by Doug MacCash for The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate
The year 2020 has been a tangle of medical, political, social, economic and ecological trouble. There’s no getting around it. But down on Julia Street, the group exhibit “Art in the Time of Empathy” at Arthur Roger Gallery brings a touch of solace to the situation with poignancy, humor and visual pop.
It’s the most crowded exhibit in the gallery’s history, as tightly packed as Gertrude Stein’s apartment ever was. The individual artworks are so close together that they all sort of blend into a blur, which is perfectly appropriate in an era when a hurricane can blow through in the midst of a health crisis, during early voting in a tight presidential election.
The show starts off on a sardonic note, with a rolling hot dog stand that artist Meg Turner has converted into a combination coronavirus test site, election ballot drop off, career counseling center, psychiatrist’s office and sympathy card shop. The only thing that could make Turner’s wickedly ridiculous “Boardwalk Test Site” any more biting would be to roll it over to Bourbon Street to see how passersby react.
Douglas Bourgeois’ small, hyper-detailed painting titled “Mistaken Identity” is astonishing. The artwork depicts a nude Black man standing at his bathroom mirror preparing to shave, when he is suddenly menaced by a police officer who is pointing a pistol at his back. The painting poetically captures the essential fear and outrage of the Black Lives Matter movement to perfection. (Notably, Bourgeois created the work in 1991, two decades before the Black Lives Matter movement rose up to protest police violence.)
There’s something disturbing about the earthy purple color that artist Jacqueline Bishop has chosen to dominate her surreal landscape “A Garden Grows.” It’s a weird, ominous, unhealthy sort of purple that symbolizes Bishop’s apprehensions about the state of the earth’s ecology. “A Garden Grows” is a premonition of the apocalypse, which may come in the form of the mushroom cloud in the sky or the frightened bunny wearing a surgical mask that crouches on the earth below.
Speaking of masks, one of the smallest, yet most marvelous artworks in the wide-ranging exhibit is the meticulously beaded patch made by Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters. Melancon’s Mardi Gras Indian-style portrait of a pair of masked, frontline medical personnel combined with the defiant pledge “Won’t Bow Down” is an unmistakably New Orleans emblem of the COVID-19 era. New Orleans museums should be racing to purchase the piece for their permanent collections.
In the darkened back room of the gallery, artist Randy Polumbo has hung a set of strange disco balls, shaped like mutating viruses. The group of glittering mirrored globs, titled “Antigenic Rifts [sic],” spray the room – onlookers included — with specks of light that bring to mind everything from the spread of the current contagion to the Milky Way, to the Bee Gees.
“Art in the Time of Empathy” is topical without being predictable. It is a wonderful series of oblique, personal, unusual reactions to the monsters of 2020. This review is going to run out long before the show did. So give yourself plenty of time to peruse.