Shattered Glass, Burned Wood and a Monstrous Mummy: New NOMA Show is a Forbidding Feast


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.

Doug MacCash

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 website.

Master Conceptualist Dawn DeDeaux in Space Bubble Helmet

Dawn DeDeaux Interview, Dawn DeDeaux Biography

Master conceptualist Dawn DeDeaux emphasizes her ecological concerns in a self-portrait wearing a space helmet-style bubble. (Photo courtesy Dawn DeDeaux)


Doom and Bloom
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