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Ancestral Offerings 

Unlike most of America, New Orleans folk know the value of old things. Here the past is not only interwoven with the present, but actually helps hold everything together for sanity's sake. Old iron bathtubs with clawed feet offer blessed respite from computers and cell phones, just as other vintage relics help people survive the onslaught of "new and improved" consumer stuff. Most artists know that history and culture are inseparably linked, but that is all the more obvious in the work of some African-American sculptors now showing on Julia Street.

Martin Payton, of the famously creative local Payton clan, has long been known for massive metal sculptures that seem to meld the ancient designs of tribal Africa with the homely and four-square familiarity of America's industrial landscape. In recent years, however, his sculptures have evolved in ways that reflect a new intimacy, grace and fluidity even as they continue to maintain a clear channel to the timeless Africa of the ancestors. That much is evident in the work on view at Heriard-Cimino.

Tyner is typical of this approach, a vaguely animal-shaped construction of bent steel rods and shaped sheet metal that recalls the antelope head-dresses and ritual gear of Mali. A closer look reveals the presence of found objects, old window sash weights, steel spikes and the like. Not much by themselves, but put them together and the effect is traditional yet innovative, austere yet lyrical -- not unlike its presumed namesake, legendary modern jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. (Any question of the title's ancestry is answered by the piece's grand piano-shaped profile.)

This is fairly typical of Payton's recent direction, and makes for an interesting contrast with Compass (For Harriet), a 6-foot tall totem like a "V" of welded steel I-beams. With a circle-topped cross (like the glyph for Venus) rising from within, it suggests a modernist Nike, perhaps an Afro-Bauhaus Winged Victory. Its massive girders are a throwback to his earlier style of a decade or so ago, reflecting a feel for the sheer presence of steel. But mostly it is his newest directions that intrigue, from his increasing fluidity of line to the inclusion of glass bottles in works like Hendrix (a kind of 7-foot tall spirit house, or bottle tree, of the sort built by African Americans to ward off wayward specters). A strong show from an accomplished and ever-evolving Louisiana sculptor.

African traditions take a more archaic turn in Jeffrey Cook's new work at the Stern, where the tradition of the tribal fetish is reborn in his wall-mounted assemblages of found, or bound, objects. Maturity is an assortment of old balls, odd lengths of rope and coarse fabric hanging like aged sausages and cheeses at an antique Italian market. Punctuated by coarse fabric breast-like things, a woven hat, mummified old brooms and a bird bound in fabric, Maturity exudes a fetish-like aura of cargo-cult sensibilities and mixed mojo metaphors by the dozen. Some white chalk markings serve as an allegory for the title: chalk it up to experience. But Adolescence lives up to its name. A webby network of shaped burlap and bound objects, it is experimental and obsessive. But it is also richly textured and eloquent, like the rest of this show.

More modernist in tone, but perhaps no less fetishistic in essence, are Chakaia Booker's wall sculptures. Made from shredded old tires, they shrewdly utilize the similarity of tire treads to traditional African design. Beyond that, their look is surreal and expressionistic. Urban Butterfly evokes a 3-D Pollock drip painting in black until you get right up on it. Then the tire textures stand out like the banded patterning of moray eels, Gila monsters or other wild species from exotic places, just as the coiled curlicues evoke octopi or baroque convolutions of cacti. Booker says of the tires: "Their color is blackness, the skin color of Africans. The tire tread patterns are similar to African motifs in fabrics and ... patterns of body decoration. They also suggest symbols of scarring from the life that black people are forced to live. The tire sculptures are concerned with unmet needs." Be that as it may, the pieces themselves are gratifyingly eloquent and innovative.

click to enlarge No stranger to music, Martin Payton offers Tyner, an austere yet lyrical homage to legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner.
  • No stranger to music, Martin Payton offers Tyner, an austere yet lyrical homage to legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner.


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