BY DOUG MACCASH | FOR NOLA.COM
Dawn DeDeaux is one of those something else artists. She came of age in the 1970s, and instead of spending the next 50 years making traditional oil paintings and bronze sculptures, she spent her time making something else.
Her retrospective exhibit titled “The Space Between Worlds” at the New Orleans Museum of Art is a collection of objects that, under other circumstances, you probably wouldn’t consider works of art. There are thirty wooden bowls filled with dirt, an array of charred two-by-fours, three tons of shattered automotive glass, a ruined marble statue of the Virgin Mary, a crusty, 11-foot-tall aluminum mummy, and an enormous wrecking ball hanging on a gigantic chain.
The glittering three-ton heap of blue-green, broken windshields, which DeDeaux arranged into the swirling shape of hurricanes, symbolizes nature’s shattering power. The water-eroded marble statue of Mary is a sign of how whole civilizations can eventually wash away. The giant mummy, which has the texture of a molten asteroid, reminds us that at any moment we could be wiped out like the dinosaurs.
And the ominous wrecking ball, which hangs like a chandelier from one of those antique ceiling medallions you see in New Orleans mansions, symbolizes a whole range of self-destructive, existential menaces that have dominated DeDeaux’s thinking for decades.
“What if we blow it?” she said, explaining the impending doom embodied in her art. “What if there’s a big, big disaster coming that we can’t recover from?”
DeDeaux, 70, said it’s “extraordinary and very poignant,” to have been granted a major retrospective in her hometown art museum.
She grew up on Esplanade Avenue not far from the New Orleans Museum of Art, her childhood hangout. As a teen she took traditional painting lessons from a New York artist who rented a room from her grandmother.
DeDeaux went to high school at Dominican. She never earned a college degree, though she ping ponged from college to college for years — LSU, the University of Colorado, Newcomb, back to LSU, then Loyola. At Loyola, she got swept up in the Marshall McLuhan medium-is-the-message, mass communication thing, which led to her first conceptual artworks.
If you’re old enough, you probably remember the nutty CB (Citizen’s Band) radio craze in the 1970s, when everybody used long-distance trucker lingo like “breaker, breaker” and “smokey” and “good buddy.” Back in 1975, DeDeaux used CB technology to set up free radio booths in various New Orleans neighborhoods, encouraging the city’s various racial and economic strata to communicate with anonymous fellow citizens, just like truckers on the open road.
It was an exercise in breaking down barriers by using the medium of the moment that would have made McLuhan proud. (A reproduction of the artwork is included in the current show.)
Using video projections and prerecorded sound, DeDeaux continued to augment her artwork with mass media techniques from then on. She traces her decidedly dour environmental message to genius physicist Steven Hawkin’s 2018 prediction that humankind only had another 100 years to go, plus the devastation of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which she said “rocked my world.”
Some of the objects are found, some are manufactured. All are symbols.
The wooden bowls contain samples of earth gathered from here and there around the globe, implying the preciousness of our much-abused planet. The charred two-by-fours are salvaged pieces of DeDeaux’s studio that burned in 2006, reminding us of the threat of unexpected tragedy.