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Looking to the past, present, and future with the Contemporary Art Center’s three newest exhibitions

Art is a fickle beast. The contemporary art world has been impacted by countless new modes of expression, and attempting to comprehend them and place them within the traditional parameters of art can get a bit complicated without the right context. So upon meeting with curators Amy Mackie and Dan Cameron, whose three exhibitions will open at the Contemporary Arts Center on Saturday, June 25, at 6 p.m,, I decided to do a more elaborate version of the usual exhibition preview.

In the spirit of the CAC’s 35th birthday celebration, these new exhibitions all relate to the timelessness of New Orleans, as well as our need to reflect on the past, focus on the present, but look to the future. In keeping with this theme, it’s pertinent to examine these shows in the context of both their historical past and their possible effects on the future.

Architects John Kleinschmidt and Andy Sternad (whose Shallow Projects was featured at NolaVie’s May INCUBATE) designed the sound installation “Drip: The Music of Water” in the CAC’s sound room. The piece was originally developed as a part of Waggonner & Ball’s Dutch Dialogues initiative, which seeks to promote better water management in the city. The work brings awareness to water and to New Orleans’ underlying tensions with it, yet encourages a conversation that will hopefully promote solutions to the potential threat of water. Doing so will enable citizens to appreciate water as something that is beautiful, powerful, and part of the historic legacy of New Orleans, rather than as something to be feared.

Along with some of the more architectural works the artists have planned, “Drip” recalls many Earthworks (a movement that incorporates nature into art), such as Christo’s “Surrounded Islands” (1980-83). Like other Earthworks art, “Drip” confronts space and draws the viewer’s attention to it.

By examining architectural works through the lens of visual arts, the “Drip” installation is indicative of the expanding parameters of art. Kleinschmitand Sternad use new media to develop alternative modes of expression that are difficult to categorize within traditional art genres. Their work encourages viewers to reevaluate the way they look at the space that surrounds them. In this case, readdressing the surrounding space (water) is significant because the way viewers do so will determine how effectively the city can solve its foreboding water situation.

“The Center Cannot Hold: Paintings and Drawings by Brooke Pickett,” also curated by Amy Mackie, consists of 12 large-scale abstract paintings and 13 small, walnut-ink drawings. To make the paintings, Brooke Pickett focuses on the process: collecting dilapidated objects, arranging them in obscure sculptural configurations, photographing them, and finally painting abstractions of the photographs.

Space is another important aspect of her work and one that is complemented by the unique architectural curves and angles of the gallery walls. In the paintings, the heavy brushstrokes and vibrant colors fill the empty spaces formed by the sharp angles of the abstractions, and in the drawings strong lines and sharp angles draw attention to the empty spaces.

Pickett’s paintings point back to the Abstract Expressionist movement of the mid-20th century and most obviously to the men who were its central force. However, her pieces allow the viewer to consider the important women of the movement, too, such as Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler; some of Pickett’s specific influences include Philip Guston’s brushwork and Jessica Stockholder’ monumental-sized sculptures. Pickett’s exhibition also looks to the future as she, like many other contemporary artists, is exploring and rediscovering the expressive quality of one of art’s most traditional media: paint.

Dan Cameron’s “Patterns and Prototypes: Early Paintings by Tina Girouard and Robert Gordy” makes an assertive case that two Pattern and Decoration (P&D) artists from New Orleans influenced their peers on a national scale, but have not received the recognition they deserve. Both artists were part of the P&D movement, which was – like a host of other movements that emerged but were not fully explored during the transformative period of the late 1960s through 1980s – overshadowed by the popular Post-Minimalism and Earthworks movements.

Cameron’s exhibition seeks to acknowledge that both artists were ahead of their time and to reconsider their influence on contemporary art. Robert Gordy’s works reflect the influence of French Modernists Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy, who focused on the figure, bright colors, and themes of sensual escape. Tina Girouard moved to New York in the 1970s and was a founding participant of creative spaces like FOOD and 112 Greene Street. Her works range from paintings to fabric hangings and have multiple points of entry that produce illusion and depth.

Cameron’s thesis for the exhibition speaks to the theme of the past, present and future. The works fit into New Orleans’s rich art history, one that has often been overshadowed by other major art-producing cities like New York. By relating the historic works to current movements, the New Orleans community of artists can connect to their predecessors by becoming informed about their art historic past and understanding its influences on the contemporary art they create.

While the exhibition speaks to a reinvestigation of the past, the forward-thinking nature of the artists’ works is evident in pieces that fit well in contemporary exhibitions by young, developing artists. Girouard and Gordy bring the past into the present and allow older movements’ contemporary influences to be considered in a modern context.

All three exhibitions opening on Saturday call upon the viewer to look at the past in the context of the present and future. They open a dialogue about reevaluating the different spaces of art and life that surround us in New Orleans and beyond.

I encourage you, with all the esoteric art historic knowledge I have just bequeathed upon you, to become a part of that dialogue.


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