THE VIRTUAL TRAILER OF ART IN NEW ORLEANS

I was warned by artist Keith Sonnier, himself a Louisiana native, that contemporary art has a lot of competition in New Orleans. It most certainly does. The delectable cuisine, jazz, blues, Dixie, Cajun, and Zydeco music, antebellum architecture and myriad other distractions could easily dominate a visitor’s experience of the city. Nonetheless, over the past three decades, a contemporary art scene has taken root in the Warehouse District, a post-industrial neighborhood of nineteenth century buildings west of Canal Street. Contemporary art galleries now pepper Julia Street, near the Contemporary Art Center (CAC).

At CAC I viewed “Hanging by a Thread,” an exhibition of work by Louisiana artist Sally Heller, that explores constructs of femininity. Her most interesting works included portraits of women, realized entirely from fingernail extensions in all their chromatic diversity. Heller also realized colorful nets and webs from found materials in the museum galleries. I exited the CAC only to find myself peering down the barrel of a cannon from the Civil War. It now lives on the freshly manicured lawn of the New Orleans Confederate Memorial Museum, characterizing a certain tension between old and new in the Crescent City. I turned to walk past the museum parking lot and, as I did, a vintage trailer from the ‘70s caught my attention.

A Mobile Museum

Seated outside the trailer, ensconced in lawn furniture beneath a large sun umbrella were Jeanne Nathan and Robert Tannen, the founders of the CAC. Both hail from New York City, although they have lived in the Big Easy since 1969. Together they started Creative Industry, a business that promotes artistic development in the region and at a national level. The trailer as it turns out, is their new museum on wheels that will take art through the backstreets of New Orleans, the bayous and parrishes of Louisiana, and the country at large. Nathan is a seasoned art administrator who, among many other projects, produced a highly ambitious “Art Exchange Show” in lower Manhattan as an annual event from 1996 through 1998.

The couple were waiting for John Ford, the designer and technician who helped them realize the digital part of the virtual trailer. At length his car rolled into the parking lot and, after brief introductions, they invited me into the trailer. At the helm was a large, flat monitor tethered to a computer. Ford opened the Creative Industry database, producing a checkerboard of thumbnailed works by visual artists and designers with Louisiana ties. With the click of a thumbnail, a highly intriguing work by Paul Higham called “Real Time Plastic Action Sculpture” sprang to life. This digital animation includes the names of seminal modern and contemporary artists which follow and interact with one another according to the position of the mouse, which is controlled by the viewer. Higham is one of the many artists to find a venue where the interstate and information superhighways converge.

From there we proceeded to the rear of the trailer, which houses a video monitor and media players. Tannen inserted a DVD of work by Jacqueline Humphries and Tony Oursler. The piece consists of hundreds of colored crayons on a hotplate. As the element heats up, smoke rises from the wax as the crayons are first disfigured by heat and later fuse gently into one another, producing marbled effects between the colors. This fusion of distinct elements seems emblematic of the trailer project as a whole. The mosaic of artworks in a 21st century Gypsy caravan is a singular work of art in its own right.

A Digression

Nathan and Tannen had set up shop for the American Association of Museums Conference (which was the ostensible reason for my own visit) and Tannen had slept in the trailer in preparation. Nathan, for his protection, had insisted that he sleep under the watchful eye of their Catahoula hound. These Louisiana dogs are said to be related to Spanish war dogs that later mated with Native American hunting dogs from the region. This brings me to the point that New Orleans can be a dangerous town. It has a very high murder rate and Ray Davies (of The Kinks), one of the celebrity participants in the trailer project, was shot in an armed robbery in New Orleans, although he fully recovered. Visitors should exercise some caution.

“Hanging By A Thread: Sculpture and Installations by Sally Heller” is currently on view at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans, located at 900 Camp Street, 504-528-3800, www.cacno.org. For more information on Creative Industry, contact Jeanne Nathan at nathan@creativeindustryusa.com.

© 2004 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved.