Some of you may understand the city of New Orleans to be a perpetual center of exuberance, fecundity, and celebration. While there is some truth to this, my objective here will be to provide a deliberate overview of our art and visual culture as they reflect our myriad and complex histories, while expanding on the potentialities of maximalism.
Art historian and critic Robert Pincus-Witten employed the term maximalism to describe a reaction against minimalism in the works of late 1970s neo-expressionists such as Julian Schnabel. In the visual arts, I understand this to be an umbrella type assignation or a descriptor rather than a named movement. For example, works that employ ornament, craft techniques, and substantial scale by visual artist Nick Cave have been described as maximalist, though maximalism per se is not the category by which he is known. And as maximalism as a named movement is current in design and lifestyle realms, it is again seen in response to pared down aesthetics and, importantly, a push back to a homogenized and exclusive absolute.
A self-defined creative and collector, Curtis LaPrise, creates transitory assemblages in his Marigny home and studio. Understood as a meditative practice, LaPrise’s dense and ornamental friezes reimagine altar traditions of his family, instead reflecting queer-coded personal and shared histories. In this instance, deployment of the term horror vacui (a fear of empty space) misses the mark, as layering and use of pattern is intentional and necessary; objects placed together create new relationships, and extensive possibilities. Altar traditions are far-reaching in New Orleans, particularly with its histories of Catholicism and Afro-Caribbean religious observance.
Naturally, Mardi Gras, our big celebratory spectacle, is a maximalist expression. Color, ornament, jubilance, excess, and performance on a massive scale characterize this period that precedes Lent’s penitent objectives. Traditionally, Mardi Gras krewe societies exemplified access and power, with a constituency of the white, cis, and wealthy. Last year’s exhibition Grand Illusions: The History and Artistry of Gay Carnival in New Orleans at the Louisiana State Museum surveyed the creative resilience of LGBTQ and persons of color within those communities who created new krewes after being banned from participation in mainstream Mardi Gras. Beginning in the 1960s, these traditions of resistance would go on to inform opulent and positive annual festivities and parades, such as Southern Decadence and Gay Pride, even as participation in the old krewes became a little more democratized.
An initiative towards representation of marginalized persons and narratives is an empowering component of maximalism. A recent lifestyle article in Vox magazine offers an account of a woman of color, Annika Hansteen-Izora, of Portland, Oregon, who made a conscious vow to take up more space as a decidedly maximalist pursuit: being louder, “centering vibrance and lushness” (1).
New Orleans native Brandan Odums, a.k.a. BMike, extended his background in graffiti into creating monumental and immersive artworks that bolster Black visibility, highlight social justice, and create mentorship opportunities. Odums’s solo and collaborative pieces are installed inside his massive project space, StudioB, a 35,000-square-foot warehouse in the Marigny/Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. Portraits of civil rights leaders, memorials to Black persons slain by police, and a Black Panthers installation become contemporaneous with portraits of Black New Orleans, suggesting a more holistic future supported by education and community engagement.
Odums’s enormous outdoor aerosol works can be seen from afar on buildings surrounding his studio, Tulane University’s Newcomb Gallery, and now on our RTA public bus system. New Orleans has an extensive tradition of muralists such as Brendon Palmer-Angell and Lionel Milton, overlapping with the graffiti community. You may recall that our city was the first in the nation to remove Confederate monuments, the removal of some initiated by officials and others independently. As the visibility (and credibility) of those legacies dissolve, a vision of a Black New Orleans larger than life comes into better view.
Kristina Kay Robinson, a writer, editor, and performance artist born in New Orleans enacts a more fluid present by envisioning an alternate past in her ongoing program Republica: Temple of Color and Sound. At the foundation of Robinson’s project is the question of what could have happened if Louisiana’s German Coast Slave Rebellion of 1811 had been successful, thereby opening a period of unknowns, in this region called Republica. Here, people of color would be free, the progression of capitalism as we know it would be different, regulations of bodies and faith, the sciences, land and earth would all be … different. What future would Republica offer its citizens, and actually how wide reaching could this state be? Hers is such a magnificently expansive and holistic query to pursue, and aligns her work with Afrofuturism. Robinson performs as resident Maryam de Capita, invoking a surname that implies an everyperson, or a person in an equitable territory. As Maryam de Capita, Robinson literally embodies this fluctuating era, presenting The Temple of Color and Sound as a moveable shrine, adapting to each of its exhibition locations. This compression-expansion of time and space and prioritizing alternate histories place Robinson’s project alongside the other Maximalist themes we have discussed here.
New Orleans artist Dawn DeDeaux first responded to local issues of social justice in the 1970s, employing emergent technologies and defining empathy as an ongoing strategy. DeDeaux pioneered one of the first large scale multichannel video installations entitled The Face of God at the 1996 Olympics, commencing a focus on environmental justice. The resulting bodies of work stem from a theory proposed by Stephen Hawking that the earth has about 100 years of livability left, that it is unfixable, and that it is time to prepare to go.
The three iterations of the MotherShip series offer oversized truss rings, massive digital tree drawings on steel, ladders, suspended wheels, earth elements preserved as both specimen and holy relic, and survival suits in immersive installations. Physically speaking, DeDeaux’s large-scale works and installations do indeed take up space, while simultaneously compelling the viewer to take up Space, as our final frontier. The artist culls a white horse as an ancient symbol of the apocalypse from a multitude of cultures in the first series. While in Robinson’s Republica there exists possibility in that mutable time-space, DeDeaux is preparing us for a known unknown. However, as the ethos of the MotherShip series fuses science, folklore, and a straight up funk Afrofuturism (as in Sun Ra and George Clinton), the weight of our fate gets mitigated, like a good hurricane party.
In DeDeaux’s Space Clown series, post-earth survival suits often bear vegetal forms resembling the decorative ironwork associated with historic New Orleans architecture. While the artist points out that the design is intended as a panacea to the planet’s refugees, it is also clear that the choice of this stylized simulacrum of nature reveals a heartbreaking disconnect with the real and organic that must happen (2). The foresight of the Space Clown series takes on special significance as we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic.
Assuredly, that is where we are now, our futures especially uncertain and condensed within various levels of quarantine. As all our parades have been cancelled for Mardi Gras 2021 and second lines banned, locals have been strategizing how to share joy and stay connected safely during this time. Solutions have included porch concerts, city wide planning to create elaborately decorated “house floats” for Carnival, and then there’s this:
Enter Reality Breaker. Reality Breaker is a mobile puppet show built on a Toyota minivan that roams neighborhoods, spreading joy and disrupting quarantine “blahs.” The project was built by two puppet/art collectives, Milagros (New Orleans) and Poncili Creación (San Juan, PR), with help from local artists who are credited above. Repurposed materials found on the streets of the city comprise this mobile theater.
Member Felici Asteinza explains that in performance on the street, Reality Breaker inverses the expectation of an immersive environment to an immersive experience, shifting viewer’s perspectives. He quips that “color and ornamentation are catalysts for joy.” Eyeballs dangle, arms flap, and a massive jaw chomps happily. When asked about the group’s views on maximalism, Felici asserts the mantra that “more is more, less is lame.”
1. Jennings, Rebecca, “The New Maximalism: The Next Big Thing in Design is Overstuffed, Garish, and Glorious,” Vox 21 October 2020.
2. Katie A. Pfohl, “Q & A: Dawn DeDeaux Discusses her Forthcoming Retrospective,” NOMA New Orleans Museum of Art 26 May 2020.
Veronica Cross is a multi-disciplinary artist based in New Orleans. Her work can currently be viewed in Make America What America Must Become at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans and in The Healthy Artist at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, LA. She is slowly developing a poetic documentary film on St. Joseph’s altar traditions in New Orleans. www.veronicacross.com
Image at top: Collaboratives Milagros (Felici Asteinza and Joey Fillastre) and Poncili Creación (Efrain and Pablo Del Hiero), with Jessica Bizer, Jaime Bird, Luci Broom, Mu, Gabrielle Ledet, Dnae Brissonet, and Linsdsay Glatz, Reality Breaker, two views, 2006 Toyota minivan and mixed media, 2020 (image courtesy of the artists).