It's also something of a springboard for as yet little-known artists who might or might not be ready for prime time. And even though it has introduced any number of notable talents over the years, a glance at the roster of the elite 43 who were selected from this year's 200-plus entrants once again raises the perennial question: who are these people, anyway? Even Jonathan Ferrara himself seemed unusually at a loss for words.
"I honestly have no idea," he said, sounding as baffled as anyone. "Of the over 220 entrants I only saw two or three names that I recognized. Where did they come from? I wish I knew.
"But isn't it great?" Ferrara continues. "Here are all these artists that most of us have never heard of, and some of their work is actually really interesting. But that's what this event is for, like, you know, turning over new earth."
Whether it's plowing a new field or prospecting for diamonds in the rough, NDA not only generates exposure for hitherto unknown artists, but in the process it also officiates an orderly procedure for talent scouting, generating discoveries that might otherwise be left to chance. Some highlights of this year's crop include Gravity by Karli Peres, a mixed-media installation composed of an abstract pink-and-black painting with some bright red balls on the floor beneath it. The pink part resembles a sagging net woven from globs of that queasy polymorphous ooze you see in lava lamps, while the blackness suggests a void. The red balls recall the falling apples that gave Isaac Newton the idea for gravity, and the whole thing suggests something wonderfully tasteless in a retro vein.
No less peculiar is Jeff Forsythe's acrylic painting S.S. Pentimento, which somehow melds an Escher-like rendering of an antique sailing vessel with abstract forms like pharmaceutical capsules or maybe Band-Aids, depending on your state of mind. Oddly, this somehow seems to work, inexplicable as it sounds. Another painting, apparently untitled, by Chris Jahncke of Mobile, Ala., also features pink lava lamp effluent, only this time it's radioactive and oozing over an expanse of infernal blankness where a pig (rather like the Piggly Wiggly supermarket logo) stands upright. It's unclear whether the pig is a product of the rampaging lava lamp blobs or merely an innocent bystander, but the painting as a whole speaks volumes, even if it's still not clear about what, exactly.
Actually, paintings are in the minority this year. Photography is always a significant NDA presence, and this year's photographers are as edgy as ever. For instance, an untitled photo by Greg Miles is intriguing, yet as resistant to description as any image of a haphazardly clad young lady with a radioactively glowing head can possibly be, in a truly odd example of photographic dadaism. No less surreal is Idle Hands by Louviere and Vanessa, a photomontage of a male figure in a seedy suit holding what looks like a bouquet of dried weeds as his body dematerializes around the edges, turning into forests and fields, leaves of grass, returning to the earth like a passage in the Book of Psalms. Earthy yet unearthly.
As is Steve Prince's elaborate linoleum cut print, Soul Music, a dream-like view of an African-American couple delineated by infinitely and ornately elaborate patterning. Although wood cut and linoleum cut prints are often boldly graphic, Prince's work is startling in its ability to elucidate inexplicable worlds within worlds, in what amounts to a kind of unearthly scrimshaw effect.
Box and assemblage sculpture proliferates in this city, so it's no surprise that some examples should turn up here as well. In this vein Shae O'Brien's Do You Know How to Waltz?, a sheet-metal ball gown hanging in a miniature alcove closet, evokes dreamy contrasts, a fandango for steel magnolias. And photographer Chris Porche West has boxed up some of his old folks-in-the-hood photos in several unlikely sarcophagi of Victorian wooden scrollwork, antique stove parts, gears and lamp fixtures like altars to the Unknown Creole.
Actually, Porche West is one of the better known artists in the show -- as is Bradley Sabin, whose elaborately rendered ceramics such as Deep Breath postulate new and strangely beautiful, natural (or maybe unnatural) forms. And so it goes in this year's NDA survey of the unheralded and creatively unexpired, the emergent insurgents of the New Orleans art world.