In the art world, summer group shows are usually the visual equivalent of a bottle of rosé: easy to enjoy but not very demanding.
But this year’s installment of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s annual Louisiana Contemporary exhibition is not that kind of group show.
Now in its sixth year, the group exhibition has become a sort of snapshot of the currents of the regional contemporary art scene, as well as a distillation of the particular curatorial interests of its annual guest juror.
This year, the show was juried by independent curator Shantrelle P. Lewis, who in her opening statement for the exhibition discusses how her experience as a native New Orleanian was central to her curatorial process.
“This (is) home, a home that for the native creates a spectrum of emotions — some magical, some traumatic,” Lewis said.
Lewis is also clear about her affinity for art that is politically engaged. “Social justice is the underpinning of all my curatorial work, my chief aim,” she said.
So if you’re looking for art that offers an escape from the world, this year’s show may not be for you. But anyone who’s interested in the ways art can engage and amplify often difficult issues will find plenty to think about here.
The sprawling exhibition, which features work by 85 artists, is divided into three parts.
The first section contains works that deal with the environment, both built and natural. Highlights here include Deborah Howell’s hauntingly enigmatic study of an identifiably New Orleans domestic interior that seems to be abandoned — or is it merely under renovation?
A photographic diptych by C+J becomes a visual rebus linking the sweep of Piety Arch in the Bywater with the curve of a car door. And Jonathan “Feral Opossum” Mayers’ bayou landscape is a fever dream full of saturated colors and moody atmosphere.
The second part, arranged in the long fifth-floor hallway of the museum, features portraits of personalities distinctive to New Orleans. It’s dominated by two masterful large-scale portraits — Jessica Strahan’s “Blow Pop” and Aron Belka’s “George” — which together evoke something essential of the spirit of the city.
Miguel Venturi’s “Summertime” is a joyful evocation of the season’s pleasures. Rob Hudak’s minimalist yet evocative portrait of Professor Longhair manages to capture the legendary blues musician’s presence and spirit. And Peter Horjus’ quilt is a finely detailed knockout of craft and texture.
But it’s the third section of the show that may have the most impact for many viewers. Lewis isn’t afraid of art that is explicitly polemical, and most of the works in the collection reflect that.
One of them also happens to be one of the most powerful pieces in the show: Devin Reynolds’s “Mega Blow Out,” which uses the vernacular of American consumer culture as a powerful critique of a penal system that disproportionately incarcerates black men.
Nearby, works like Vitus Shell’s “Targeted” and Jose Torres-Tama’s “No Papers! No Fear!” similarly represent direct, lived experience in explicit terms.
Others, like Abigail Smithson’s “Record of Hope & Loss” — made of discarded pieces of old basketball nets — address those experiences in more subtle and abstract ways, while James Flynn’s “Portable Monument to Harriet Tubman” and Kristin Meyers’s “Bone Shepard” use traditional forms to evoke the presence of ancestors.
As might be expected from any exhibition of politically engaged art in 2017, national politics are well represented in the show, from David Gamble’s “Welcome to Amerussca” pastiche to Dale Newkirk’s more cryptic (and sinister) “Trump2.”
At first, Peter Barnitz’s “The Wall” looks like a stray piece of minimalist sculpture that wandered in from another show. But a closer look reveals that the understatedly elegant piece is indeed that much-vaunted “big and beautiful wall” reduced to the scale of a fetish object, all sinuous lines and gold leaf.
In its mixture of formal elegance and conceptual depth, it represents the best kind of art that Lewis’ curatorial hand has selected for this year’s Louisiana Contemporary.
Louisiana Contemporary presented by the Helis Foundation
WHEN: Through Oct. 15
WHERE: Ogden Museum of Southern Art
925 Camp St., New Orleans
INFO: (504) 539-9650
Read the article on The Advocate.