By Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
While considering the best New Orleans art exhibits of 2012, it became clear that this was a year of disquiet on the Crescent City art scene. In March, the Contemporary Arts Center was the focus of an artists’ protest over the temporary closure of an exhibition and the sudden resignation of the visual art curator.
It was the year that DesCours, the magical wintertime experimental architecture tour was regrettably canceled. It was the year that James Michalopoulos’ joyful steel sculpture “Mother Cluster” sprung up on Veterans Memorial Boulevard and was then laid low by Hurricane Isaac. Michalopoulos says the felled portion of the multi-part sculpture has been re-installed with a thicker steel stem.
2012 was the year that the miniature artistic Carnival parade formerly known as ‘tit Rex was forced to alter its title by the mightily insecure Rex organization. The inspired substitution of an upside down “e” in the name avoided a courtroom showdown and added an extra dollop of absurdity to the beloved demi-parade. This was the year that Prospect. 3, the next installment of the biennial city-wide international art exhibition that began with P.1 in 2008, was sensibly postponed from 2013 to 2014.
But all was not sturm und drang on the art scene. There were more than enough marvelous exhibitions and events to fill the calendar. It was a year when realism ruled.
Here is my list of the 10 exceptional art experiences of 2012.
In 2012, a membership at the New Orleans Museum of Art paid off especially well. Of the 10 art experiences I recall most fondly, four took place at the 101-year-old City Park institution.
That includes my No. 1 pick, “Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave Blache III, “ a series of 20 intimate portraits of the legendary lady who presides over the kitchen and dining room of Dooky Chase restaurant. There were certainly bigger shows in 2012, but from the city’s point of view none more important. In this touching April 23 to Sept. 9 exhibit, New Orleans native and NOCCA graduate Gus Blache captured the intimate, unglamorous authenticity of an 89-year-old chef Chase at work. In an era where spiked-haired newcomer chefs are given the glittering rock star treatment on television, Blache used his cool, quiet brand of realism to bring the soulful preparation of food back to earth. One of Blache’s paintings, titled “Cutting Squash,” was accepted by the prestigious National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Fond Memories of Hard Truths
“Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial,” at NOMA from March 1 to May 20 was an exhilarating exhibit by an 84-year-old artist who defies easy categorization. Dial, an African-American who grew up in rural, Depression-era Alabama and produces art from trash and industrial debris, is most often described as a master folk artist. But his large-scale, highly textured constructions blend the abstract authority of cubist Pablo Picasso with the irrepressible inventiveness of neo-dada pace-setter Robert Rauschenberg and the emotional jaggedness of neo-expressionist Anselm Kiefer. “Hard Truths,” curated by Joanne Cubbs of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is one of the most muscular memories of 2012.
“Lifelike,” now on display at NOMA through Feb. 3, is an art exhibition the way Lewis Carroll would have done it. Everything is perfectly normal, … except that card table seems way too large, that elevator seems way too small, that pack of cigarettes seems to be hovering in space and that kid staring at himself through the looking glass is just plain weird. The traveling exhibition, which originated at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is a wonderland of mind-bending optical tricks not to be missed. Oh, and, by the way, the gray grit in the anachronistic ashtray at the front desk is cremated pet remains.
Jazz Lover’s Homecoming
NOMA’s summer exhibition “Ralston Crawford and Jazz” was a revelation. Revered in modern art textbooks for his precise abstract paintings of mid-20th-century industrial sites, this exhibit explored the New York-based artist’s devotion to New Orleans music through his collection of magnetic photos of jazz musicians, his captivating Crescent city cemetery paintings and his transporting travelogue movies. The traveling show, curated by Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, director of the Sheldon Art Galleries in Saint Louis was a homecoming of sorts for Crawford (1906-1978) who is interred in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, just blocks from the City Park museum. Visit Crawford’s grave in this video memory of the exhibition.