Andrea Chung in the New Orleans Times 11.29.17

Prospect.4 exhibitions are full of surprises — like Easter eggs

Curator Dan Cameron conceived Prospect New Orleans, whose first iteration opened in November 2008, as an international contemporary art biennial in the tradition of Venice, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo. These famed mega exhibitions around the world draw art-world jetsetters and cultural tourists to their host cities every two years.

Art biennials find their roots in the grand expositions of 19th-century Europe, and to the average New Orleanian the concept might feel equally remote.

With “Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” which opened to the public Nov. 18, this year’s curator Trevor Schoonmaker delivers a triennial (Prospect has since moved to a three-year schedule) that is relatable to general audiences. Critics in several national publications have cited a lack of curatorial risk in Schoonmaker’s vision, but they miss the fact that there have been only a handful of museum-quality group shows in New Orleans including international artists since Cameron’s original exhibition.

Visitors need not have any experience with the biennial model, with Prospect, or with contemporary art at all to enjoy it. That’s because Schoonmaker, who works as the chief curator of Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, has created a citywide exhibition that actually seems in conversation with the city and its familiar sights and sounds, from the towering pillars of the Claiborne Avenue overpass to the rolling squawk of cornets and the coveted painted coconuts of the Zulu parade.

And despite spanning 17 museums, galleries, and other public sites — billboards, the Riverfront Streetcar line, and a French Quarter antique shop, to name a few –the exhibition rewards viewers who see its entirety with surprising moments and repetitions that feel like curatorial Easter eggs.

Presentations at individual venues are tight, cohesive and distinct with clear themes and emotional threads that are generous to both audiences and the artists included, the vast majority of whom are exhibiting in the city for the first time.

Viewers being introduced to the work of New York-based artist Rashid Johnson (Johnson did have several pieces in the exhibition “30 Americans,” which traveled to the Contemporary Arts Center in 2014) are likely to get more from his bulky interactive sculpture made of speakers, vinyl records, and other assorted objects, simply because of its location at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

Add its proximity to Black Masking Indian suits by Darryl Montana plus collages by jazz great Louis Armstrong and Johnson’s abstract sculpture, whose speakers double as microphones, connects to a history of African-American musical and cultural production recognizable to any New Orleanian.

That’s just one example of how Schoonmaker amplifies the potential impact of works on view. Colorful portraits of dapper subjects by Barkley L. Hendricks, who died in April of this year, look that much more regal against the marble columns of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Great Hall.

And a massive mixed-media sculpture by India-born, New York-based artist Rina Banerjee appears fresh off the parade route amid the raucous rock-and-roll meets Carnival atmosphere created on the CAC’s first floor.

The three-channel video installation by British-Ghanaian John Akomfrah may very well be this year’s best in show. An enchanting ghost story centered on New Orleans musician Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the film sets the tone for a haunting series of installations of paintings and works on paper by Wayne Gonzales, Andrea Chung, Patricia Kaersenhout, and others on the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s third floor.

And while the large museums offer an easy entry point for viewers looking to sample the breadth and diversity of artists and practices on view, it’s the smaller and sometimes non-traditional venues that offer the special encounters that make Prospect unique.

Visitors should not miss the complementary pairing of Los Angeles-based filmmaker Kahlil Joseph and beloved Ninth Ward musician Quintron in Prospect’s makeshift Welcome Center on Carondelet Street. North Carolina-based Jeff Whetstone takes over the intimate UNO St. Claude Gallery with lush wallpaper, color photographs, and a video. Whetstone’s beautiful meditation on life on the Mississippi River was birthed from an artist residency at A Studio in the Woods in Lower Coast Algiers, demonstrating how Prospect.4 soars when its artists have sustained engagement with local organizations and the city itself.

Visitors need not even venture indoors to sample Prospect.4. Odili Donald Odita has designed flags in the style of his signature murals to mark important sites in the history of black liberation throughout the city, including the location of Homer Plessy’s arrest and the elementary school integrated by the young Ruby Bridges.

The Bywater’s Crescent Park has a series of outdoor sculptures for those strolling along the river. The perhaps easiest to miss installation of all is located in City Park directly across the street from Ralph’s on the Park restaurant. There, visitors find a plaque in the grass, tucked away from the street, where South African artist James Webb has installed an audio recording of a Japanese robin, not native to Louisiana, into one of the majestic oak trees dripping Spanish moss.

It’s a subtle intervention that encourages visitors to quiet down and listen carefully, allowing them to simultaneously tune into the breeze, the traffic, and the bell of the park train coming round the bend–in other words the rhythms of daily life.

Prospect.4 continues through Feb. 25, 2018. Viewing many of the artworks is free, though museum admission may apply. For maps and more information, visit the Prospect New Orleans website.

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