by Chris Waddington, via themagazineantiques.com
Three New Orleans museums and two community cultural institutions draw visitors from afar by keeping the focus on indigenous artistry.
Visit New Orleans with eyes closed and you’ll never get lost. The city, which celebrates its three hundredth anniversary in 2018, encourages travelers to navigate with all their senses. Here you can follow the peppery whiff of crawfish boils through tree-shaded neighborhoods, listen for trumpet-playing school kids at bus stops, and taste traditional dishes that trace back to the kitchens of France and West Africa.
When you open your eyes, however, New Orleans is equally distinctive, especially if your tour includes some of the city’s museums, galleries, and antiques stores. We asked curators at several very different institutions—from the city’s nationally known museums to a community-rooted backyard exhibition space—for their sense of the city’s distinctive culture and how it plays out in their work. They also drew our attention to forthcoming exhibitions and ongoing installations that belong on the itinerary of cultural tourists seeking to understand New Orleans—among them a sprawling show of the dreamy, surrealist photographs of Clarence John Laughlin at the Historic New Orleans Collection; a thirty-year survey of Simon Gunning’s Louisiana landscape paintings at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art; the complete reinstallation of the decorative arts collection at the New Orleans Museum of Art; and a pair of year-round costume displays dedicated to Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, social aid and pleasure clubs, and other manifestations of African-American street culture.
Amid that diversity, one common theme came through: New Orleans still seduces its artists, collectors, and curators. It keeps them home. It becomes their enduring subject and stage. It feeds them and sometimes it frustrates them, but it’s always at the center of their thinking.
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art
One could easily slip that Laughlin quote* into the Simon Gunning monograph and exhibition that the Ogden Museum of Southern Art will unveil this fall. The lure of New Orleans changed everything for Gunning, according to Ogden Museum director William Andrews. An Australian native, steeped in the vibrant landscape traditions of his homeland, Gunning gave up a scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and settled in New Orleans to paint—and to wait tables in the French Quarter. That was in 1980, and though he left the service industry decades ago, Gunning continues to depict the city’s crumbling streets, the debris of industrial stretches, the surrounding swamps, and the sweeping Mississippi with its rusty freighters and tugs. “Why would anyone spend thirty years in an attic studio if not on a heroic voyage?” Andrews asks. “Gunning’s oil paintings are a sustained act of attention, an investigation of place, and a continuing revelation about the expressive possibilities of his medium. New Orleans enriched Gunning’s art, and Gunning’s art has enriched New Orleans.”
While Louisiana subjects have given Gunning’s work wide appeal among regional collectors, Andrews argues that these paintings, often epic in scale, transcend their documentary value. “Gunning’s canvases are built from bravura, abstract passages of paint that resolve into concrete images. He uses color, line, texture, and illusionistic space to tell bigger stories, to get at the mysteries that hide around every corner in New Orleans.”
Focused on craft and dedicated to traditional methods, Gunning has sidestepped current art world fashions. But, in New Orleans, that’s just another sign that he belongs here, for the city’s distinct culture has rarely shifted to suit national tastes.
That conservatism has many explanations, from the legacy of French and Spanish colonial rule to preservation-by-neglect encouraged by long-term population loss and a historically wobbling, boom-and-bust economy. Yet it has rarely dampened the creativity of locals, especially among black residents—a majority here—whose African-rooted folk culture has helped to make New Orleans, past and present, a font of American music, spawning jazz, early rock, and the enduringly popular rap and bounce of contemporary performers. African-American New Orleans doesn’t just get the city dancing, however. Its tastes have seeped into everything, from the “shotgun” design of traditional houses to the bold Caribbean colors of parade floats and men’s attire.
*In a 1941 letter to Dorothy Norman, [Laughlin] wrote, “I could show you evidences of an amazing, and indigenous kind of fantasy which sprang into being here, evidences which are to be found still, if they are carefully searched for, in the ‘lost’ streets, the strange burial grounds, the impossibly decayed houses of old New Orleans.”