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Review: Brilliant Disguise: Masks and Other Transformations at the CAC 

D. Eric Bookhardt on the NOMA collection presented by the CAC

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The Contemporary Arts Center's Brilliant Disguise show is nothing if not surprising. Organized by New Orleans Museum of Art curator Miranda Lash using work from NOMA's collection, it is not only an unexpected example of institutional collaboration, it also is surprising for its unlikely visual relationships. Any show that mingles antique tribal art with the work of trendy global hot shots should logically become an incoherent mess — but only if one relies on verbal logic. This show illustrates how images can reveal their own visual logic when astutely deployed without regard for categories. Most genuinely meaningful art arises from a deeply nonverbal place that knows no boundaries in time and space, allowing escape from life's more ordinary limits. The same goes for Carnival costuming and masking that, at its best, allows us to turn life into an artful extension of the imagination.

  Examples abound. Jim Nutt's painting Sliding, Slowly, Softly (pictured), suggests a woman's portrait reduced to pulsating patterns of color in an example of how the Chicago Imagists radicalized the art of the latter 1960s. Yet retired Louisiana plantation worker Clementine Hunter's 1960 painting Masked Face seems to have anticipated his approach. Similarly, a 1950 Picasso bronze head appears to have been presaged by an iron mask that is actually an antique European punitive device. But not all such visual time traveling is coincidental. A Mardi Gras Indian suit by Fi Yi Yi big chief Victor Harris, exhibited near a century-old tribal Nigerian ritual suit, illustrates how timeless traditions live on inexplicably here in the Creole city. But global art star Cao Fei's photographs of Chinese youths in wild costumes inspired by video games and Japanese anime characters stand in stark contrast to the dreary, humdrum lives they lead when they go home. In a startling reversal of fortune, modern China appears as the land of the rootless even as contemporary New Orleans somehow perpetuates the exotic traditions of ancient times and far away places. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT

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