Many of the high-profile art shows in New Orleans this year have used the occasion of the city’s tricentennial to celebrate the more colorful moments in its history.
This month, a group of three separate but thematically linked shows at the Contemporary Arts Center spotlights more often-overlooked aspects of the city’s industrial and cultural environment and the concept of labor in general.
If that doesn’t sound like the most compelling reason to visit, give it a chance: The three collections featured at the CAC through February collectively have some of the most interesting work on view in the city right now.
In a sound installation earlier this year, artist (and native New Orleanian) Zarouhie Abdalian positioned a series of ship’s bells throughout buildings in the French Quarter to focus listeners' attention on aspects of the neighborhood’s history and culture that often go unobserved.
In “Production,” her new show at the Contemporary Arts Center, Abdalian uses more directly visual strategies to underscore the presence of human labor in the built environment of the city and its environs. (A taped loop of sounds from various worksites functions more as background filler to the visuals here than anything.)
That said, many of those objects aren’t immediately impressive. But this is a show that rewards patience and careful observation — not to mention reading the wall text.
A series of misshapen objects at the entrance to the exhibition turns out to be based on pieces of clay that were run through a motor assembly, and bear both the imprints of machine components and the fingerprints of the artist that occurred during their fabrication. In another gallery, a collection of unassuming chunks of material taken from a long-abandoned chalk mine in Mississippi bears traces of the chisels and picks used to excavate the mine more than a century ago, giving these otherwise mundane fragments a ghostly human presence.
A large piece of red fabric on a wall looks like a particularly vibrant drop cloth until you notice that the random folds are actually a byproduct of a phrase inspired by Karl Marx that is stitched into the fabric. And a nearby sculpture consisting of a ship ballast stone found near the Port of New Orleans and a piece of gold plate expresses a literal and metaphorical weight with elegant simplicity.
If industrial materials and traces of their production are subtle presences in Abdalian’s work, they’re foregrounded in William Monaghan’s extraordinary mixed-media assemblages on the second floor of the CAC.
“I — Object” marks Monaghan’s first museum retrospective in 40 years and includes older pieces from the 1970s and 1980s along with more recent ones. Raised in New Orleans, where his father worked in the Reily Coffee Company factory on Magazine Street, Monaghan returned to the city to create the newer assemblages in the current show.
Monaghan’s earlier works use the natural processes of evaporation and oxidation to create flowing, almost shimmering textures on canvas surfaces. It’s unlikely you’ve ever seen rust used to a more seductive effect.
His newer pieces incorporate objects that Monaghan found via scavenging scrap yards and then layered onto wall-mounted supports. The mostly monochromatic works include everything from discarded tuna can lids to old articles of clothing and are painted and lit by the artist to disrupt the process of seeing itself: It’s hard to tell whether they’re two- or three-dimensional. Even a closer look reveals them to be somewhere in between, and the result is both disorienting and intensely captivating.
If Abdalian and Monaghan abstract the labor involved in industrial production by depicting it via often anonymous-looking objects and materials, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick put human faces on it in their powerfully evocative portraits and scenes from laboring communities throughout Louisiana, including sugar cane and sweet potato harvesters, unionized dockworkers, hospitality industry workers, and inmates in enforced work programs at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Their “Labor Studies” installation at the CAC includes work created throughout their 40-year collaboration and has something of a retrospective quality to it. It’s a stunning collection of dozens of images that are without exception resolutely unsentimental and emphatically real.
It’s also a body of work that most directly reflects the historical and current realities of New Orleans, and likely the works in this intriguing trifecta at the CAC that will stay with you the longest.
“Zarouhie Abdalian: Production”
“William Monaghan: I — Object”
“Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick: Labor Studies”
WHEN: Wednesdays through Mondays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Feb. 10; closed Tuesday
WHERE: Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St.
INFO: (504) 528-3805, http://www.cacno.org