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Cadavre Exquis 

It's been said that everyone on Earth is separated by no more than six degrees, that is, by six friends of friends of friends. It's a theory that goes back to Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy's 1929 short story, Chains, and was reprised in the stage play (and subsequent 1993 movie), Six Degrees of Separation. In this city, where people always run into each other, it's more like .6 degrees, maybe because the streets here run in circles.

The idea, of course, is that randomness may not really be as random as we think. The surrealists knew that and practiced a game called cadavre exquis, or "exquisite corpse," in which a work of art was created in a collaborative sequence with each participant spontaneously adding their part, then passing it on in a celebration of "the mystique of accident," or randomness. In this 64 Degrees of Separation show, New Orleans Museum of Art assistant director Steven Maklansky throws the cadavre exquis into reverse gear with his arrangement of 64 famous photographs linked only by seemingly random associations, making the artists, many of whom are historic (dead), participants in absentia.

This may be the only example of curatorial exquisite corpse I've ever seen. (Maklansky really comes up with some stuff.) By this logic, Reed Thomas's Bird Cage, an image of a derelict room empty except for bird cage, leads to Sean Keenan's haunting Prison, Alabama view of a prison corridor in which a gaunt prisoner's face behind bars is reflected in a mirror. This leads us to Mehemed Fehme Agha's Mannequin in Cage, a cubist-surrealist tableau with one of those little wooden mannequins used in figure studies apparently breaking out of a metal cage. Then Ralph Steiner's Nude and Mannequin 1930 shot of a nude woman laying back in sunbathing mode with a life-size wooden mannequin lying next to her leads us to V. Wenker's untitled shot of a woman holding a headless mannequin doll cradled like a baby. Which takes us to Alvin Langdon Coburn's 1904 Mother and Child photo of a woman breast feeding a baby, which leads to Helen Levitt's Pregnant Woman & Woman With Milk Bottles. Eventually, this circuitous path takes us to photos of rocket ships and moon missions in a process that makes more visual sense than any verbal description could possibly convey. Now, we could ramble on about how free association has come to be considered the mother's milk of creativity, but why even bother? Suffice it to say that, highfalutin' theories aside, this is a playful show that works best when taken as such.

Far more somber are John Biggers' paintings and drawings from the 1940s and '50s, a time when racial discrimination was a way of life for much of America. His canvasses, while lyrically painted, are almost uniformly grim, at least in this series. His 1945 Sharecropper canvas of a wrinkled old African-American man in overalls raises the question of which is more distressed, the man or the weathered plank wall behind him. A study in grey, brown and black, it is dramatic yet forlorn; if there is any spark of life in those wrinkle-shrouded eyes, you sure can't see it. Cotton Pickers, a 1947 conte crayon drawing, is a vividly dramatic view of a group of cotton pickers in the field. Clad in rags below lifeless eyes, they evoke those plutonic underworld scenes from mythology where the dead stumble on eternally like automatons. And Old Couple (Home Sweet Home), a 1946 oil painting of an elderly rural couple, hints at the rustic color of farm life a la Thomas Hart Benton -- or might if the woman working on her needlepoint didn't look so terminally depressed. And it's not hard to imagine the artist with a similar expression painting it. Yet we can't accuse him of exaggerating; things really were that bad for some poor rural black folks back then. But he could also astonish, as he does with Blind Boy and Monkey, in which a blind boy stoically strums a guitar as a monkey on a chain holds out his begging cup, a scene rendered with the Reginald Marsh's verve and the lyrical force of Picasso's circus series. Here Biggers jolts us back to the "good old days" -- and we can only hope they really are gone for good!

click to enlarge One thing leads to another: Sean Keenan's haunting Prison, Alabama provides a view of a prisoner's face as the reflection in a mirror.
  • One thing leads to another: Sean Keenan's haunting Prison, Alabama provides a view of a prisoner's face as the reflection in a mirror.


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