Convention Culture: New Orleans ’88

This feature was originally published in ART PAPERS November/December 1988, Vol. 12, issue 6.

As summer steamed into oblivion it was tempting to say that nothing much was happening or had happened in the period before and after the Republican convention. Yet in its own way that media spectacle has by its sheer banal extravagance provided a kind of contextual frame around things, for matters both pointed and tangential.

First of all, the event itself—a Bosch vision of hell featuring yuppies and fundamentalists—seemed jarringly out of place in this old Afro-Caribbean pirate town. The Superdome appeared more than ever like an invading space ship with its frenzied cargo of aliens, a seemingly ultra-white race. Since New Orleans is probably the least corporate and least Republican (about 16% registered) of the larger cities, it all couldn’t have been more incongruous.

Yet, as a clash of cultures, the entire spectacle took on some of the qualities of a strangely conceptual performance event, something people were forced to come to terms with. While there were the usual protest demonstrations on the one hand, as well as others of us who simply refused to go downtown that week, there were a few artists and galleries who chose to deal with things in their own ways, some worth noting. And among these the prevailing tone could best be described as ironic.

The flyer put out by the Gallery for Fine Photography announced “Photographs of the South” as a “major photography exhibition in conjunction with the Republican convention.” The major portion of this turned out to be WPA photographs by Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, all documenting the horrors of the Great Depression in the Southeast. The desperate poverty of rural people, migrant workers, and others living in squalid conditions of despair and deprivation were rendered with graphic literality. There were also some rather beautifully ritualistic scenes such as Wolcott’s Juke Joint, Saturday Afternoon and Gambling in Juke Joint, both from Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1939, depicting local black gentry and their female companions, decked out in their finery, rather ceremonially indulging in a variety of hedonistic pursuits.

Rituals of life and work revealed dignity and pride even amid poverty in scenes such as Wolcott’s Baptismal Service, Moorhead, Kentucky, 1940 and Wife of Muskrat Trapper, Louisiana, 1940. But the most striking facet of this information is not its historicity, but rather how little conditions have changed for many rural blacks and migrant workers as well as the poor whites away from the big cities.

Wolcott, featured most prominently in the show, is the least known of the WPA photographers, and many of these prints had never been published or exhibited before. Her vision combines the salient clarity of Walker Evans with the emotional content of Dorothea Lange. In light of today’s resurgence of interest in social realism, this would appear to be a propitious time for a fresh look at this underexposed Southern artist’s work.

Also on view were works by Clarence Laughlin, E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville whorehouse photographs, and Louis Hine’s child labor images.

One of the most interesting show concepts inspired by the GOP spectacle was the “Visual Politics: Power Symbols in African Art” exposition at the Davis Gallery, a rather impressive African art gallery. The differences and similarities with what was happening at the Superdome were highlighted in the gallery’s introductory statement: “In Africa where until recently there was no written language, art was used to communicate power and social control. This extremely complex visual politic could imply threat of raw aggressive power, awe the viewer with wealth, or illustrate a spiritual link to the higher moral authority of the ancestors.”

On display were a variety of masks, fetish objects, animist symbols, crowns, staffs, elaborate beadwork clothing and even royal furniture and shrine objects from all over Africa. One did not have to stretch too far to grasp the connection with the Oval Office, Air Force One, the rose garden, the honor guard, the perpetually waiting helicopter with its animistic capacity to pulverize reporters’ questions into nothingness. Various exhibit captions further emphasized these linkages, such as this one from the Cameroons: “The Cameroon Grassfields Kingdoms’ regulatory society is known as the Kwifoyn. It is the agency of social control and law enforcement in the kingdom. With the Fon (King), the Kwifoyn guards and maintains the social norms, civil morale and religious beliefs of the kingdom. Various masks and prestige objects are the visual validation of status and power.”

Beyond the immediate and specific concern with African art, this show, through its ingenious structure, provided graphic evidence of the ways in which capital, mass media and power politics have come together to create a kind of pseudo-tribal culture, a synthetic society wherein communities are replaced by market sectors and real time lived experience is replaced by abstractions and synthetic experience (and, of course, synthetic art).

Yet another gallery show responding directly to the Republicans was the Simms gallery extravaganza, “The Elephant in Art,” a kind of wild kingdom of imagery featuring over one hundred works by over half that many artists. The Simms typically offers well-crafted works with little regard for emerging trends or new ideas, but even here irony was much in evidence amid the diversity. And given the context, it was often these ironical works that seemed especially relevant.

Dumbo Visits the Bayou State, an acrylic on paper by Rancy Boyd-Snee, featured the famous cartoon icon in iridescent pastel tones fluttering vaporously in the evening sky while the darkly primordial verdure of an eerie wetlands forest looms rather menacingly from below.

Design for Republican Underwear by Nonie Lyons lived up to its name. This mixed media piece utilized boxer shorts designated “For your favorite Republican,” and featured a painted elephant’s head across the front. The elephant’s trunk hung down rather pendulously paralleling the opening of the fly, and this bit of graphic symbology was emblazoned with the uplifting message: “The South Shall Rise Again,” a sentiment designed to make the intended wearer stand erect with pride.

Lafayette area Cajun artist Francis Pavy was represented with such works as Republicans in the Deep South, a rough-hewn tin piece reminiscent of visionary black artists such as David Butler as well as some of the German expressionists. The crudely cut out tin can was fashioned as an elephant profile topped by the outline of a guitar. Painted in the center of the guitar form was a rather iconic fish. The elephant outline contained a landscape of oil wells, their diminishing perspective dominated by the green foreground figure of a cigar-chomping reptile man. This vision of the frontier where corporate constructs encounter the swamp is paralleled stylistically by the tribal proclivities of visionary primitivism allied with expressionist sensibilities. This clash of corporate culture with naturalistic folk themes is repeated in Pavy’s oil painting Republicans Meet Uncle Remus Tales.

While Pavy’s cigar-chomping reptilian oil man invoked bayou land’s Georg Grosz sensibilities, black visionary artist David Butler was represented with a rather similarly shaped piece, Monkey on an Elephant, also painted tin. Obviously Pavy takes his cues from Butler and then invokes expressionist consciousness. Butler’s work, on the other hand, is a very pure visionary manifestation. Seemingly retro-tribal, Butler’s concoctions strikingly resemble certain of the multi-animalistic images found in African art. Yet Butler is a non-literature, untutored and untraveled retired sawmill worker. From whom does he take his cues? From whence does this come? May we invoke Jung? (Or is that a J-word? What day is this?)

Imagistic response to the convention was not confined to the walls of galleries. Of course some artists used imagery as part of protest demonstrations, but somehow this seemed to become part and parcel of the total spectacle, engulfed by the amoeboid grasp of mass media, an exercise in contrasting production values for the networks.

More quiet but more pointed was the appearance of the political poster art of West Coast protest artist Robbie Conal. These posters, which blanketed the business district and warehouse district adjacent to the convention area, were typical of Conal who in the past has depicted Don Regan, Cap Weinberger, Maggie Thatcher, Jim and Tammy, Ron and Nancy, all with a thick impasto of putrefying flesh, graphically illustrating Acton’s maxim: power corrupts.

In this case the subject was George Bush, silly leer and all, in the latter stages of fleshy decomposition, and emblazoned with the bold-faced caption “it can happen here.” Conal was brought into the fray by members of the gallery establishment who remain anonymous. As was the case in New York and elsewhere, the posters were quickly removed from the walls of prominent buildings and prime locations, although many in the warehouse district and on side streets still remain. Conal defines his work as “art that is political” as opposed to “political art.” The result is a kind of fierce satire rather than anything self-righteous or deathly serious, an almost commercial form of vision that takes its place next to the movie and sports posters that are the autonomous visual fabric of the streets. Conal returned to give a lecture on his work, sponsored by the Contemporary Arts Center, in October.

These then have been the various ways in which this arts community responded to the invasion of the alien culture that was the Republican National Convention. In a city that views itself as a bulwark against American corporate culture, mutable and imperfect though that bulwark may be, many were content to let the sensibilities of the place itself stand as the protest. This estimation was based on the belief that the contrast provided by the Republican legions would make this local alternative culture look better and more respectable than it ever could acting on its own. It appears there may have been some truth to that.

Beyond the spectacles of party politics, another issue that may contextually transform art production and exhibition in this city in the future is the closure of the Contemporary Arts Center. It is only the building that is closing—it is undergoing a 2 million dollar renovation in a progress until 1990, and the CAC itself will necessitate utilizing a variety of alternative sites, mostly scattered throughout the warehouse district and adjacent areas.

In some ways this new agenda may be more focused than in the recent past, despite the absence of a building. For the first time in two years the CAC has an executive director and a visual arts director. After two years on automatic pilot—and numerous navigational errors—someone will finally be in charge.

Much of the activity will be taking place on the streets, providing an almost performance dimension to the visual arts program. The seasonal kick-off “Art for Art’s Sake” show for instance was planned to incorporate temporary lightworks sculpture, experimental films projected on the sides of buildings, new music by Cajun saxophonist Richard Landry (longtime collaborator with Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass) all set at the refurbished Piazza d’ Italia. Other programs being effected include “Art in Transit” in conjunction with the Women’s Caucus for Art, artworks on the sides of buses and streetcars, and a program of “Streetworks,” outdoor art works located at key sites in the warehouse district, created by Tina Girouard, Bob Tannen, Robert Zoell and Carol Hurst. Other projects on the new regime’s agenda include exhibitions of contemporary works by Cajun artists from Lafayette and surroundings, a major showing of works from the visionary imagists and symbolists movement (Bourgeois, Bascle and Bishop et al.) indigenous to the New Orleans area, as well as more wide ranging shows such as William Burroughs’ works on paper. It should be an interesting couple of years.

We will have further updates on these and other late-breaking stories as they occur, special to Art Papers from our studio by the levee. Until then, the advisory concerning aliens in elephant masks remains in effect, and pregnant women, children and the elderly or indigent are urged to take all possible precautions.