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Prospecting

Thom Collins

Carrie Mae Weems , Still from Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me – A Story in 5 Parts, 2012. Mixed Media Video Theatre Installation (“Pepper’s ghost” illusion technique), Duration: 18’ min. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

This fall, the PAMM curatorial staff and I took a museum patron trip to New Orleans for Prospect.3: Notes for Now. This is the third installment in a series of large international contemporary art surveys still labeled “biennial” by the organizers, though four years have passed since Prospect 2. The first Prospect, which opened in November 2008, was organized in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in large part as an engine of economic and community development for the devastated city.

This edition was organized by Franklin Sirmans, head of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In my opinion one of the most talented curators of his generation, he has built a resume heavy on exhibition and publication projects designed to redress the omissions of the Eurocentric Modernist art-historical canon, telling the stories and presenting the artistic achievements of significant yet lesser-known women artists and artists of color from around the world. For this reason, Sirmans is uniquely prepared to probe the provocative but essential mission of P.3: in his words to “explore the search to find the self and the necessity of the other as a part of that quest.”

In Notes for Now, he presents the work of 58 artists from around the world—some historical, some recent, and some newly commissioned—in 18 resonant sites throughout New Orleans. The resulting show is inevitably challenging to navigate, uneven in the quality of its contents, and open-ended in its argumentation. But as a compelling introduction to the art of many emerging and underappreciated artists of our time, and perhaps especially as an implicit rejoinder to the embarrassment of predictable and market-aligned international group shows of the last decade, this “biennial” is indispensable and a quiet revelation.

Such established and well-known artists as Terry Adkins, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Zarina Bhimji, Andrea Fraser, Charles Gaines, Yun-Fei Ji, Hew Locke, Kerry James Marshall, Analia Saban, Gary Simmons, and Carrie Mae Weems are represented in the exhibition with very strong contributions. What follows are some brief thoughts on artists whose work I previously knew little or not at all, offered both as a recommendation to Prospect.3 visitors and a prompt to those interested followers who won’t have occasion to visit the exhibition before it closes on January 25, 2015.

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Ed Clark, New Orleans Series #4, 2012. Acrylic on canvas.

Important contributions of women and minority artists to the evolution of Abstract Expressionism have been almost completely erased from the history of the movement, its paradigmatic producing subject the heroic straight, white male of the immediate post-war period. Trained as an artist in the late 1940s, Ed Clark was an early and underappreciated innovator, among the first gestural painters to explore the potentials of the shaped canvas. He is best known for his mature work in which he paints on a horizontal surface, moving poured pigment in vibrant colors around with a broom. Embracing accident and transcending this mundane technique, his sublime paintings stand with the very best examples of second-generation Abstract Expressionism.
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Monir Farmanfarmaian, Convertible Series, Group 10, 2011. Mirror and reverse glass painting on plaster and wood.

When her life and career were radically disrupted by the Islamic Revolution of the 1970s, Monir Farmanfarmaian was forced to relocate to New York, where she had studied and worked in the late 1940s and 1950s. Her art represents a compelling hybrid of influences from both of these cultural contexts. Employing Persian mosaic and glass painting techniques, she weds abstract motifs from a largely iconoclastic tradition of Islamic art to the repetitive geometries of western Minimalism and Op. The resulting objects, mirrored, multifaceted and visually dazzling, have a hypnotic quality, drawing the viewer into a complex meditation on ever-shifting perceptions of object, environment and self.
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 Tameka Norris, Meka Jean: How She Got Good, 2014. Video installation. 

Raised in New Orleans, Tameka Norris studied art at UCLA and Yale before returning to her hometown. Her alienated observations on the much altered post-Katrina physical, social, political and economic landscapes of the city provide the often humorous narrative thrust of her fictionalized autobiographical film “Meka Jean: How She Got Good.” Equal parts observant flâneuse and playful provocateuse, as she moves through some of the most recognizable neighborhoods in New Orleans as her alter ego Meka Jean, her interactions with the built environment and non-actors highlight rising tensions around gentrification, racial difference, and economic disparity.
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 Firelei Báez, Ode to La Siréne. 2014. Gouache, acrylic polymer and ink on canvas.

Beginning in 1785, women of color, both slave and free, were required by Louisiana law to cover their hair with headscarves so that they might be less attractive to white men. But the strategy backfired, and black women embraced this form of adornment, wearing ever more elaborate headpieces, many crafted of colorful and highly patterned West African fabrics. The paintings of Firelei Báez represent a celebratory fantasia on this phenomenon. In a series of bust-length portraits, the female face is framed in a riot of highly detailed and delicately rendered patterns derived from non-western textiles, vegetal motifs, and exotic animal skins.
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Lisa Sigal, Burning, 2014. Archival digital prints with mixed media on Tyvek.

Nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina, more than 5,000 abandoned and blighted homes dot New Orleans. Lisa Sigal, best known for her clever and elegant painterly interventions in architectural environments, has given these houses “voice” in an effort to bring them back to public consciousness and to honor the histories they represent. She has scattered fragments of text from a brief but emotionally wrenching play by Suzan-Lori Parks across the facades of these decaying properties throughout the city. Parks’ mini-play tells the story of a couple living in the shadow of an abandoned house partially consumed by fire, haunted by the losses it commemorates. Each of Sigal’s fragmentary presentations is poetic and poignant, but it is in the quest to piece together the full dramatic narrative—a virtually impossible task—that the scope and profundity of Katrina’s human toll is revealed.
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The Propeller Group and Christopher Myers, The Living Need Light and the Dead Need Music, 2013. Video installation.

The Propeller Group’s film “The Living Need Light, and the Dead Need Music” takes its title from a Vietnamese proverb that points to the raucous and celebratory nature of the traditional funeral wake and tomb procession in Vietnam. The spectacle of such ceremonies—involving musicians, spiritual mediums and professional criers—is echoed in the driving, hallucinatory nature of the film itself. Juxtaposed with Christopher Myers’s sculptural installation of colorful funerary garments and brassy musical instruments, which is inspired by the equally dynamic and buoyant funerary traditions of New Orleans, the ensemble seems to collapse space and time: two distinct cultures resonate unexpectedly around the most profound of human ritual practices.
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 Remy Jungerman, Transition Obeah, 2013. Painted wood, cotton, gin bottles, kaolin, coins, photographs, and map.

Born in the former Dutch colony of Suriname just a half-decade after its independence, Remy Jungerman grew up in South America but has lived in the Netherlands for the last 25 years. His recent wall-mounted sculptural compositions mobilize the visual vocabulary of De Stijl, a Dutch movement founded in 1917 that aspired to a form of spiritual uplift though the ultimate simplification of all designed environments to the irreducible elements of line, plane and primary color palette. He then complicates this reference by introducing into his wall compositions painted motifs borrowed from Afro-Surinamese textiles and a variety of found objects that point to the deep history of slavery and colonialism that structured the relationship between Suriname and the Netherlands for nearly three centuries. Identifying these pieces with “obeah,” West African mystical and religious practices transplanted to the Americas by slaves, he places the embodied ritual practice of the oppressor at the service of the oppressed.
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Los Jaichackers, Subterranean Homesick Cumbia, 2013. Video Installation.

The dominant image in this new video installation by Los Jaichackers is an accordion being dragged along a sandy beach, but it is the evolving soundtrack that anchors the piece in the origin myth of Cumbia—described as the first hybrid Latin American musical form. As the story goes, a German cargo ship wrecked on the coast of Colombia, and a load of accordions washed ashore. Recovered by local free people of color, they were pressed into service as a tool in synthesizing disparate Native American, African, and European musical traditions. With this melancholy installation, Los Jaichackers highlight the complex artistic and material histories—both real and imagined—of a ubiquitous musical form, at the same time illustrating some of the deeper dynamics that structure communication and exchange in an increasingly global culture.

Thom Collins is Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

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