Mixed-media work by Patricia Kaersenhout, on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
New Orleans is proudly multicultural, resilient, boisterous, and decidedly complicated (even more so in these days of ongoing post-Katrina, Airbnb-facilitated gentrification). What kind of internationally focused art event would ever fit this uniquely idiosyncratic, storied place, which is on the cusp of celebrating its 300th anniversary? That has been the struggle of Prospect, the biennial-turned-triennial now open in its fourth iteration, under the direction of Trevor Schoonmaker, a curator of contemporary art hailing from the Nasher Museum at Duke University.
“The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” its title borrowed from a quote from jazz musician Archie Shepp, does try to live up to the challenge. There are thrills and discoveries, to be sure, but after a few days of exploration I was left hoping for more—a more unbridled, risky, sprawling proposition to match the energy of Prospect’s host city.
Let’s start at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, where Patricia Kaersenhout’s mixed-media banners and collages are quietly horrifying—craft in the service of righteous disgust. The Dutch artist defaces imagery of historical white colonizers with embroidery and beadwork, setting their faces crawling with insects and decay. That fraught mood inadvertently carries over into an adjoining room of hazy, moody paintings of ships at sea by Katherine Bradford (a favorite subject for the artist, along with bathers).
Installation view of Hank Willis Thomas, History of the Conquest, 2017 at Jazz Museum. © Mike Smith. Courtesy of Prospect.4 New Orleans.
The Ogden also holds a P.4-specific commission by John Akomfrah. It’s a ponderous, three-channel poetic biopic that purports to tell the story of jazz pioneer Charles “Buddy” Bolden, who was institutionalized in 1907 for schizophrenia. The cinematography is gorgeous, but the payoff is minimal; an elliptical voiceover, plus too much slo-mo emoting in graveyards, weathered houses, and asylums adds up to a film that is both heavy and didactic, a sort of tragic music video. If you have limited time, consider saving it instead for a concurrent but unrelated-to-P.4 survey on a lower floor of the museum, “Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection,” which celebrates a lineage of African-American art and abstraction from Jack Whitten and Sam Gilliam to Shinique Smith and Kevin Beasley.
Stand-out moments do dot this triennial, along with welcome bursts of the unexpected. At the New Orleans Jazz Museum, sculptures by big-ticket names like Hank Willis Thomas and Rashid Johnson are joined by less expected inclusions. There are beautiful and elaborate “Mardi Gras Indian” costumes by Big Chief Darryl Montana; some truly singular collages by jazz icon Louis Armstrong, one of which features a packet of his preferred herbal laxative, Swiss Kriss; lushly impressionistic paintings on rough bark-cloth by young Kenyan painter Michael Armitage; and unabashedly weird and political canvases by Peter Williams.
Installation view of Barkley Hendricks at the New Orleans Museum of Art. © Mike Smith. Courtesy of Prospect.4 New Orleans.
The New Orleans Museum of Art has filled its entrance lobby with a commanding selection of paintings by Barkley L. Hendricks. I certainly can’t be the first person to think that the artist, who died in April of this year, would have made a thrilling choice to paint Obama’s portrait—no offense to Kehinde Wiley. Don’t miss an additional, modest piece tucked away in a side gallery of Renaissance paintings. There, Hendricks’s Innocence & Friend—a 1977 triptych depicting a toothpick-chewing hipster, a banana, and two oranges on an aluminum leaf ground—has a curious neighbor in the form of a circa-1460s Coronation of the Virgin by Bartolomeo Vivarini. Upstairs at the same museum, an inventively installed selection of images from Dawit L. Petros’s “The Stranger’s Notebook”—a quasi-documentary series about migration—is a highlight, as are works on paper by 2017 MacArthur Grant winner Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
The Contemporary Art Center packs a wealth of work in its multi-level space, including much that focuses on craft and unconventional mixed-media. Lavar Munroe is showing a raw and shambolic sculpture, its centerpiece a rearing horse, assembled from tennis balls, wood, fabric, and pieces of costuming from the Bahamian Junkanoo celebration. Margarita Cabrera has a series of soft sculptures, including one of a lumpy, thread-dangling piano and a variety of cacti-like flora sewn from U.S. border patrol uniforms. Throughout the CAC, a series of figurative sculptures by Taiyo Kimura—small figures huddled into themselves, facing walls and corners—are a consistently disturbing punctuation for the exhibition as a whole.
Over at the Ace Hotel, rising star Genevieve Gaignard has turned two rooms into a combination living room and chapel, importing vintage furniture, church pews, figurines, found photos, mirrors, and wallpaper (part of which reproduces schematic diagrams of slave ships). The aesthetic is a bit too cozily close to that of the hipster hotel itself, which takes away some of its bite, but the installation—and its series of quasi-narrative photographs and self-portraits—confirms Gaignard as a whipsmart artist, both accessible and nuanced. That said, it would have been nice to experience this piece’s layered mood in a stranger, less familiar location, rather than adjacent to Stumptown Coffee.
Genevieve Gaignard, Grassroots, 2017. Installation view of Ace Hotel New Orleans. © Crista Rock. Courtesy of Prospect.4 New Orleans.
That brings up a larger point. P.4 has streamlined its roster of venues so that they’re now in a tighter cluster, with most displays occupying institutions and museums. (There are a few notable, offbeat exceptions, like a series of works by Pedro Lasch incorporating old clocks and mirrors, sited in the back of the M.S. Rau Antiques store.) That certainly makes for a more convenient visitor experience, but it negates the scavenger hunt feel that I remember from the Franklin Sirmans-curated P.3, in 2014.
Part of this decision might just have been logistical. One of the most anticipated moments of this triennial, I imagine, was the inclusion of a new commissioned work by Kara Walker, entitled Katastwóf Karavan, that was meant to be located on Algiers Point, a farther-flung spot that requires a ferry ride from the French Quarter. This piece was temporarily shelved about one week before P.4.’s opening. “The scale and unprecedented complexity” of the work “posed multiple challenges,” according to a press statement from interim director Ylva Rouse. There’s still a Mark Dion installation on Algiers Point—a small wooden cabin meant to resemble a Field Station of the Melancholy Marine Biologist—but it’s modest and underwhelming on its lonesome, marooned on the flat shores of the Mississippi.
Overall, the future curator of P.5, in 2020, would do well to focus less on recognizable names and more on new energy. Does this triennial really benefit from a large wall mural by Yoko Ono, whose message (“Have You Seen The Horizon Lately?”) reads like an advertisement for an ultra-minimalist clothing store? Does a series of abstract flags by Odili Donald Odita scattered throughout the city bring much to the table? I overheard an acquaintance during the press weekend express a pithy criticism of P.4; namely, it could have been weirder.
Naama Tsabar, Composition 21, 2017. Photo by J Caldwell. Courtesy of Prospect.4 New Orleans.
It might just be time to turn over the reins to someone whose C.V. is less institutionally polished (which presupposes patrons willing to make that leap). More risk, more reward. What would this triennial look like if it was organized by the team behind local art space Pelican Bomb, whose satellite show “Queer Tropics” should also be on your itinerary this year? What would it look like if it really tried to mirror the elusive character of this city? I’d be happy with a rougher-edged Prospect that partially took place in someone’s attic, or the basement of a bar, in addition to the city’s museums.
A Prospect along those lines might resonate more, generally, with the collaborative transcendence of Naama Tsabar’s commissioned performance, Composition 21, held in NOLA’s Washington Square Park during the opening day of P.4. (Sadly, it’s a one-off affair.) In a reprise of a concept that Tsabar has staged in Miami, among other places, 21 local musicians, arranged in a triangular formation, stood atop amplifiers, wielding guitars, basses, drumsticks, and—in one case—a cello. The performers (primarily women, with some identifying as gender nonconforming) were divided up into three groups, which took turns performing a song that they had composed based on Tsabar’s specifications.
Afterward, everyone played simultaneously, and spectators were welcome to meander through the musicians, creating a surround-sound effect in which melodies competed and overlapped. What better use of a sunny Saturday morning than to wander inside this joyous forcefield, a living social-sculpture—women soloing; tapping; harmonizing; thumbing bass lines; riffing, stoically—a thoroughly defiant, bad-ass retort to the everyday oppressions of the world outside its boundaries.