TEN YEARS GONE / New Orleans Museum of Art
Review by Terrington Calas

“TEN YEARS GONE,” was curated by NOMA’s Russell Lord and slated to signal the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It takes on a capacious, four-part theme: “time, memory, loss and transformation.” And the exhibition, as Lord puts it, sought “to situate the significance of the past decade within a larger context of human endeavor and life experience.” This may seem an unwieldy task — and doubly so when one considers that only six artists were engaged. But then, for a Katrina memorialization, something ambitious was certainly necessary and welcome. So was the declared attempt to subdue the obvious, to avoid “images of destruction or ruin that so often follow in the wake of tragedy.”

And yet, the final display we see — organized and installed with consummate finesse — is something of a jolt for many viewers. The broad theme, it might be said, permitted a selection that, with two exceptions, virtually sidesteps Katrina itself. My view on this is ambivalent. The exhibition’s concept is solid, pertinent, and it brings together some truly moving works of art — an occasion much needed in an art world lately freighted with every manner of the trivial. On the other hand, it is difficult to jettison the impact of personal experience on our commerce with this, or any, exhibition. To quote one colleague, the oblique nature of the project was “a superlative idea, at least from a certain vantage; that is to say, from the vantage of someone who did not actually endure the reality of Katrina and the levee failures.” I note this because the larger audience for “Ten Years Gone” must be taken into account. That audience, in great measure, has an emotionally charged relationship to the anniversary. For some, “oblique,” in this circumstance, will signify detachment. Such an impression, unfortunately, might generate a mere glance at what may be one of NOMA’s most powerful shows in memory.

This high estimation relates to the richness and force of certain works Lord has selected. Besides Saucedo’s lyrical suite, the other glory of “Ten Years Gone” is Dawn DeDeaux’s stately Water Markers, a series of plank-like, acrylic sculptures encased with images of clear water. They lean against the wall in various spaces throughout the museum, at times juxtaposed with objects in the permanent collection.

At first, they suggest a transparent take on the classic painting-sculpture hybrids of John McCracken — those propped slabs, lustrously mono-chromed, that lent a nonchalance to the minimalist movement. (A fine example of these was, for some years, in the lobby at K&B Plaza). But DeDeaux’s Water Markers are, at core, a patent departure from the orthodoxies of old-line minimalism, most notably its firm literalness. Her topic here is the life-world, and human exigency in the life-world — and, specifically, the appalling consequences of the post-storm floods of 2005.

She reflects upon this with a poised and all but diffident body of works. No heated sentiment. No lamentation. Instead, you detect a muted yet sustained intensity, a rapt gaze upon nature in the larger sense. And her final rendering is something bordering on the exquisite, something treasurable. The sheer elegance of the sculptures is almost startling. You hesitate to savor it. Is this the surface of grave content? What you see is an aristocratic grace that brings to mind Ellsworth Kelly’s spare, nature-revering abstractions — very different works with a similar tone. It is a grace without rhetoric — unvaunted, but Olympian in its reserve. This is form stripped clean of ornament. You feel the bliss of beauty, but not its easy decline into vulgarity.

What really matters here, of course, is the employ of such beauty as it touches on natural phenomena. In Kelly’s art, it has long been a question of immaculate images culled from pondered observation. For him, nature — along with some of the built world — provides a matrix for formalist aesthetic invention. His preoccupation, verging on obsession, is optical discernment. He offers an utterly purified world.

DeDeaux, on the other hand, seems less occupied with the look of things. In her Water Markers, elegant form is a supportive mechanism; it serves as a means of presentation. The approach, in fact, feels almost anti-aesthetic. What seizes you is the foursquare directness of method — reductive objects casually submitted, as if by chance. But that method is essential. It compels your interest. And, in a sense, it evinces DeDeaux’s aspiration beyond formal questions. What she advances, in lieu, is a measured pursuit that takes the floods as a springboard. Her objective, it would seem, is a contemplation of the dense reality of nature — its mystery, its fields of force, its portents, its human conjunctions.

For this theme, one might imagine a plight-laden image, an image fingering out to the dire effects of nature’s power and, in fact, laying such effects unapologetically before us. I am thinking here of much of the art we saw in the months following Katrina. To be sure, some of those images will haunt us forever. Others will linger as invaluable documents.

But the weight of this project — such a concentrated attempt at penetrating nature — can be better served by a kind of religious art; and perhaps the most affecting religious art is a an exceedingly discreet one. (Consider, for example, from the early 19th century, Friedrich’s famous monk, diminutive and immobile before the infinite.) Thus the ceremonial, exalted tenor of a work like DeDeaux’s Rushed in Near Ten, installed shrine-like at the top of the museum’s great staircase. All you see is a segment of captured nature, a water image set apart, vitrined. But the image is immensely suggestive. It is beatified by its manner of display, by its unique location; vivified by light, constantly altered by light. Like all the pieces in the series, the sculpture has a complex function. It exhibits a pictorial façade and, via transparency, “projects” a shimmering, “metaphysical” twin. And further, the consequent spectacle intimates nature’s force — everything from the ripples in a pond to a monumental surge. The mind-pictures you garner are endless. And notions of a transcendent presence — of the deity — are impossible to avoid.

Such notions call to mind the long tradition of the Romantic landscape. In a singular way, the Water Markers appear to honor it. We think of that tradition, at its headiest moments, in terms of an artist’s encounter with “the sublime” — ego-eclipsing awe in the face of nature. This was a deeply emotional mode and, in key works, theology overbore aesthetics. Its sentiment is echoed in William James’s famous text: “… the will to assert ourselves … has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.” In the late-modern era, such obeisance seems quaint. Even Land Art, the 1960s and 70s heir to the tradition, was only meagerly theological. Pivotal artists of that movement, chiefly Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria, sought a kind of primeval spirituality, but there was a certain impudence in their attitude. They looked upon nature as a medium — something to manipulate, to transform and invade, symbolically to ravish. In various guises, that posture persists today.

DeDeaux’s view, as I say, is singular. And a part of this is the way she touches so cannily on art history, all the while assaying a contemporary moment. You sense, especially, a presiding aspect of the Romantic; to wit, the Doric grandeur of the Water Markers. They present themselves, metaphorically, as the lifeworld in excelsis. But then, there is also evidence of the savvy modernist with an envie for ancient culture — something manifest in the serene, elemental poetics of these sculptures. As a result, you fancy a vague accord with Land Art’s primitive forms, but certainly not with its nature-bending hauteur. Indeed, the natural imagery you see is presented factually, unsullied — water simply reproduced. More important, an air of deference suffuses DeDeaux’s works. Positioned as they are, they attain a sacramental air, as if one should stand mute before them. And yet, they are hardly an attempt at “the sublime redux,” nothing so dramatic. This is a meditated venture, not an impassioned one.

DeDeaux’s aesthetic skirmish with the past serves her well. Straight off, it provides an appealing conceptual richness. But signally, it clarifies her distinctiveness. Although I see her mainspring as largely pantheistic — or broadly religious — her unique strategy plays a disarming role. I’m thinking here of her intimacy of vision. She tackles a vast subject by diminishing it. You see this in two ways. On the one hand, with a sly quaintness, she employs the Water Markers as direct signifiers of matter-of-fact detail. Each panel indicates an actual water level that was witnessed and declared by a homeowner in poststorm New Orleans. Hence the titles: Topped out at eight, and Not too bad…almost four, and the like. And this matter-of-fact gambit leads to the true, more evocative intimacy of her project.

This relates to DeDeaux’s choice of imagery and how she maneuvers it. The sculptures take one of the particulars of the natural world — water— and enshrine it. By dint of context and frontality, this synoptic image becomes less a depiction than a real presence in the room — with you. Its nearness and implied factuality stop the eye, compel you to take a long, considered look. And every possible inference comes to mind. Among them, of course, is some sense of the sublime — the sublime with its implication of formidable nature. But DeDeaux’s intimate view seems to refute the very idea. By closing in the way she does — a kind of discreet scrutiny — she impels you to observe, behind glass, the exquisite otherness of nature. A strangeness to be pondered, not feared. You grasp also a surpassing yet delicate beauty, and you come away persuaded of the overall benignity of the life-world. These sculptures are sleek, condensed sonnets of hope.

Dawn DeDeaux feature on the cover New York Times Arts & Leisure Section

NEW YORK TIMES / COVER ARTS & LEISURE    TEN YEARS GONE / Review by Cameron Shaw         NEW ORLEANS — How well do you remember the last days of August 10 years ago? Asked that question, a 23-year-old New Orleanian writes of seeing a dead alligator on the highway, having nowhere to sleep and crying every night. This anonymous recollection, printed neatly on a card, is part of a growing number pinned to the basement walls of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art here.

As the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures draws near, the city of New Orleans will again make room to process its collective trauma, resilience and the work of rebuilding that continues. Some will turn to family, neighbors, friends; still others bars, churches and restaurant tables. How, too, can museums and contemporary art help people think critically and constructively about the post-Katrina decade?

Having lived in the city only five and a half years, I don’t have these searing memories of my own, but their individual heat still burns the ears of anyone willing to listen. I came to the city as an arts writer, someone who wanted to hear and to look closely at the vibrant and vital art making happening among artist collectives, in museums, galleries and community centers, and on the streets every day. I ended up an editor, curator and organizer — as much a participant as an observer of art’s function to help people draw meaning.

The three major visual arts venues in the city — the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Contemporary Arts Center — have all timed exhibitions of living artists to coincide with the anniversary. Each show is distinct in its approach, its tone, and its way of visualizing the role of art and the idea of memorialization itself.

Russel Lord, a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, below Isabelle Hayeur’s “Jean Lafitte 02.”
William Widmer for The New York Times

The New Orleans Museum of Art’s exhibition “Ten Years Gone,” is by far the most conceptual and the only one not to limit itself to artists from the region. Its power lies in its sense of abstraction, its unlikely pairings, its insistent underscoring of universal themes. A nuanced and emotionally sensitive show, it was nevertheless panned in The New Orleans Times-Picayune, in which the critic Doug MacCash lamented the absence of Katrina-specific imagery and called it “too orderly, dry and off target.” His review inadvertently raises the question, whose target?

Organized by Russell Lord, the museum’s curator of photographs, prints and drawings, the exhibition features in-depth bodies of work by six artists, three of whom have significant ties to New Orleans. “I wanted to ask the question, What do smart, visually engaged artists have to say, not about Hurricane Katrina, not about Sept. 11, not about any specific tragedy, but about the act of memorialization in general?” Mr. Lord said in an interview. Each successive body of work in “Ten Years Gone” complicates this question, perhaps none more so than a series of video vignettes by the Toronto artist Spring Hurlbut.

In “Airborne” (2008), Ms. Hurlbut wears a respirator mask as she releases cremated human remains, including those of her deceased father, into a blackened room. The only visual clues that these dancing particles are in fact ashes are the names that flash on screen before the opening of each new container. “Mary” is a big boisterous cloud that expands in every direction. “Trudy” is quick to rise and dissipate, but then lingers, kicking up in sporadic bursts. It’s hard not to ascribe personalities to these improvisational performances, and in doing so the viewer is caught in an act of psychological projection, an inherently human vulnerability, like watching inkblots float into the ether.

This weightlessness is mirrored and multiplied by Christopher Saucedo’s 10 works on paper, which each use milky linen pulp to outline the former World Trade Center towers like clouds against a cerulean sky. Mr. Saucedo lost his younger brother, a New York City firefighter, on Sept. 11, and the artist and his family later would lose their home to Hurricane Katrina.

Almost every work in “Ten 7” straddles two worlds, whether that of the living and dead, as in Ms. Hurlbut’s and Mr. Saucedo’s pieces, or the equally precarious division of water and dry land in works by Isabelle Hayeur, Willie Birch and Dawn DeDeaux.

Ms. Hayeur’s large-scale photographs, which line the museum’s Great Hall, were shot with her camera partly submerged in waterways around Louisiana, Florida, New York and New Jersey.

Mr. Birch turned his eye to his own backyard in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward after Katrina to observe the mounds of mud that crawfish made with their burrowing, ultimately casting the animals’ conduits between worlds as bronze sculptures that gleam like fool’s gold.

Ms. DeDeaux’s “Water Markers,” acrylic planks reflecting post-breach flood levels, are scattered throughout the museum’s permanent collection, to toss their tall, rippling shadows on walls and floors. They are the only works in Mr. Lord’s show to make direct visual reference to the floodwaters that cost the city thousands of lives and even more livelihoods, but they bear no resemblance to the images of a city underwater that inundated news reports and television screens 10 years ago.