Over the course of this past year, New Orleans celebrated the tricentennial of its 1718 colonial founding by the French Mississippi Company. To this day the city is a living record of its fabled, multinational, and convoluted history. In its historic French quarter, the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, dedicated to the memory of “Old Hickory” and his legendary 1815 victory over British forces at the Battle of New Orleans, still stands tall in Jackson Square, an urban focal point. The statue of that contentious American general has so far avoided removal by revisionist impulses; a monument to another has not. In the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston church shooting and only months before the 2017 Charlottesville riots, the Robert E. Lee statue in “Lee Circle” of New Orleans’s Warehouse District was removed by city officials. Just around the corner from Lee Circle in Warehouse sit not only the Ogden Museum of Southern Art but also the modest Confederate Memorial Hall Museum.
Near too is the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, an institution that, in stark contrast to the lived and historic fabric of the city, is primarily about the here and the now. The CAC, like many contemporary art institutions across the country, maintains no permanent collection so that it may allocate its resources fully to the presentation of the latest ideas. It now functions as an institutional supplement to the commercial gallery scene that has emerged within the formerly blue-collar district since Katrina. But in a city where history bubbles to the surface of all aesthetic phenomena—from the wrought-iron balconies of the colonial French quarter to the vernacular rhythms of Congo Square to those dubious bronze statues—the CAC’s embrace of “white cube” purity feels especially divorced from the muddled realities of life.
In any event, the CAC is currently host to three exhibitions curated by Andrea Andersson (the institution’s Chief Curator of Visual Arts) that, though widely disparate in both type and quality, are ostensibly tied together by the broad theme of “Labor.” The most interesting of the three, a retrospective of the New Orleans artist William Monaghan titled “I – Object,” takes place on the Center’s second (and top) floor.
Raised in New Orleans, William Monaghan attended Yale in the 1960s, where he studied economics and took classes in the school’s famed art program led by Josef Albers. After Yale, Monaghan studied architecture at Harvard, then worked in the studios of the sculptor William Wainwright and the visionary architect Buckminster Fuller. He began a career in Massachusetts as a studio artist, architect, contractor, and historical preservationist. In 1975, he had his first museum show at the ICA Boston. He lived in the northeast until the aftermath of Katrina, when the artist moved back to New Orleans to start a non-profit development company called Build Now with his daughter, Tess Monaghan.
While working with Build Now to construct durable, efficient, aesthetically traditional, and—crucially—affordable homes in washed-out neighborhoods, Monaghan has continued to make art that engages symbolically with issues relevant to the city ravaged by that 2006 storm. To put it most simply, the paintings are junk. No, literally—Monaghan travels to local recycling yards to collect scrap metal materials which he then attaches to his canvases. This material presence alludes to waste, industry, the death of industry, post-Apocalypse, post-Katrina, and the like, but the works also make clear their formalist aspirations. The paintings (and especially the more recent ones) are what one might reasonably call “beautiful” objects: objects that belong not in junkyards or factories but in insulated, immaculate spaces—spaces like the CAC New Orleans.
The retrospective is divided into two bodies of work. In the first, objects from the late 1970s and early ’80s employ simple forms and basic materials, and many are transformed cunningly by the natural process of oxidation. They seem to resonate strongly with the canonical minimalists of that heady era: Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, even Robert Smithson. Monaghan’s use of line, form, and light also positions the works within the tradition of Albers’ optical inquiry. Nowhere is this clearer than in Untitled (1984), an Homage to the Square–like composition to which Monaghan returns in an enlarged reworking of 2018. But even in these sparse early works, poetry seeps into Monaghan’s steel and canvas arrangements. In places, cascades of dripping rust (not altogether unlike the falling pigments that Larry Poons was using in his own paintings at the same time) introduce an aspect of legato chance to the hard-edged compositions.
Industrial detritus remains the thread that runs through the works made within the last two or three years. But whereas before the “junk” was used to emphasize its “literal,” material “fact,” now Monaghan presents it with a flair of mimetic showmanship. In a departure from the hard-edged simplicity of his earlier pared-down forms, here Monaghan runs the gamut of formal possibility by attaching more varied objects to his canvases. Air vents, wire fencing, tin cans, corrugated siding, ragcloths, and endless other objects proliferate. The pieces retain a symbolic association with industry and waste, sure, but they are wielded more consciously for their formal and optical potential—rectangles, zig-zags, waves, lines, circles. They are also more three-dimensional: range in depth relief goes from a few inches to over a foot.
Out of this inchoate variability, Monaghan constructs smart, complex compositions that feel at once casual and calculated—one hand in the anarchic junkyard and the other in the studio where artist lords supreme. Paintings in the newer body of work range significantly in size, but they are consistently square in their formal aspect. I can think of two reasons for this enduring fascination with the square format. First, the square introduces a level of static order and calm to the otherwise unruly compositions—lines of movement are bounded and turned inward by the rationally symmetrical edges of each picture. Relatedly, and perhaps more importantly, by sticking with the square, Monaghan helps ensure that his various compositions will be read as neither stylized landscapes nor suggested human figures.
Even more strikingly, in a sharp break from the palette of canvas-beige and rust-brown running through the first section of the exhibition, these newer works have been sandblasted and painted, sanitizing them of their “natural” patina and beautifying them in monochromes of magenta, teal, pink, yellow, and other artificial hues. Most are painted in a way that gives the paintings a sort of ethereal, unworldly light. Monaghan will take a solidly black work, for instance, and airbrush the surface at a consistent angle with yellow paint so that the brighter pigment imitates the effect of directional lighting. When this painted “light” conflicts with the actual lighting of the gallery (a number are “uplit,” for instance), uncanny results ensue that put the viewer off balance and leave him unsure of what he is looking at. As hard as it might be to believe, this mimetic effect can almost strike as photographic—when I first came in through the gallery doors, for a second I thought I was looking at an enlarged and perhaps photoshopped picture of some kind of post-Apocalyptic alien floor. But what’s more impressive is that the effect has staying power. These objects, in all their complexities and irregularities, continually surprise. They reward prolonged and considered looking.
Down on the first floor of the CAC, “Zarouhie Abdalian: Production” assembles a selection of the artist’s conceptual, Marxist, and site-specific pieces. Here a tapestry into which a quotation from our favorite Karl has been stitched, there handfuls of clay into which pieces from an industrial motor have been imprinted. An unadorned concrete pool filled with water is given to us in an inner gallery. Underneath the seemingly calm surface are black pumps that create “unseen currents of water” that “roil the water to indicate the turbulent action of forces below.” An Althusserian declaration, perhaps, that invisible capitalist forces underwrite the oppression of our society, all without us even noticing.
Maybe the piece works as a metaphor for Abdalian’s own work, too. Beneath all their avant-gardist posturing, these pieces are at heart examples of that disparaged institution of aesthetic conservatism: illustration. Abdalian gives us pedantic, surface demonstrations of the kinds of theories any undergraduate might study in an English department’s Lit-Crit 101. But the works couldn’t be further from actually embodying the artist’s own justice-oriented, system-upturning worldview. Abdalian claims to speak for “the worker,” but her art is for the biennial-going, jet-setting class.