Today is your final chance to catch Avery Lawrence's "Arranging Suitcases" at Parse Gallery. Before it's gone, Emily Wilkerson reviews. Run, don't walk.
After stops in Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia, “Arranging Suitcases” has returned home. When artist Avery Lawrence moved to New Orleans last November, the city became the setting of his tragicomic, quirky, yet ultimately serene video. Taking its title from the video, Lawrence’s multi-modal installation at Parse Gallery confronts challenges of viewer reception in relation to video and performance. In the words of Margot Walsh, one of three directors at Parse—the storefront CBD gallery known for its eclectic programming and one of the few galleries in the city welcoming performance—this exhibition represents the “pilgrimage” of an idea.
What is significant about this exhibition, aside from it being Lawrence’s first solo show in New Orleans, is the continuity of each piece as part of the greater composition. From the screen-printed wallpaper that sparked the entire series and the props used in the video to the works on paper created in response to it and the impromptu performances that spilled onto French Quarter streets, the exhibition is a delightful lesson in embracing life’s many transitions.
The idea began with the wallpaper that adorns the gallery walls, featuring an image of a beehive blossoming out of a brass instrument—a marriage of Lawrence’s family history and his interest in music, both of which anchor the video. Inspired by his grandmother’s ability to find love again after her husband’s death, Lawrence portrays a character on an arduous journey. Dressed in a custom suit bearing the show’s signature pattern, Lawrence traverses the city’s landscape with a burdensome load of blue suitcases, each containing the individual parts of a music-making machine (designed in the backyard of Parse). Arriving at his destination, the video ends as Lawrence pedals the bicycle frame of the assembled hybrid machine and blows air into the trumpet-like brass instrument that wobbles above his head, reverberating with a loud, rich hum. The video’s music fills the entire space and each work seems to radiate from it.
The pattern that starts on the wallpaper and continues on Lawrence’s suit also appears on the upholstery of a wingback chair. Put on display, these props become art objects situated among acrylic paintings of fictional musical instruments akin to Lawrence’s fantastical machine and large ink and gouache drawings that depict a man struggling to hold a load on his back. Lawrence deepens the relationship between the series of works through a dexterous, coordinated color palette—dreamy blues, grassy greens, charcoal, and warm oranges. At times the color scheme and the connections are so tidy that the exhibition as a whole emits a trendy design vibe, but the genuine sense of nostalgia, the sorrow and celebration that these colors and imagery inspire together reestablishes the subject’s intimacy.
In his chance performances, Lawrence might haul the armchair on his back or carefully tow, assemble, and then play the unique music machine, just as he does in the video. Using the performances as a way to reach beyond what he refers to as the “wall” a video can create when exhibited, Lawrence creates physical and personal interactions, unexpectedly moving the performances out of the gallery and into public space. Lawrence’s influences are readily apparent throughout the exhibition from Cubist assemblage techniques and Charlie Chaplin costuming to contemporary performance practices vis-à-vis public engagement, but he mines these sources creatively, effectively exploiting their humor and familiarity. Perhaps it is because we recognize the imagery in the video or the threads of family, tradition, and change that surface time and again in this old city that Lawrence’s exhibition feels especially at ease back in New Orleans.
"Arranging Suitcases" on view through September 28, 2012 at Parse Gallery, 134 Carondelet Street in New Orleans. The gallery is open Wednesday-Saturday, 12–5 pm.