My first visit to New Orleans found me loving a culture that I was not a part of, didn't quite fit, and nonetheless feel at home in. Whenever you travel, you find both that people are people, everywhere, and that simultaneously the pace of life, the common expression of courtesy, and ways of communicating can differ enormously. A place's rhythm is the human beings that live there. In New Orleans, it felt like life is set to a slower beat, where people wanted to enjoy their time. A restaurant where one can sense the deep, abiding pleasure in doing things as they've always done, roots running thick into the past, a stranger on the street who fist bumps you just because he digs the way you're looking, the gentle waves of breeze washing over and through the one way streets out to the water, the city's romance seems to stem from reveling in the present moment. Life is here and now, in all its wonder and unpleasantness, and you'd better carpe-the-fucking-damn-diem.
Beyond having great food and good company, visiting the SNAG Conference, I made sure to take a day off for myself. That led to a visit to a gallery on Chartres Street (That's pronounced "Charter", not the French way!). The first time I'd seen it was on Tuesday night, after I'd finished dinner and went out exploring the city. The light from the gallery shone out onto the streets, and through the display window on the closest side to the street stared solemn sentinels, totemic guardians and tricksters, ceramic visages for animal spirits. Of that first night, I knew I liked it. The work was that of Magda Boreysza, and the place is Hall-Barnett Gallery.
Magda Boreysza spans both prints and her masks in her oeuvre, and the unearthly quality of her work calls to the same primal well that gives birth to Native shamanic and spiritual art. A Polish immigrant who came to New Orleans, Magda has a fascination with transformation, and the connection between human animal and the rest of our shared kingdom. Her illustrations have as their subject diaphanous waifs of androgynous girls who mingle, cohabitate, and indeed merge with strange denizens. Magda makes the point of blending the boundary between the two, while keeping each entity recognizably separate. In one print, the woman is submerged into the body of a beast that seems like a cross between a tiger and a Tasmanian devil. Her hair becomes the creature's mane; an arm projects itself into a forelimb, while she herself appears to be swimming within the greater gestalt. What makes the beast even more fantastical is the giant, deep, black claws, and the shaggy mounds of hair that flow from its body like cilia. Is this woman-beast a deeper commentary on the animalistic urges that reside within us? Or is it a statement to remind that while we have disconnected our identity from those of other animals, we are actually all part of one vast continuum? None of these have to be what this particular piece represents, as is true with all art, the message is in the eye of the beholder.
Holly Barnett, the owner, reopened the gallery after her father Howard, the founder of Hall-Barnett, passed away. Once you actually get inside, and stop window gawking, you enter an otherworldly realm. Mrs. Barnett has curated the space to include representatives of the South's best artists, emerging and established, and from the looks of it, there is a unique brew of influences, environment and culture as diverse as New Orleans is itself that informs their aesthetic. It's emotion from the gut; raw, re-interpreted, simplified, twisted, embellished. Even the gaudy is rendered impressive when done in scale. A taxidermied deer that has been completely covered in a mosaic patchwork of miniature sequins is a harkening to the vivacious exuberance of Mardi Gras. Snakes, mirror pupils and flamboyant decoration transform the trophy into some larger-than-life apparition, existing in that delicate space between spectacle and respectability. These totems, made by Merrilee Challiss, which she dubs Spirit Animal Taxidermy, are the tip of the iceberg here.
Sometimes there is a lightheartedness and sincerity in the normal everyday. A Flock of Old Men has five balding old fogies dabbed together with a bare minimum of brush strokes, thick, textured, and exuberant. A rather stunning capture of a moment in time, wavering between past and present. Those who are being so majestically rendered however seem to be cheekily aware of their own portrayal, and with the lack of caring that can only come with age, leads each into being an intense character in this brief tableau.
Hall-Barnett Gallery has been exhibiting the prints of Jim Steg for many years now, and so had available a brochure on his work. As it so happened, there is a retrospective of Steg's at the New Orleans Museum of Art, which is open through October 8th. A teacher of printmaking at Newcomb College, Steg was somewhat of a trickster; he was a member of the infantry engineering unit responsible for decoys during World War II. Perhaps appropriate for New Orleans, the land of a thousand haunted houses, the unit was dubbed the Ghost Army. As participant in the terrible human activity of war, Steg nevertheless managed to dabble in the surreal. The Ghost Army was responsible for making visual decoys to fool the German army into thinking Allied forces were present. This shadowplay dances on the razor's edge of absurdity, and yet it really did happen. After his return from the war, he would go on to learn, and teach, printmaking. The sheer breadth of his work spans traditional, representational sketches to absolutely wild crazy freaky shit.
I was flattered to be in the good company of Jacque Groves, who is an artist herself, and Holly Barnett, both of whom are art enthusiasts who have that emotional appreciation for, and connection to, a painting or a crafted object. That paired with a thorough understanding of the background of each artist, and a conscious choice to help raise awareness of local artists, combine to form the alchemical elixir which is Hall-Barnett Gallery.