NEW ORLEANS — During a recent tour of Bent, Not Broken, the Michael Meads retrospective at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, curator Bradley Sumrall jokingly credited the artist with single-handedly inventing the “hot redneck” genre with his photographs of young Southern men in various states of languid shirtlessness, usually sporting farmer’s tans and often accompanied by the odd hunting rifle, buck carcass, or Confederate flag.
Though no other contenders for the title come to mind, whether or not that’s actually the case is besides the point: Meads’s photographs turn out to be just one part of a sprawling body of work that manages to be startlingly intimate and contain multitudes at the same time.
Those photographs get their own gallery in Bent, Not Broken, and it’s the best place to start exploring the show. To some audiences, Meads is still best known as a photographer of a certain flavor of Southern beefcake. Mostly taken in and around Meads’s studio in Eastaboga, Alabama, his portraits of young men were seen by some critics as a sort of down-home (or less kindly, white trash) response to work by the likes of Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts when Meads began exhibiting them in the early 2000s.
In retrospect, however, the more profound aspect of Meads’s photographs is less their erotic appeal than his observation of more subtle details: a glittery tiara on a deer head trophy, a pile of empty Natty Light cans strewn across the back of a pickup truck, the Nazi slogan “Blut und Ehre” etched on the blade of a knife held against a belly. While some of those more questionable details invite a critical examination, for Meads his body of photographs is first and foremost a tool for recollection: “Simply put those photos are records of my friends that were either posing for me for use as reference material in my paintings and drawings, or the photos were a visual journal of the what all we were doing during that time in our lives together.”
The centerpiece of the photo gallery (tellingly titled “It Was Lovely While It Lasted”) is a slideshow containing 1,450 images of a cast of faces and bodies that become familiar over the course of its two-hour running time. Covering a 30-year period, the photographs move from rural Alabama to a twilit New Orleans demimonde to the softer glow of the high desert outside of Santa Fe where Meads and his husband Charles Canada moved after Hurricane Katrina. In its diaristic and intimate depiction of a fluidly defined circle of friends and lovers, its most obvious antecedent is Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, for which Meads’s piece establishes itself as a wholly male parallel: a gritty but almost Whitmanesque visual reverie of a shared life that “rejoices in comrades” (not to mention beer, weed, piss, guns, snakes, jockstraps, Carnival parades, and a good crawfish boil).
As compelling as the photographs are, Bent, Not Broken foregrounds Meads’s considerable skills as a painter and draftsman, and casts him as one of the more compelling history artists working today. For in their operatic scope, the four massive graphite on paper drawings that anchor the main body of the exhibition qualify as contemporary equivalents of “The Raft of the Medusa” or “Guernica”: epic depictions of suffering, disaster and loss, dense with allegory and precisely rendered detail.
Spend some time in the hallway adjacent to the main exhibition gallery exploring the installation of Meads’s earlier work first. It neatly places the show squarely not only in the context of New Orleans, but almost literally in the shadow of the late artist George Dureau, who occupies a central role in Meads’s own artistic narratives. In addition to dividing their talents between drawing, painting, and photography, both artists self-consciously referenced classical themes in their work and situated themselves in the rich tradition of a particular strain of New Orleans bohemianism. Dureau’s presence is palpable throughout Bent, Not Broken, and he’s the subject of one of the epic narrative drawings in the main gallery. (There’s also an immense Dureau drawing from the Ogden’s permanent collection hanging in the stairwell at one end of the exhibition as well as a magisterial self-portrait in a show of the Ogden’s recent acquisitions downstairs.)
If Dureau is the genius loci of Meads’s work, there’s no question that New Orleans is the locus itself. Between rural Alabama, where he grew up and went to college, and the desert outside of Santa Fe where he currently lives, Meads lived in New Orleans, and the city became the most prominent background (both psychic and literal) in his body of work.
Meads describes a childhood spent hearing his father listening to “hellfire and brimstone” Baptist preachers on the radio, where New Orleans was described as a “wicked city.” “So naturally,” said Meads, “I couldn’t wait to move there.”
Meads’s New Orleans is full of magic and contradictions, a place where the casually devastating beauty of a stripper at the Corner Pocket can exist on the same plane as episodes of abrupt violence and natural cruelty. But Meads’s devotion to the city is absolute: “I would rather have had my worst day there than my best day anywhere else.”
Part of that natural cruelty, of course, was Hurricane Katrina, which flooded Meads’s studio near Lake Pontchartrain and destroyed half of his art. Four drawings on gessoed wood panels salvaged from his studio after Katrina depict a tangle of nude male bodies intertwined with mythological figures and skeletal fragments, as succinct an encapsulation of Meads’s worldview as you’ll find in any of his work. (One is even entitled “Boner,” in case that emphasis of sex and death as twin themes wasn’t clear enough.)
Another series of drawings embellished with gold paint give Meads’s drawings of soldiers and memento mori the aura of Byzantine icons, and gold also transforms a coming out letter written to Meads by one of his former students into a sort of sacred object. And a series of paintings devoted to Roman Catholic saints transforms St. Genesius, patron saint of actors, into a sullen hustler in a male strip bar, and St. Vitus, patron of clowns and comedians, into a leering John Wayne Gacy with clown makeup and bound victim.
Sex, art, and death coexist in overlapping temporal spaces in Meads’s artistic universe, and when they collide in works like “Der Liebestod” (2013-2014) the results are breathtaking.
Meads’s “love death” takes place on the corner of Saint Ann and Bourbon streets in the French Quarter, the epicenter of gay New Orleans nightlife and celebration for decades. A young man swoons his last breath in the arms of another as a skeletal bishoplike figure looms over them bearing a pharmacy jar filled with dark liquid, his mantle embroidered with positive signs referencing the HIV epidemic, while all around surge and swirl dozens of figures enacting the various rituals of the annual Southern Decadence street party.
Men drink and ogle on a balcony above the scene, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding in their midst; below them, leather-clad putti attempt to hold up the corner of the crumbling proscenium through which the entire scene is depicted as a battalion of bullhorn-brandishing street preachers attempt to disrupt the festivities under the caustic gaze of a bearded drag queen. Only the stone cherubs in the corners of the frame shed tears for the tragic couple at its center.
Other disasters are depicted in the slightly smaller pieces on the central wall of the main gallery, and are likewise presented as cataclysms marking the end of various periods in the city’s history. “Ghosts Along the Levee: The Seniors’ Mardi Gras Parade at Holy Cross High School for Boys” (2012–13) contains the most visually explicit reference to Hurricane Katrina in the exhibition: the storm itself swirls menacingly in the distance above a parade of students from the school in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward where Meads taught for several years before the storm. (The school’s historic campus was flooded and badly damaged during Katrina, and stands abandoned and deteriorating to this day.)
“The BaPtism” (2012) depicts two other defining events in New Orleans history. The burning of the old French Opera House on Bourbon Street, which served as one of the cultural landmarks of the city from 1859 until its destruction by fire in 1919, is here synchronous with another disaster that befell New Orleans nearly a century later: the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which profoundly affected a city still reeling from the aftereffects of Katrina. In Meads’s vision, the crude oil with which the Carpetbagger character “baptizes” the crowned figure against harm is just as useless as the firehoses directed at the burning opera house. In New Orleans, magic can only protect you so much.
The final drawing in the cycle, “The Grand Pageant of the Mystic Krewe of Saint George the Divine” (2015), represents the apotheosis of artist George Dureau on that most holy day in the New Orleans calendar, Fat Tuesday. As a member of the Society of Saint Anne, Meads regularly took part in its annual ritual whereby ashes of members of the krewe who had died during the preceding year were taken in a procession through the French Quarter on Mardi Gras morning and deposited in the Mississippi River. “The Grand Pageant,” however, is only an allegorical depiction of Dureau’s own ashes being “committed to the waters”: an appropriately symbolic sendoff for the artist whom Meads believed embodied so much of the creative soul of New Orleans, and whose passing in April 2014 marked another end of an era.
Dureau himself appears twice in the painting: once in the guise of Bacchus held aloft by randy satyrs amidst the carnival revelry, and again in a portrait on a shield (an homage to Caravaggio’s “Medusa”) that Meads says symbolizes the artist’s deteriorating mental and physical state in the years preceding his death.
And don’t miss the group of rat-headed leather boys in the upper right quadrant of the drawing: That skeletal figure among them with the camera around his neck being led away by police is none other than Robert Mapplethorpe, Dureau’s younger contemporary who some (including Meads) believe never acknowledged the considerable debt he owed to the artist who taught him much of what would become his signature style. Here, Meads makes Dureau’s apotheosis complete by giving Mapplethorpe the retribution he deserves.
After the sweep and grandeur of the large historical pieces, a suite of ink drawings depicting everyday life and street scenes in New Orleans, including several that Meads created while working the night shift of the since-shuttered St. Charles Inn, comes as a dose of comic relief with its cast of drunk frat boys, bored strippers, and “horrible tourists” keenly observed in the tradition of Hogarth and Daumier. And a selection of starkly rendered figure and drapery studies show the influence of classical artists like Carlo Crivelli and Domenico Tiepolo.
Beginnings and endings in Meads’s artistic universe often take place within the confines of a single artwork. But a series of six drawings in the main gallery serve as a fitting coda to the exhibition as a whole. With a tender but unflinching eye, Meads chronicled the final weeks and moments of his friend and frequent model Colman, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 17 and died two years later.
“I promised him that I would be there and draw what I saw, and I did.” said Meads. And Bent, Not Broken makes abundantly clear that bearing witness to histories — grand and personal, real and imagined — is the defining aspect of his work.
Michael Meads: Bent Not Broken is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp Street, New Orleans) through February 28, 2016