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Terra Firma 

"Art is long, and time is fleeting." So said Longfellow, in a sentiment that may be all too appropriate as 2001 draws to a close. Especially after Sept. 11. Indeed, "after Sept. 11" has become the pervasive apocalyptic mantra these days, a wailing wall of words, especially in New York, where it resonates like a funeral dirge for the cultural and other institutions where terror took a dire financial toll. But what of the Big Easy? Was our art scene affected in any comparable way, and if so, how much? And what else, if anything, happened this year, anyway?

Beyond 9/11 itself, the shifts and tremors along the cultural fault lines were mostly incremental and modest on the Richter scale, yet noteworthy realignments were in fact percolating just below the surface. Like celestial bodies converging into constellations through obscure currents of cosmic happenstance, several local museums seem to be converging in what was once called the Warehouse District, and more recently the Arts District. Now, thanks to the critical mass occasioned by the proximity of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art to the Contemporary Arts Center, the nearby D-Day Museum, the Children's Museum and the Arts Council's Louisiana ArtWorks complex under construction off Lee Circle, the Arts District has been re-christened the Arts and Museum District. (The fate of the Confederate Museum, next to the Ogden, is up in the air. The name is controversial, but perhaps they could simply change it to the Civil War Surrealism Museum and keep the contents. After all, any museum with a crown of thorns woven by the Pope for Jefferson Davis after his surrender is about as surreal as it gets.)

So much for the real estate, but what of the art and artists? While some Julia Street galleries reported sales declines after Sept. 11, Mark Bercier, director of the Marguerite Oestreicher Gallery, expressed the generally prevailing view that "the worst is over and things are getting back to normal." Unlike New York, where galleries are still reeling, the fallout seems to have been briefer and less severe in this city. And when you head Uptown from Julia Street, the news only gets better. "My business actually improved after Sept, 11," says Cole Pratt of his eponymous Gallery. "I think people were so depressed by the news on TV that they wanted to look at something else, and so they did," he says, still surprised at his good fortune.

In fact, even galleries only slightly Uptown from Julia Street report surprising resilience in the wake of the terror. "Things are going better for us since Sept. 11," says the ever-ebullient Jonathan Ferrara, who attributes his good luck not to bin Laden, but to his gallery becoming more established, as well as to New Orleans' increasing cachet as an art mecca. "People all over the country realize that something special is happening here," he says, noting that "art is everywhere, something is always happening, and artists all over increasingly want to show here."

Which brings us to the art itself, and what sort of art gets shown. Here as elsewhere over the course of the past decade, art seemed to languish on its laurels. As in popular music, there was no noteworthy new cutting edge, but in New York, at least, what took its place is a kind of nostalgia for the cutting edge. That much was evident even here, in the CAC's Chelsea Rising show of new "cutting edge" New York art last winter -- an assortment of carefully tweaked and repackaged postmodern motifs from the 1980s and early '90s. Golden Oldie movements like neo-geo got a face lift in new treatments that, while sometimes interesting, were neither cutting edge nor classic, but merely familiar, like someone who resembled someone we once knew. Other Chelsea-esque shows include Big Easy-based New York artist Luis Cruz Azaceta's colorful new stuff at Arthur Roger, which reflects his own version of neo-geo in works that are abstract and geometric yet decorative and occasionally sinister. (Chelsea even figures in some of the titles.) A switch from his 1980s neo-expressionism, though traces still linger.

In contrast to so much New York-oriented work, local art just happens without much regard for the prevailing fashions, and while the more-established galleries are eclectic as always, the local alternative scene just gets bigger and more diverse, with spaces such as Ferrara, Barrister's, John Product and The Waiting Room, among others, seemingly determined to showcase the newest new talents as they appear. Which is actually a rather cheery thought with which to approach a new year.

click to enlarge Works like Kaballah by New Orleans-based New York artist Luis Cruz Azaceta spoke to the Chelsea vibe that rippled through 2001.
  • Works like Kaballah by New Orleans-based New York artist Luis Cruz Azaceta spoke to the Chelsea vibe that rippled through 2001.
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