While it's not quite its final weekend, "Constant Abrasive Irritation Produces the Pearl: A Disease of the Oyster" at The Pearl will too soon be coming to a close. Before it goes, Wesley Stokes chimes in on curating video and the future of art in New Orleans.
The Pearl sits nestled on Desire Street in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. It’s an unsuspecting location for what might be the most thoughtfully curated showing of video art in the city’s history. John Otte, the curator and artist who spent three years preparing the show, became familiar with the space through its late night parties and impromptu shows in the barroom. In keeping with the improvisational spirit of the site, Otte defies the sterile institutional approach to showing art in a flawless setting. Instead he purposely places works in dimly lit rooms cluttered with broken toys, old books, and decrepit furniture. The space itself was already filled with years of junk treasures and deteriorating with age—a quality Otte didn't alter.
Even before entering the house, the viewer is met with the video And Bares, Oh My!, 2011, by painter Paige Valente. The strutting burlesque-style woman's ass in the video is perfectly framed by a window, which incidentally showers the house across the street with the projection, bringing the voyeurism to the street outside. Walking into the open hallway is overwhelming: The Pearl functions as an ongoing inhabited installation, making it difficult to decipher what is designated as part of “A Disease of the Oyster” and what belongs to the house’s residents. During the run of the show, the inside door remains open and pressed back against the wall, as the glow of Lee Deigaard's video Plastic Gulf, 2010, emits from behind a dirty pane of glass. In Deigaard's video, plastic fishing lures are moved around by an offscreen hand in an aquarium filled with other inorganic materials like fake seaweed and ocean reeds. The plasticized underwater scene might otherwise come off as overly slick or cloying were it not for the decision to place it behind the door's dirty pane of glass, which neutralizes the inherent cynicism and makes it somewhat endearing as just another quirky relic of the house.
The dark barroom adjacent to the hallway is lit by the multiple videos within it. Gary Stephan and Sally Heller share two back-to-back monitors that hang above the bar, angled down like television sets in an airport. On Stephan's side, two video works alternate, titled Take, 2009, and Atheist Drumming/Percussion Without Percussionist, 2009, respectively. The latter is a black-and-white video of water pouring onto a dish in a metal sink. The sound becomes more compelling in relation to its twin monitor showing Heller’s video, Tremor, 2011. In Tremor, Heller filmed her father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, in a closely cropped shot of his hand holding a fork over a plate. With a soundtrack by Devin Lawrence, the trembling hand shakes, clanging the fork against the plate, and weds audio space with the percussive sounds of Stephan's. It’s perfect above the old bar where one could imagine an old man residing on a stool and doing that same thing, evoking a similar feeling of pity and acceptance of mortality in his younger bar mates. Ultimately, the passage of time reveals itself as an overall theme of this show.
The backyard looks like a Disneyland-style ride from the '50s that has been abandoned and taken over by punk puppeteers, which isn't altogether far from the truth. A fake, weathered, stone wall abuts a neglected hot tub with bleachers around it to observe Margaret Evangeline's projected video, Once Upon A Time, America, 2004. In this work, Evangeline demonstrates her unorthodox painting process, using a rifle to blow holes in aluminum substrates. The abstracted, blurry view of Evangeline aiming and firing mirrors the experience of looking down into the hot tub's water.
In a room alongside an outside bar is Anastasia Pelias' projected video, It’s Gonna Be Alright Baby, 2010. The work features Thomas, an oyster shucker, talking with the artist about the BP oil spill and its effects on the oyster industry. Thomas generally remains smiling and good natured as he looks past the camera at an offscreen television playing coverage of the oil spill, though at times he struggles to maintain his composure. This piece, perhaps more than any other in the show, transmits Otte's intent to make the show an international collection while reinforcing that Louisiana is equally contemporary and has the vernacular to view it as such.
Arguably the highlight of the show is Ingridmwangiroberthutter's video, The Cage, 2009, which documents a performance in Johannesburg, South Africa. In it, a white man stands inside of a fenced-in area. As a crowd gathers, he takes off his shirt, puts bandages over his eyes, sits down in a chair, and shaves his head. In an act of submission, the predominately black onlookers are given markers and invited to write on his skin through the fence. They scrawl their names, a couple of swastikas, profanities, love notes, and corporate logos. This shamanistic performance is made even eerier by the helicopter sounds emitted from Kathleen Loe's Below Venice, 2010, which shares the room. In Loe’s work, a helicopter hovers along the coast, displacing water from the otherwise still surface. Though The Cage is filmed on another continent and reflects a different national identity, it's easy to see parallels within our own history and racial climate in the South.
As the economy spirals further downward and money becomes less kinetic, it's unavoidable that notions of the art gallery must be reevaluated. The concept of a sterile white wall as a showroom environment to impress potential collectors is less of a concern in a world without pay. Few places understand this dilemma more than New Orleans—a city whose disparaging economic condition is increasingly affecting the arts. Most of what happens in this city is a labor of love and commercial value is often an afterthought. If The Pearl is any indicator, this could mean great things for art to come.
"Constant Abrasive Irritation Produces the Pearl: A Disease of the Oyster" on view through January 29, 2012 at The Pearl, 639 Desire Street in New Orleans. The exhibition is only open Saturdays and Sundays, 5–9 pm.**