NEW ORLEANS — Gather enough bling in one gallery and the concentration of visual stimuli will overwhelm the need for a clear or convincing curatorial framework. That seems to be the logic behind the portion of the New Orleans triennial Prospect.3: Notes for Now that is on view in the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University. Unlike sections of the sprawling show at the New Orleans Museum of Art or the Contemporary Art Center, this gathering of works by four artists feels completely aesthetically coherent. But similar to those other sections of the triennial, the exhibition at the Newcomb suffers from a lack of a more specific curatorial statement or more thoroughly fleshed-out thematic frame. Luckily, the art is really shiny.
As such, the exhibition boasts the same introductory statement from the triennial’s artistic director, Franklin Sirmans, as every other Prospect.3 show, and two paragraphs in a pamphlet that provoke more questions than they answer. This gathering of works by Monir Farmanfarmaian, Andrea Fraser, Hew Locke, and Ebony G. Patterson, it turns out, was partly inspired by Totems Not Taboo, a 1959 exhibition at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. That show’s curator, Jermayne MacAgy, installed so-called “Primitive Art” from all over the world in a configuration more common for modern art exhibitions, with white walls and pedestals rather than the typical dark rooms and vitrines reserved for displays of non-Western art. That radical gesture from the 1950s, like the present Prospect.3 installation, demonstrates how “[o]bjects might have one function in the institutionalized space of a museum and quite another when used in its original life,” the Newcomb pamphlet claims. But whatever ritual or everyday functions the materials on view here might have once had — and in some cases it seems a stretch to say they ever had any — are completely overwhelmed by their power as art objects. This is a good thing, even though it undermines the show’s theme.
The exhibition at the Newcomb is visually delightful. The main room is all bright colors and mirror shards, with Fraser’s pile of discarded Carnival costumes gathered from the streets of Rio de Janeiro at the center of the room and Farmanfarmaian’s glass mosaics on the walls. Dim adjacent rooms are devoted to Locke’s installation “The Nameless” (2010–14) — a procession of mythic, morbid, and surreal figures made from strands of black beads dangling from the walls that simultaneously evokes New Orleans’s funerary and Mardi Gras traditions — and Patterson’s shimmering mixed media images of young black men reclining in fields strewn with sequins and collage flowers (think Kehinde Wiley meets Mickalene Thomas). The exhibition’s only duds, a pair of painted-on photographs by Locke, feature goddess-like figures looming over ramshackle houses in swamps. They stick out for their lack of visual razzle-dazzle and, like many other pieces on view, don’t fit the ostensible theme of being functional or ceremonial objects turned strictly aesthetic in the museum setting.
The show’s curatorial framework may seem all the more flimsy because there are several more viable ways of connecting all the work. Many of the pieces touch on ideas of pageantry and ritual; there’s a recurring emphasis on glossy materials that represent complex and confounding histories, practices, and subcultures; pushing things a little, the show could be made to track artistic representations of ways in which specific groups create a space for gender-bending performances and disguises within long-running traditions and celebrations. Or the exhibition’s concept could simply be to bring together shiny art with a somber edge, which would still make for a more satisfying explanation than cryptically tying it to a show from 56 years ago which very few people know about or saw.