NEW ORLEANS – Can abstract art conjure up both the prehistoric and the posthuman within the confines of a specific place?
That question came to mind as I reflected on two disparate exhibitions here by two different New Orleans artists, George Dunbar and William Monaghan, who use sculptural techniques to make large-scale abstract paintings. Though these artists differ as much in their respective degrees of visibility as they do in their artistic styles, they are both prodigal sons who left this city for periods of time and returned to it. Another link is the way their philosophically inflected paintings universalize the regional while stressing human handiwork and creative processes.
George Dunbar, 92, is a longtime éminence grise in this city’s art scene. Arguably one of the most important living American modernists, he maintains an output and a stylistic range that shames less productive artists half his age. Currently wrapping up its nine-week run at Callan Contemporary, Alluvion is just one of many public and private high-profile exhibitions Dunbar has enjoyed in recent years, including a retrospective held at The New Orleans Museum of Art in 2016–2017.
Born in New Orleans, Dunbar was educated at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, where he rubbed elbows with Franz Kline. The geometric muscularity of Kline’s late-period abstractions seems to have made its mark on Dunbar, who finished his formal art education at Paris’s Grande Chaumiere and then lived and worked briefly in the mid-1950s downtown New York scene.
A familial crisis necessitated his return to this city, where, as a young artist, he helped found the influential artists’ cooperative The Orleans Gallery, which spread the gospel of postwar abstraction among fellow artists based in the Deep South but drawn from all over the country.
Since then Dunbar has been a consistent presence. Locally, the artist is also known for his engagement in land development and innovative architecture, operating bulldozers and draglines while building canals and roads. This might partly explain why the works in Alluvion suggest the reshaping of land by currents and tides, a geological inflection in tune with a metropolis built on peat and clay.
The lustrous, contemplative abstractions in Alluvion are entrancing and enigmatic. They use gold-tinting, leaf painting, and bas-relief. Though strictly formalist, the works hint at mythic narratives, an allusiveness reinforced by their Latinate titles.
The centerpiece is the massive “Lespedeza” (2018). It is dominated by a late-Rothko-like rectangle formed by black clay. The black is framed by an elaeagnus-green that connotes Asiatic foliage. The painting’s center consists of twin parallel silver bands, framed with an uneven edge by the same green. These bands are accented by finely painted parallel horizon lines above and below an almost imperceptible horizontal center seam — denoting distance and the infinite — while the painting’s predominant blackness maps a sort of abyss, or void.
Dunbar’s abstractions summon the timelessness intrinsic to any given region. The work hints at how terrain surpasses — and thus signifies meanings beyond — the markings or traces from human habitation. Even the coldest abstractions imply the human. The jewel-like “Coreopsis” (2018) made of palladium leaf, gray and black clay, and die keen, give off the aura of church friezes. The horizontal “Decumaria” (2018), made of moon gold, oxidized silver and red clay, resembles the austere ornamentation one imagines paneling an ancient Roman temple. Highly erudite human beings were once here, such works seem to say, but they are gone.
This sense of sublimated mourning is dramatized in several monochromatic paintings that feature tightly rolled canvas bundles, looking like ancient scrolls. These are mounted to stretched canvas in random, horizontal configurations painted ghostly white or pale blue and light gray. Bound by tattered rags, they look encrusted all the way down to their canvas ground, like relics preserved from an archeological site.
Even the smaller scale works by Dunbar, no matter how silent and opaque, deliver an allegorical grandeur. “Plaquemine,” (2018) references the waterfront town near Baton Rouge, and features inlaid red and gold paint enriched by black, red, and white clay. Its smoothly sculpted surface resembles a silted stream bed, an uncovered terrain seamed by a horizontal line and branching out in patterned incisions. The land, or clay-rich soil, is held up as a primeval treasure.
While Dunbar’s recent art points to primordial states and mythic underworlds, the sculptural paintings of artist William Monaghan reference the mechanistic and post-industrial wastelands of contemporary life.
Consisting of about 24 variously sized works, the exhibition William Monaghan: I – Object at the Contemporary Arts Center brings together Monaghan’s art from the 1970s and ‘80s alongside his recent productions. These career bookends reveal the artist’s often conflicting approaches to his industrial materials — the upheaval they have wrought has long been on his mind. Where Dunbar’s sculptural paintings achieve a genteel formalism, Monaghan’s expressionistic works deliberately highlight their open-ended and often anarchic nature.
Growing up in New Orleans, Monaghan knew the inner workings of local factories and manufacturers, including this city’s Reily Coffee Company where his father worked. At Yale, he studied architecture and worked with kinetic sculptor William Wainwright. For a short spell, he was a steelworker and rigger for Buckminster Fuller. His last institutional exhibition before the current one at CAC was at Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art in 1975, not far from where his younger self maintained a studio in a former sheet metal shop. This show represents a major return for Monaghan, who has just resettled in his native city after a career restoring historic structures in New York, Chicago, and Boston, including a home-building nonprofit active in New Orleans’ post-Katrina years.
The early works included in I:Object are intense, solemn elegies. In these large paintings, which recall Richard Serra’s outsized influence, the rusting surfaces of the corroded steel displace traditional painting media. To create these effects, Monaghan abuts and otherwise fastens discarded steel to cotton canvases and then exposes the metal to the elements, including running water. Through this unorthodox strategy, he guides the otherwise unpredictable oxidation process as the rust stains the canvases in rhythmic and melancholic figurations and patterns.
In “Angle Iron” (1975), the oxidized steel produces orange and rust striations that cascade like a row of abstract waterfalls; in others from this series, the artist’s controlled steel oxidation processes result in dense checkerboard patterns. Other paintings contain miasmic and diaphanous corrugations that resemble topographical desert maps, or bisected cellular tissue samples magnified under an enormous microscope.
These abstractions evoke the real-life dilapidation happening in abandoned warehouses, dockyards, and factories. Taken cumulatively, they form an extended eulogy to our country’s dying rust belt, a decline that started during Monaghan’s formative years and continues unabated.
Picking up where he left off on these postindustrial themes, Monaghan’s contemporary works skew more self-consciously and schematically. Like his work from the 1970s and ‘80s, these sculptural paintings exploit industrial waste — including aluminum, tin, and metal scraps. In contrast to the austere rust and steel canvases, these layered works respond to mass-produced excess with jarring optimism by recycling and repurposing discarded metal toward disorienting and ebullient ends.
I:Object includes representative small scale works that double as prototypes for the exhibition’s larger iterations. In these enormous abstractions, container lids, crenelated aluminum, and metal food containers, among other metallic detritus, have all been further distressed by the artist, then reformatted and collaged into layers, and mounted onto canvas and wooden board. Each has been spray-painted monochromatically in magentas, greens, yellows, and bluish grays.
Their lightheartedness complicates Monaghan’s sobering thoughts on accumulation and waste. The monochromatic paint lends these mostly circular, compacted collages the illusion of being flat, but, on closer inspection, their brassily colored metallic elements reveal shadows and depths. Despite their competing internal energies, they form coherent visual vocabularies. In the face of late capitalist extremes and looming ecological collapse, they are like metalwork bouquets wrought by a city’s self-destruction, bittersweet homages to the contradictions inherent in the comforts and conveniences of industrial society.
Studying these dense, often haunting abstract paintings of Dunbar and Monaghan, we cannot help but be reminded about humanity’s once and future absence from the planet. Perhaps, in not-so-distant histories, this city’s ongoing devastation from Hurricane Katrina will epitomize the national failure to prevent what scientists keep telling us is happening. Such histories will ask why did we not act when rising sea levels and inexplicable storms spelled imminent ruin.
Maybe the answer is that as individuals we cannot imagine our own deaths, let alone the perishing of entire urban centers due to overconsumption and waste. Thankfully, serious art, like serious dreaming, forces on us the difficult, unsettling labor of the imagination. And the imaginative abstractions by Dunbar and Monaghan serve as reminders that the earth’s resources – including the sacrosanct terrain below the waters and the mud – will more than likely outlast its current human occupiers.
George Dunbar: Alluvion continues at Callan Contemporary (518 Julia Street, New Orleans, Louisiana) through tomorrow.
William Monaghan: I – Object continues at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street, New Orleans, Louisiana) through February 10, 2019.