I found limited information about the exhibition before going. The intriguing title led me to research Lenny Bruce, a Jewish-American comedian and satirist. I would later find out in my talk with John Otte, after viewing the exhibition, that he had heard Jay, the owner of The Pearl, use the quote at the end of an interview. He liked the expression for a number of reasons and later decided to use it in its entirety, including Lenny Bruce’s name, as the title of the exhibition.
I arrived at the exhibition not knowing what to expect, which ultimately led to a purer interaction with the exhibition and the ability to discover it organically. (Author’s note and spoiler alert: I found the discovery of this exhibition to be one of the most significant parts of my experience. Not knowing what to expect allowed me to appreciate the uniqueness of exhibition. I urge you, if you can bear the suspense, to go see the exhibition and then read the remainder of my article after you have done so.)
Upon my arrival at 639 Desire Street (at Royal), I felt an almost voyeuristic element. I was not sure exactly where to go or what to look at, eliciting a certain sense of freedom not normally associated with the display of art. I initially walked to the yard across the street, which I later found out is called Shangri La, and is somewhat an extension of The Pearl. After being directed by Cuckoo, the friendly neighbor who owns the house adjacent to the yard, to the house across the street, I entered The Pearl.
The exhibition at The Pearl is three years in the making. Plans began with Otte’s vision of creating an exhibition that could capture the action of a city. He sought to create a space that would integrate art and the gallery space into the places and activities toward which people organically gravitate. Otte found the space when he met Jay, who introduced him to The Pearl (his Pearl), a legendary speakeasy in the Bywater at the corner of Royal and Desire, which has been host to underground parties for 20 years.
And evidence of those 20 years remain as the background. Rather than follow his original intention of clearing out the objects that inhabit the existing space to create a clean surface for the art, Otte preserved the atmosphere of The Pearl by leaving the — I cannot find a better word here — “stuff” that was scattered throughout the house as the background for the video installations, photographs, sculptures, and paintings that comprise the exhibition. This “stuff,” which Otte compares to the scientific concept of “cosmic background radiation,” adds a sense of depth to the art, particularly the video installations. When watching them, one’s focus shifts back and forth between the content of the video frames and the objects in the background, creating dimension and an atmosphere akin to a landscape painting. Some works, such as Courtney Egan’s video projected onto a bathtub, were works in progress that were tweaked to fit a particular space in the house, while existing pieces like INGRIDMWAGNIROBERTHUTTER’s “The Cage” seemed to be made for certain backdrops around the building.
The artists collaborated with Otte on the placement of their works in this unusual space, finding ways to make the pieces both stand out against and become a part of the cluttered background. There is a collaborative energy between Otte and his artists. With the exception of the video installation creators, they make a sacrifice to take part in the exhibition.
Viewers and Pearl party goers come into close contact with the works during The Pearl parties that take palace as an organic part of the exhibition. The artists are willing to risk damage to enable the event and the community aspect of the exhibition to occur. Otte’s collaborative efforts simultaneously encapsulate the spirit of creation, creativity, and synergy and the eclecticism of New Orleans as a city and a community.
Because of the collaboration, this exhibition challenges its viewer to discover its individual pieces, echoing the universe’s daily challenge to both find beauty in the everyday and art among the objects.
However, the exhibition is also intuitive, which to my mind is due in large part to Otte’s desire to capture the spirit of New Orleans and embed the zeitgeist of the city into the exhibition, allowing people (both artists and viewers) and place to be interactive components of the exhibition. Otte invites you to come join him, and be a part of this avant garde space and exhibition and a part of New Orleans.
Meet him, Jay, Cuckoo, the artists and whoever else decides to come and engage in conversations with this charismatic crowd and with this active exhibition. Come early, come late, just be there.
I will be, will you?