Arthur Roger Gallery
New Orleans, LA
BY KATHY RODRIGUEZ
New Orleans Art Review | Fall 2015
IT’S DIFFICULT TO place exhibits in New Orleans at this time of this year outside of the context of The Storm. The subject looms like heavy billowing clouds, densely gray and thickly churning, an extended horizontal weight floating and staying just above our heads. Many of us are walking with eyes cast down, or otherwise away from the reminders of ten years gone. At New Orleans Museum of Art, it is an apt title for an exhibit comprised of work not necessarily about Katrina. At Arthur Roger Gallery, the concept also appears to be at the heart of three exhibitions.
This month, Willie Birch has work up concurrently at NOMA and Arthur Roger, with strong ties between the images. The allover pattern of new growth in his yard post-K stretches to all corners of the paintings at the museum, indicative of the unrestrained rooting of the plants in actual life. The horror vacui of the images, contained by the gestalt of the picture plane, seems to represent physical attempts we make to harness or overcome natural forces. The Romantic temperament of the sublime renders such attempts futile. The images flood the picture plane, overfilling the capacity of the shape to the effect of suffocation or drowning.
The crystallographic balance of fields of texture appears in some works at Arthur Roger, but it is replaced by more iconic imagery for the most part. The exhibit, titled “Seen and Unseen: Coupling,” is, as stated by the artist in the catalog for the show, evidence of attempts to “look beyond the idea of series…to understand how the interconnections between images add another layer in itself, creating unique visual and literal language.” The images, which individually are strong enough to stand alone, together form a melodic overture that Birch likens to the way a “core” of jazz, or individual melody, changes and expands in meaning within the context of an orchestra.
The paintings at Arthur Roger are marked by the variety of their subject matter – the compositions picture shoes, plumbing, and wrapped cars – mundane objects that are part of New Orleans but also legible and relatable in a wider context. They seem like still lives, which were once the lowest on the hierarchy of academic subjects – experimented upon by early modernists because they had been abandoned, and were unburdened from the hackneyed approaches of academic peers. Birch finds revelations of form in them as well, and elevates or provokes their content through their couplings in the show.Birch’s focus on unseen moments of symmetry, as in Door Hinge, Unpainted Door Hinge, and Irons, indicate the concept of the ideal and perfection embedded in formal balance. The objects’ connotations stretch farther, intimating closure and control – both concepts related compositionally to gestalt and containment, but also to personal, social, and political restraint. Have we, in the past ten years, been able to overcome old issues, or contend with new ones that arose with the floodwater in New Orleans? The failed blockage of the levees did not metaphorically parallel an outpouring of total compassion for the city, a break from red tape or lies – kinds of constraints.
The symmetry in these paintings is broken by repetition in the negative space, or the addition of unrepeated compositional elements as in Morning Light on Urquhart Street. An energy meter to the left of the composition weights the symmetry to that side. The sense of imbalance imparted by this formal element suggests that only the unpredictable can be expected.
Birch’s achromatic compositions recall the gray scale of Guernica. Picasso’s lament over man-made destruction utilizes more harrowing representation than Birch’s paintings, but Birch still gets at the abject nature of the concept. An image of a toilet stabbed with a plunger joins a room filled with paintings of shoes, on and off feet. Debased objects like these speak of trudging through unwanted, troubling tasks. But, in the context of self-reflection, perhaps in these images the figures are walking toward something new, away from the gray clouds hovering just above. Birch lets us look down and watch our steps, thus looking away from the heavy presence of the past.Bruce Davenport, Jr. – now Dapper Bruce Lafitte– fills the adjacent space with new work on the subject of Muhammad Ali. His drawings join black and white photographs of the fighter by Gordon Parks, echoing the achromatic palette of Birch’s paintings in the space next door. The exhibition text remarks on the “softer side of the boxer” revealed in Parks’ images, showing Ali “relaxed and introspective” in comfortable moments with his portraitist. The images play well with Davenports’ polychromatic images of Ali’s various fights, depicted in fractured space and caricatured line as is typical of his work.
The horror vacui in Davenport’s work affords him opportunities to depict multiple views at once, which press against the edges of the picture plane much like Davenport’s signature pride bulges at their seams. In three of the four large-scale pen-and-marker drawings, vignettes surround a central image as in the panels of Gothic altarpieces. In this vein, they are somewhat didactic – but rather than communicating about power of a god or saint, Davenport proclaims Ali’s and his own prowess in the margins of the micro-compositions. The vignettes isolate moments in Ali’s fights and victories along the sides of the larger, iconic centerpiece, and the text dictates Davenport’s own successes, linking the two as fighters.
In a fourth, titled Muhammad Ali was my Uncle Robert Favorite Prize Fighter, Davenport arranges the composition as a map of moments in Ali’s fights. Each high-color squared section mimics the shape of the boxing ring, or the shape of a photograph or television screen set to capture the fight as it occurred, just as fans would watch the fight from armchairs. Davenport has spoken about his strategy in forming the composition, both planning the execution and allowing for spontaneity. The approach parallels the run of a boxing match – stinging with certainty, dancing with the erratic change of the game.
Davenport admits his own competition with himself – he “retired” as Bruce Davenport, Jr., to become Dapper Bruce Lafitte, as Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. The title of this show, “The Dapper Bruce Lafitte Introduces: Draw Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee,” also introduces his new persona and its artistic potential to his audience. Davenport competes now with his past persona – the work of the best against the best. The culture and social construct of the city, too, competes with its past, as the question of its future remains unanswered, and as the structure and population of its oldest and most iconic neighborhoods shift.Davenport’s work has always indicated a kind of fight for optimism, sustained by self-love that manifests itself outwardly in caring, meticulous, and complex images of city in which the artist has always lived. His iconic visual language may be constructed of narcissistic messages, but it is also a reflection of his dedication to New Orleans and its history. If at this moment Davenport is introducing a new persona, it seems fitting it should emerge with impact. Within the context of the Parks photographs, the drawings also soften.
A time of anniversary, memorial, and reflection is not just an opportunity to reflect on the past; it’s also a moment to look at now. Birch’s images of the mundane formally analyze the appearance of the city with a documentary palette. Davenport’s drawings assess the artist’s sense of self in a moment of transition. Park’s photographs reveal vulnerability in a man who was nearly invincible. All are snapshots in a way, freezing time to contemplate the phenomenon of the captured moment. That contemplation is an important exercise – one that would hopefully yield positive change in a place that is ultimately now, and perhaps always, in flux.