NEW ORLEANS — Prospect 4, the New Orleans triennial show that is spread between many museums and outdoor sites, is a hard show to love. Founded after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, it always was an ambitious and tough project to pull off. The logistics of curating and managing an installation of this size are daunting. And though I admire and respect the founders’ desires to draw tourists to the city to do something other than party, Prospect 4 was an overall disappointment on several levels.
On the whole, much of the museum-based work was big on “concept” and shallow on real intellectual or artistic depth. What’s more, when I visited mid-January, several pieces in the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center were broken. And the signage for installations in public spaces are practically nonexistent, making them hard to find.
However, one venue stands out for its interesting and creative curatorial vision. The New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old US Mint is hosting the work of 12 artists. Almost all of the work here has to do with music and culture — not all, but enough to make it feel like the only coherent part of Prospect 4. Rather than the seemingly random relationships I saw in other venues, the artworks in the Mint make sense together and one is able to clearly see the continuum between the city’s musical history and now.
A centerpiece is a show within the show entitled Rooted in Resistance Remembrance Ritual & Resilience: Black Masking Indian Suiting. Despite its weighty alliterative title, this is a fine exhibition. It focuses on the work of Darryl Montana, a master Mardi Gras costume maker. Montana’s family began the Black Indian costume tradition of Mardi Gras in the late 1800s to pay homage to the Native Americans who gave sanctuary to runaway slaves in antebellum Louisiana. Currently, Montana is the chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe of Black Indians in New Orleans. The costumes shown are brilliant amalgamations of mixed materials, with an emphasis on feathers and intricate beading.
Montana worked with the Prospect 4 curators and chose the artists he wished to be shown alongside. For example, Ron Bechet, a New Orleans painter, has mounted giant, black-and-gray charcoal drawings on vellum next to Montana’s costumes. The wildly energetic, sinuous gestures of the drawings eerily mimic the rhythmic shapes of swirling feathers in the costumes. We also get to see documentation of the blindingly colorful costumes in motion, as families prepare for Mardi Gras, and gorgeous black-and-white photographs of Montana, other marchers, and Black Indian families.
Few rooms sing as strongly as this one, but there are many excellent works in the building, including paintings by Peter Williams. Williams paints subjects that are simultaneously funny and extremely upsetting. At first, one is taken in by the luscious patterning and delicious color palette of the paintings, as well as their sense of humor. However, with titles like “Michael Brown, Ferguson, Shedding My Whiteness” and “Nigga Lover” (all 2016), your smile freezes on your face. Part of what makes these paintings so strong is their giddy beauty. The brutality of the message becomes all the stronger as a result of the tension between surface and subject.
I was transfixed by the video made by Rivane Neuenschwander, with Cao Guimarães. Entitled “Quarta-feira de cinzas/Epilogue” ( 2006) it’s an intense series of shots of red and black ants attempting (sometimes with great success) to carry sequins into their underground nests. It may sound ridiculous, but this video is a great beauty. The multicolored sequins, much larger than the ants, catch the light and sparkle as they carry them over and under the landscape. It seemed a poignant and wonderfully odd commentary on what is left behind after Mardi Gras.
Another delightful inclusion in this exhibition are the collaged tape cases made by Louis Armstrong in his home recording studio. Armstrong evidently made hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes containing snippets of his music, that of other musicians, and conversations with friends. Starting in the mid-1950s he began decorating the five-by-seven tape boxes with collage elements that he cut from newspapers and magazines. Using cellophane tape, he laid images and notes about the boxes’ contents. Over the decades, the tape has yellowed and has now become an active design element in the work. The cases offer a view into Armstron’s brain, which, if evidenced by these collages, was amusing, political, raunchy, and delighted by life.
Among all the sprawling projects of Prospect 4, I recommend visiting the shows housed in this funky old building run by the National Park Service. It’s a lovely complement to the magnificent revelry of the Mardi Gras season.
Prospect 4 continues at various locations in New Orleans through February 25.