absurd all around them, POP artists usurped everyday objects for their blunt coolness and ubiquity, and conceptual artists used everyday objects for the meaning and metaphors which lie underneath their surfaces, Scott uses found objects to comment on how many objects are out there to find in the endless tide of waste and detritus that we as a civilization discard into the environment. Scott connects these objects to the environment through some creative naming, substituting the name of the imperiled barrier islands at the eastern-most tip of Louisiana for the word chandelier. “Chandeleur (The Fighters)” is a multicolored chandelier made from plastic baskets, ties and tubes filled with a substance which looks black as crude. The sculptural object certainly looks festive. However, plastic is a byproduct of the oil industry, and this industry has done much to alter and devastate the environment in Louisiana from creating canals through sensitive marshlands that continue to introduce salt water into the mainland to the 2010 BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico which ruined the landscape and wildlife on the islands in question. The second chandelier, titled “Chandeleur (The Fishers),” is devoted to the fishermen of Louisiana. Scott created the piece from found wire objects that mimic the wire traps that fishermen use. The artist adorns her chandelier with little wire boats as well. The two chandeliers call to mind the schism that exists between the two distinct industries, one (the oil industry)bent on the absolute exploitation of the natural environment, and the other (the seafood industry) which is concerned more with sustaining the natural environment for years to come.
So, the members of Staple Goods Gallery are offering some serious food for thought with “Fresh Produce.” There may not be much in the way of quantity, yet everything in the exhibition exudes quality, which is more than anyone can say about a typical visit to the grocery store in the 21st century. As far as visual sustenance goes, the exhibition is more than satisfying.
Thomasine Bartlett and Minka Stoyanova
“Hot Mamas of KK Projects”
Detail of Thomasine Bartlett and Minka Stoyanova’s “Hot Mamas of KK Projects”
“Expecting the Unusual”
oil on cnvas
“Let There Be Floyd”
oil on cnvas
“The Certainty of Opposition”
oil on cnvas
“Objects at Rest”
Daniel Kelly IV
“Becoming Series 10″
painting/drawing on paper
Anne C. Nelson
“3 Inch Architectural Drawing”
Anne C. Nelson
“Everything That Rises Must”
“Chandeleur (The Fighters)”
salvaged plastics, string and oil-like fluid
“Chandeleur (The Fishers)”
salvaged objects, string and handmade boats
“Fresh Produce” is on view at Staple Goods Gallery, 1340 St. Roch Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117, until January 29, 2012.