New Orleans

Sophie T. Lvoff, Purple Rain, 2011, color ink-jet print, 47 1/2 x 40 1/2". From “Spaces: Antenna, the Front, Good Children Gallery.”

Sophie T. Lvoff, Purple Rain, 2011, color ink-jet print, 47 1/2 x 40 1/2". From “Spaces: Antenna, the Front, Good Children Gallery.”

“Spaces: Antenna, the Front, Good Children Gallery”

Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans

Sophie T. Lvoff, Purple Rain, 2011, color ink-jet print, 47 1/2 x 40 1/2". From “Spaces: Antenna, the Front, Good Children Gallery.”

Here’s an intimidating curatorial gambit: a museum exhibition venturing to manifest a palpable web of energy spun by a triad of emerging artists’ collectives. The collectives are located in a working-class, historically black, increasingly multicultural enclave that is literally on the other side of the tracks from the Contemporary Arts Center, which is situated in a well-trafficked touristic business district. From the outset of this project, potential pitfalls for the museum abounded. On the one hand, ideological and class tensions would be there for the stoking; on the other (and maybe more disastrously), were those frictions to not be prodded, the institution would be guilty of swallowing the various identities of the collectives only to spit them out as a homogenous, depoliticized group showcased out of context.

So give the exhibition’s curator, Amy Mackie (assisted by now former-CAC visual-arts coordinator Angela Berry), some credit for the moxie of following through with “Spaces,” which presents the artists of Antenna, the Front, and Good Children Gallery, the three most prominent initiatives of a cluster of artists’ collectives that sprouted after Hurricane Katrina on or near St. Claude Avenue in the Bywater District. (Three additional collectives contributed street-level window installations.) Crucial to this narrative is gentrification: Some community activists say the collectives are not only gentrifying the area but also failing to represent the district’s historical racial composition. While this may be true, the young collectives in “Spaces” are far from “established” in the manner that the older Julia Street commercial galleries are. Only the Front owns its own building, and as the cultural cachet of the Bywater mounts, the cost of operating there may soon prove prohibitive. Of course, all artists’ neighborhoods change, and a show like this one will likely only expedite the rate of transformation.

Some pieces on view address such issues head-on. For example, the mustachioed, champagne-sipping duo Generic Art Solutions—known for their staged reinterpretations of works from the art-historical canon—played an intense game of Monopoly as an opening-night performance, with a board reflecting the St. Claude scene. Tucked in a dark corner, Ryan Watkins-Hughes’s See St. Claude (all works cited, 2012) allows viewers to mug against a to-scale photomural of the urban decay in the St. Claude neighborhood. Watkins-Hughes’s piece cheekily literalizes the displacement that is the essence of the exhibition: “seeing” St. Claude without necessarily feeling its energy, blight, fear, and soul.

This show initiated a few collaborative works, including Posing Process, the contribution of a desk by Sophie T. Lvoff and Lala Rašcˇic´, at which each artist works during gallery hours, and Dave Greber’s three-channel video installation The Front on Display, which features the Front members hamming for a reality-style parody while knowingly spouting art clichés. Absurdist parodies of twenty-first-century mass media have become Greber’s métier, and as maddening as his video’s looping Muzak and wink-wink art platitudes are in this otherwise silent gallery, his piece is also one of the few that retains a “signature style.” As for Stephanie Patton’s Wave, a gorgeously weird achromatic soft sculpture/Op-art mattress; Brian Guidry’s explosive abstract paintings in the shape of heraldic shields; and Lee Deigaard’s photos of wild animals looking at you, through you—these are works by some of the collectives’ most interesting artists, but they seem to lose their specificity on this side of town.

Problems notwithstanding, there’s the feeling of a Happening surrounding the show; that it represents another moment when New Orleans art will change again. The process has in fact already begun. In response to Mackie’s and other staffers’ resignations shortly after the opening and to the CAC neglecting to notify the artists that Spaces would be closed for approximately two weeks to accommodate a film shoot, several artists pulled their work from the exhibition, citing reasons ranging from the CAC’s lack of commitment to visual art to the institution’s inability to retain staff.

In its brief, complete manifestation, Spaces offered a glimpse of what a community’s art looks like, but didn’t address the forces that shaped it. But the very issue of why a tight-knit scene of collectives exists in New Orleans immediately came to the fore nonetheless. As all artists’ neighborhoods can attest, things will change. Spaces has already catalyzed that transformation.

Nick Stillman