Doom and Bloom
DAWN DEDEAUX RETROSPECTIVE OPENS AT NEW ORLEANS MUSEUM OF ART
by TOM BELLER
It may be inappropriate, when seeking to praise a world-class visual artist on the occasion of her first, full career retrospective, to talk about your visit to her house for dinner. But one of the first aesthetic experiences I had in connection with Dawn DeDeaux occurred when I was a guest in a slightly deconstructed shotgun shack that was part of her studio compound in the Gentilly neighborhood of her native New Orleans, not all that far from the grand house on Esplanade Avenue where she lived as a child with her grandmother, down the street from where Degas once stayed.
We sat at a long, narrow wooden table lit by candles, with the ceiling’s slender, exposed planks up above and a few off-kilter architectural columns nearby, the atmosphere somewhere between a beautiful ruin and a stage set. Which is to say, it was unclear if the place was about to fall down, had just been built, or was some combination of the two. Over the ensuing decade, as I became familiar with this inventive artist’s work, I saw that my feeling as her dinner guest anticipated much of the ambiguous thrill of her aesthetic, which often provokes the sensation that life on earth, as we have known it, is being replaced by something far less familiar.
DeDeaux took part in a demolition derby held at the New Orleans Superdome arena in 1976. A photograph of her at the time, holding the championship trophy no less, as the only woman among the 35 competitors, is included in the catalogue for the magnificent career retrospective of her work newly mounted at the New Orleans Museum of Art. It’s a footnote, but as with all her work, its outward playfulness resonates in unexpected ways. DeDeaux has always used New Orleans itself as both an inspiration and a canvas on which to project her fantastically playful and allegorical creations.
Examples of her early installations include a set of C.B. radios set in old phone booths throughout disparate neighborhoods across the city. The artistic sensibility that began with finding amusing and provocative ways to illustrate the disconnect between urban neighborhoods evolved to one focused on the disconnect between our species and its planet. One of this show’s accomplishments is the way it testifies to DeDeaux’s prescience, as far back as the 1990s, in linking social-justice concerns with an awareness of the rapidly changing climate in which we live
.I use the word “we” advisedly, since many of her references are specific to New Orleans and Louisiana in ways that first escaped my understanding. Most notably, some of the artifacts in her “Mothership” installation at first glance looked to me like fanciful-looking spacecraft. Only when I visited the state’s eroding coast did I realize that she was using industrial artifacts from abandoned oil rigs. These capsules were modern-day lifeboats for a decaying and exploding infrastructure on which we’re all dependent.
Another work, Grasping Nature, shows a figure in a HAZMAT suit holding a bouquet of greens while posing under lights, as though for a fashion shoot. DeDeaux’s work with video, performance, photography, and installation has always found ways to engage themes of the catastrophic future and the catastrophic present, ecologically speaking. In her vision, it’s less an ending than a transition to a new way of life or to a new place to live, somewhere other than Earth.
The show’s opening at the New Orleans Museum of Art, a gem located in New Orleans City Park, has been twice delayed—first by the pandemic, and more recently by the city’s staggered recovery from Hurricane Ida. It’s an exhibition that is defined by disaster as much as it takes disaster as a topic, a career retrospective that should assure DeDeaux’s rightful place in the pantheon of internationally recognized conceptual artists whose work sees a bit further around the curve—not a clairvoyant, exactly, but a fiercely original artist rendering our slow-motion apocalypse. —Thomas Beller
Thomas Beller is the author of several books, including Seduction Theory, The Sleep-Over Artist, and J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
Prospect 5 Triennial: Aware, Awake, and Alive
Prospect New Orleans, a triennial born after Hurricane Katrina and now in its 5th iteration, is both a call to action and a call to prayer.
Willie Birch, 2021. Photo: Bridget Goodbody
Yesterday we said tomorrow is healing, soothing, nourishing, and unabashedly artsoul. Massive and citywide, this fifth rendition of Prospectenvisions a utopian future you just might come away believing is possible.
Diana Nawi and Naima J. Keith have curated a brilliant show packed with oohs and ahhs spread across nine neighborhoods and seventeen locations. Running through January 23, it features 51 artists. Prospect 5 provides a lifetime of experience — in tune with New Orleans’ anything-goes, everything-is-God spirit.
You could easily spend five jam-packed days and still not take in the entire show. To help you navigate its closing weekend, we offer five meanderings of two to three hours each, with recommendations for food and relaxation included.
Explore in any order you prefer, but we suggest starting at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in the Warehouse District to ground yourself in the curators’ point of view: that meaningful change happens in a meaningful present.
Itinerary 1: Warehouse District
Start at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) at 600 Camp Street in the city’s groovy downtown district, and then head across the street to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
CAC is located in part of a converted brick warehouse. The entire museum is dedicated to Prospect 5 and features artwork by 17 artists — each with art that provides pathways to cultivating faith. It is best taken in by circling in and out and up and down the Center’s labyrinthine rooms.
Start on the first floor, where amongst high, exposed beam ceilings and glass windows that look out onto the street, you’ll encounter Mark Bradford’s installation of over 100 basketball-sized paper mache globes stuck into the wall like a grid of oversized push pins. Each globe depicts the earth from a different perspective — a gentle reminder that many gods and many peoples make up our universe.
Turn left to check out ektor garcia’s delicately crocheted copper, aluminum, and bronze wire shapes arranged in a pair of pathways. One lays on the floor like walking stones in a garden. The other hangs free, a chakra chain of butterflies that starts small and sacrum-like and grows as they ascend and flutter up, heavenward.
Circle back to wander in, out, and around Eric-Paul Riege’s merry-go-round installation of four stuffed and saddled life-sized sheep. They pull around a central pole of stacked, cream-colored discs. They reference the four corners where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona come together, but is first and foremost the center of the Navajo’s universe.
When you’re ready, exit, and you’ll see a circular ramp leading to the second floor. But, before you go up, take in — and fall in love with — Phoebe Boswell’s panoramic archive of Black history inside the lozenge-shaped atrium inside the ramp’s interior. Here the artist drew and painted, sometimes with her fingers, wistful, whispering renditions of Black people dancing, crying, protesting, fishing, sleeping, loving, swimming, dying — being.
Kevin Beasley, The Lower Ninth Ward IV, 2021. Photo: Bridget Goodbody
Continue to view and listen to Boswell’s installation as you stroll up to the second floor — it’s accompanied by a soundscape she composed with saxophonist JD Allen. When you get to the top of the ramp, turn left into the cozy, human-scale galleries. The first thing you’ll see is Kevin Beasley’s lovingly-executed pencil drawings of the empty, overgrown lots of the Lower Ninth Ward. They set the tone for this portion of the show: quiet contemplation.
If you wander left, you’ll find Keni Anwar’s black box installation, which is a mix of large-scale shamanic self-portraits, a lovingly laid out vitrine filled with poems, pictures, and other talismans. On the room’s innermost wall, a video taken by Anwar as he wanders, sits, meditates, and heals in the pink light of dawn in City Park. Breathe deep.
If you meander right, you’ll see Mary, a sculpture by Karon Davis of a girl made from plaster of paris sits cross-legged in front of a wall painted pitch-black and embedded with a diamond rhinestone constellation that reads “Black Matter.” The girl’s glassy black eyes and skinny arms reach up in a soul-searching plea to a moon-like sphere that hangs above her.
Kiki Smith’s turquoise prints of swirling cosmos and cast-metal sculptures of comet-like shooting stars surround Mary. “Rise, fly, and follow me,” they call. It’s time to discover a force more significant than the here and now.
When you’re ready, head out of the CAC and cross the street to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Nine Prospect 5 artists are scattered throughout the museum’s permanent collection. Here, the focus is on beauty models breaking, monuments crashing, political systems faltering, and the communities looking for a change.
Finding the artists can be a bit of a scavenger hunt — and that adds to the fun. Start on the fifth floor’s main gallery, where five black-and-white paintings by Mr. Willie Birch line the back wall. His scenes of the churches, gardens, and streets of his neighborhood, the Seventh Ward, vibrate with a mysterious light.
Walk out to the atrium and down two flights of stairs and into the far gallery on your right, where Katrina Andry’s vivid, meticulously-made prints of Black women vie for attention. Styled like portraits you'd see above the mantelpiece in a fancy home, the ladies appear trapped in time, space, and White standards of art and vanity. Each is slightly unhinged by messages from more contemporary times — Snow White being the most obvious.
Further down the main hallway, walk into a gallery curated by Rachel Breunlin and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes of the Neighborhood Story Projects. They’ve filled the space with altars created by the women who sanctify and unify New Orleans’s Afro-Caribbean spiritualist communities. Some of the altars are small, fit for a home; others are grand, as if you're in a temple. Lit by electric candles, all are filled with icons, small paintings, and shimmering Haitian-style sequined banners. Say a prayer and make an offering.
There’s lots more to see here, but make a point of visiting the museum’s annex, one of the city’s first libraries, which opened in 1889. The annex’s vaulted ceilings and church-like setting make it a city favorite spot for weddings. Here you'll see seven white neon sculptures by Glenn Ligon, each listing a date when a New Orleans-based Confederate monument was removed or toppled.
In the neighborhood
Grab a coffee at Mr. Wolf Espresso inside the CAC, or have a leisurely lunch at the nearby vegan-friendly and Prospect 5 artist-favored Carmo.
Itinerary 2: French Quarter
Wander through the French Quarter into the Historic New Orleans Collection(HNOC) at 520 Royal Street, and then wander out to explore the Vieux Carré a la Prospect artist George Dureau.
Dawoud Bey, Evergreen, 2021. Installation view: Prospect.5: Yesterday we said tomorrow. The Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans. Courtesy Prospect New Orleans. Photo: Jose Cotto
HNOC’s Royal Street campus is an elegant collection of 18th and 19th century courtly Vieux Carré townhomes with lavish french doors and balustraded iron porches. Here, three Prospect 5 artists provide an opportunity to observe the past and its parts that are still alive in the present.
Walk into the main building, get your ticket, and head to the back. Through a courtyard, you’ll find Dawoud Bey’s Evergreen, a three-screen video shot at the working plantation of the same name just 45 miles upriver from New Orleans. The video features elegiac, mournful footage of former slave cabins and active sugar fields. Its haunting sights are accompanied by syncopated choral sounds from vocalist and composer Imani Uzuri — sigh, shiver, and be mesmerized.
Exit and head up the grand staircase to see George Dureau’s crisp black-and-white photo portraits of mostly male hustlers, dwarves, and drifters who populated the Quarter during the 70s and 80s. These friends of George stand proud. Their muscles ripple and flex and conjure up visions of Greek or Roman athletes. Some are missing hands, arms, or legs. They are perfectly imperfect.
Itinerary 3: City Park and Bayou St. John
Discover Dawn Dedeaux’s retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in City Park, one of the city’s genuinely romantic places, and then walk down the elegant Esplanade Avenue to Capdevielle Place Park and have a picnic in Anastasia Pelias’s pleasure garden.
Dawn DeDeaux. Installation view of The Space Between Worlds, 2021. New Orleans Museum of Art. Photo: L. Kasimu Harris
While not officially part of Prospect 5, Dawn DeDeaux’s The Space Between Worlds is a must-see meditation on the precariousness and preciousness of existence. The experience inspires the feeling of calm after a storm — and the gratitude you feel when you’ve lived to tell the story.
Enter NOMA through its neoclassical facade of towering columns and enter a light-filled, Greek temple of a courtyard. The exhibition starts here with a series of DeDeaux’s silver-toned, larger-than-life portraits of cosmonauts who emerge, ghost-like, from dark matter. Weathered and battered, they line the walls on both sides of the courtyard, ushering you inside.
Nod to these wispy spirit guides and walk through the courtyard toward the exhibition entrance at the back of the museum. Step inside the black box galleries, where you’ll find metal trusses hanging from the ceiling. This, and the darkness and hush, make the space feel like a stage set.
The first artwork you’ll see is CB Radio Booths — a performance from the mid-1970s where Dedeaux placed phone booths throughout the city so people from different neighborhoods could talk to each other across geographical and racial divides. Here, it is recreated with street signs, actual booths, and pictures of people using the radios and wearing clothes you’d see in a 70s TV show.
Dawn DeDeaux, The Face of God, In Search of, 1996/2021. Installation view of The Space Between Worlds, 2021. New Orleans Museum of Art. Photo: L. Kasimu Harris
The show quickly turns to darker, more profound topics. The Face of God, In Search Of (1996/2021) features a hospital bed surrounded by a three-screen video. Made after her little sister died from cancer, it features flickering, menacing images of dreams and nightmares, birth and death, floods, and baby turtles dying on hot red sand. The electrified cello soundtrack evokes 1950s Hollywood.
Dedeaux lost much of her studio to Katrina in 2005 and then to fire in 2006. Parts of the show track the emotional experience of this devastation — as in Gulf to Galaxy, where piles of shattered glass from car windshields are arranged in patterns of a hurricane pinwheel. And also, in Burnt Chimes, charred beams salvaged from her studio are hung from the ceiling like dying branches.
These works feel personal and intimate, but the show moves on to more public visions of climate change and natural disasters. Videos and sculptures against backdrops of floor-to-ceiling photographs are combined into a mise en scene that depicts, artfully and beautifully, the devastations of oil spills, erosion, floods, fires, and oak trees dying from chemical poisoning.
Dawn DeDeaux, Where's Mary, 2021. Installation view of The Space Between Worlds, 2021. New Orleans Museum of Art. Photo: L. Kasimu Harris
All this leads to Dedeaux’s most recent work and the exhibition’s tour de force, Where’s Mary? A 70-foot-long projection on a curved wall behind a two-foot-tall marble sculpture of a goddess figure, worn ragged by weather and time. Spotlit and white, the figure is still against an abstracted backdrop of volcanoes exploding, glaciers melting, and asteroids cascading. Will our saints save us now?
If all this sounds doom and gloom, it isn’t. Yes, the show reminds us of the risks we take when we mess with Mother Nature. But Dedeaux’s art is made with a loving human touch and hope for the possibility of humanity to rise again — if we’d just care a little more for the environment and each other.
In the neighborhood
If you have time, be sure to take in the magnificent Besthoff Sculpture Garden behind NOMA. Otherwise, head out of the park towards Esplanade, the quiet, scenic avenue once known as “Millionaire’s Row” for the city’s Creole residents.
Consider walking into St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, established in 1854, the least-visited of the city’s above-ground mausoleums. Look for the grave of photographer E. J. Bellocq who documented Storyville, the city’s red-light district, at the turn of the 20th century and is famously depicted in Louis Malle's 1978 film Pretty Baby.
A few blocks farther, at the corner of Crete Street and Esplanade, you’ll arrive at Capdevielle Place Park. Walk the paths until you find Anastasia Pelias’s It was my pleasure. This reimagining of the Oracle at Delphi is a baby elephant-sized, cream-colored, three-legged, hoofed bench made primarily of fiberglass. She’s encircled it with magenta-colored pine needles, bay leaves and cones infused with a sweet scent whose high note is earthly. The bench is nestled beneath the bowing limb of a large oak tree whose branches are covered resurrection ferns, so-called because they turn brown when the air is dry and turn green when rain falls.
Itinerary 4: Bywater/Marigny/Treme
Start in the Bywater at the Happyland Theater and then walk through the Faubourg Marigny to get to Treme and the New Orleans African American Art Museum (NOAAM).
Four Prospect 5 exhibitions and a handful of satellite events are scattered through the narrow streets lined with double shotgun houses and Creole cottages of the Eighth and Ninth wards. Be prepared for purpose-driven manifestos delivered through a mash-up of songs, symbols, and statements of belief.
You could spend an entire day walking the neighborhoods. We suggest starting at 11 AM at Happyland Theater on Burgundy Street, a perfectly dilapidated former movie theater where you’ll find Rodney MacMillian’s video performances Preacher Man II and God is in the Whip, both from 2017-20.
The first video features an itinerant preacher character alone at a dirt crossroad, sermonizing about the pitfalls of the liberal; the second a man wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, brandishing a whip, and going on about the conscience of the conservative. The first video's text comes from Black Panther Stokey Carmichael; the second is from Barry Goldwater, a Republican who ran for president in 1963. The juxtaposition is a real head-scratcher, but we’ve found ourselves talking about it endlessly.
Exit the theater and turn right onto Louisa Street. At the end of the block, you'll find 3162 Dauphine Street, a former whiskey bar, and the exhibit If we had had by Sharon Hayes. There are tables set up in the space for eating, so order takeout from either the Alma Cafe, Satsuma Cafe, or Sneaky Pickle Bar & Brine and settle in. Enjoy Hayes’s seven-channel color video featuring twenty-two queer folx walking around the city or performing karaoke at the local watering hole, Kajun’s Pub.
From here, it’s about a 30 minute walk via Dauphine Street through the Faubourg Marigny to Treme and NOAAM, a lovely complex of seven nineteenth-century Creole-style buildings in what is considered to be the oldest Black community in the United States. You can go inside the building at 1417 Governor Nicholls Street to see the group show of Prospect artists or walk across the street and into the garden of NOAAM’s Treme Villa to see and hear Nari Ward’s Battleground Beacon.
Nari Ward, Battleground Beacon, 2021. Installation view: Prospect.5: Yesterday we said tomorrow, 2021–22. 823 N Claiborne Avenue, New Orleans. Photo: L. Kasimu Harris
Battleground Beacon is a sculpture made from portable police floodlights that Ward has turned into megaphone speakers. From these speakers, a 10-minute soundtrack broadcasts every hour on the hour. You’ll hear samples of Amanda Gorman orating, James Baldwin professing, Malcolm X preaching, and Tina Turner chanting. The sounds buzz, reverberate, flow like water, and drip. The speakers point out to the people and toward the sky, searching for intelligent life.
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By DOUG MacCASH for THE ADVOCATE
Dawn DeDeaux is one of those something else artists. She came of age in the 1970s and instead of spending the next 50 years making traditional oil paintings and bronze sculptures, she spent her time making something else.
Her retrospective exhibit titled “The Space Between Worlds” at the New Orleans Museum of Art is a collection of objects that, under other circumstances, you probably wouldn’t consider works of art. There are thirty wooden bowls filled with dirt, an array of charred two-by-fours, three tons of shattered automotive glass, a ruined marble statue of the Virgin Mary, a crusty, 11-foot-tall aluminum mummy, and an enormous wrecking ball hanging on a gigantic chain. Some of the objects are found, some are manufactured. All are symbols.
The wooden bowls contain samples of earth gathered from here and there around the globe, implying the preciousness of our much-abused planet. The charred two-by-fours are salvaged pieces of DeDeaux’s studio that burned in 2006, reminding us of the threat of unexpected tragedy.
The glittering three-ton heap of blue-green, broken windshields, which DeDeaux arranged into the swirling shape of hurricanes, symbolizes nature’s shattering power. The water-eroded marble statue of Mary is a sign of how whole civilizations can eventually wash away. The giant mummy, which has the texture of a molten asteroid, reminds us that at any moment we could be wiped out like the dinosaurs.
And the ominous wrecking ball, which hangs like a chandelier from one of those antique ceiling medallions you see in New Orleans mansions, symbolizes a whole range of self-destructive, existential menaces that have dominated DeDeaux’s thinking for decades.
“What if we blow it?" she said, explaining the impending doom embodied in her art. “What if there’s a big, big disaster coming that we can’t recover from?"
DeDeaux, 70, said it’s “extraordinary and very poignant,” to have been granted a major retrospective in her hometown art museum. She grew up on Esplanade Avenue not far from the New Orleans Museum of Art, her childhood hangout. As a teen she took traditional painting lessons from a New York artist who rented a room from her grandmother.
DeDeaux went to high school at Dominican. She never earned a college degree, though she ping ponged from college to college for years -- LSU, the University of Colorado, Newcomb, back to LSU, then Loyola. At Loyola, she got swept up in the Marshall McLuhan medium-is-the-message, mass communication thing, which led to her first conceptual artworks.
If you’re old enough, you probably remember the nutty CB (Citizen’s Band) radio craze in the 1970s, when everybody used long-distance trucker lingo like “breaker, breaker” and “smokey” and “good buddy.” Back in 1975, DeDeaux used CB technology to set up free radio booths in various New Orleans neighborhoods, encouraging the city’s various racial and economic strata to communicate with anonymous fellow citizens, just like truckers on the open road.
It was an exercise in breaking down barriers by using the medium of the moment that would have made McLuhan proud. (A reproduction of the artwork is included in the current show.)
Using video projections and prerecorded sound, DeDeaux continued to augment her artwork with mass media techniques from then on. She traces her decidedly dour environmental message to genius physicist Steven Hawkin’s 2018 prediction that humankind only had another 100 years to go, plus the devastation of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which she said “rocked my world.”
Some of DeDeaux’s artwork was destroyed in the flooding that followed Katrina and a subsequent studio fire, but there was more than enough left to demonstrate her role as an avant-garde master.
“The Space Between Worlds” is certainly a cerebral challenge. But it’s not just a game of decoding embedded messages. DeDeaux’s work proves that concepts are only part of conceptual art. In her hands, broken glass, charred wood and gritty soil are as carefully composed and elegantly displayed as any painting in a gilded frame, and more sensual than most. The exhibit, which continues through Jan. 23, is a feast of foreboding beauty.
The New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adult admission is $15. Wednesdays are free to Louisiana residents. For more information, visit the noma.org website.
Master conceptualist Dawn DeDeaux emphasizes her ecological concerns in a self-portrait wearing a space helmet-style bubble. (Photo courtesy Dawn DeDeaux)