Mapping the Territory:
A Field Guide to Art in New Orleans

The expression “the map is not the territory” was coined here in New Orleans in 1931 by scholar Alfred Korzybski, scientist, philosopher, and pioneer of general semantics. Restated, the words representing a thing are not the thing itself. As ANTIGRAVITY’s new art columnist, I keep this in mind: Art writing is not the art.

 This column will be a map of the territory which includes artists, spaces, and events that constitute art in New Orleans. Art will exist without anyone engaging in commentary, but the art writer points out features of the terrain that you might not otherwise find. A monthly art column offers a time-sensitive X on the map.

Going to look at art is a healthy, inexpensive habit. Like any habit, art-viewing profits from repetition—to be better at it, one must see art on the regular. I’m not talking about opening crawls, I mean taking time to really look. But why look at art? What good comes of this habit?

 To quote George Saunders quoting Anton Chekhov, “art prepares us for tenderness.” And why write about art? I write about art not only to engage in and invite rigorous thought about it, but to participate in the tenderizing process. Art writing is more than a map and a calendar; it’s a field guide that helps a viewer slow down and look more closely. Tenderness takes time and attention.

 The map is dense. Louisiana Contemporary 2023 just closed at Ogden. A major Wangechi Mutu exhibition recently opened at NOMA. Photography exploring Black visual culture (Gestures of Refusal) is on view at the CAC. Shows are up on Julia Street, St. Claude, and galleries off the well-worn paths. Occasionally, new venues appear in the territory. Other Plans, a contemporary art gallery, just opened its doors in January.

 Other Plans is located on the north end of Tremé. One of the virtues of New Orleans for art enthusiasts is its accessibility. I sent a message requesting an appointment and met the gallery’s founder-director Emily Wilkerson the next day. The gallery is large, bright, and smells deliciously like new construction. We introduced ourselves, remarked on meeting another Emily, and the conversation was so pleasant I forgot to say I’d like to look around before hearing about the art, which is something I normally do. It was Emily who after a few minutes said, “I’ll leave you alone to look at the work.” I had missed the opportunity for an unmediated encounter. My bad.

Ana Hernandez’s wall-hanging paintings on cotton (Color of Clouds) have fringed edges and hang from a bar of painted wood. The presentation and the evidence of labor urged me to consider it “fiber art,” then to note the strangeness of that category. I had learned from Emily that the painted squares and triangles in the work were not mere abstraction, but words in a code the artist had created. If left to my own devices, I wondered, would I detect coded language? I wouldn’t. An interview with the artist, printed in elegant four-fold brochures revealed more conceptual underpinnings in the work. I asked myself, what can I experience just looking at the work in front of me? What is really necessary to know?

Six book-shaped objects, displayed together on a table, have grids scratched into the surface and marks that look like a message in code. Unlike the wall pieces, they don’t resemble anything functional or decorative. The dark and inscrutable objects look like they may have been unearthed in an X-File. They have a particular air of mystery.

I’m thinking about mystery as I write this. And I’m considering the work of Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, the second artist on view at Other Plans. Toussaint-Baptiste’s works in the show include two floor sculptures (broken instruments wrapped in cloth and rope), four objects made of dark silicone and saxophone parts, and a video. The video shows the artist in the empty gallery, playing then destroying a saxophone and an upright bass, banging them on the concrete floor, and finally wrapping them in the cloth where they remain on view.

It’s a mystery why a person would destroy instruments. There’s an explanation of course. The title of Toussaint-Baptiste’s show is Break Stuff and his interview with poet Kortney Morrow covers concepts of anger, sound, destruction, and liberation. There is historical precedent for breaking things as art. Still, it’s a mystery, and the mystery, I believe, is the point.

If we try to “understand” an artwork, we are rushing through the scenic part. There is this idea out there that the goal of looking at art is to extract meaning. Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said, “If you look for a meaning, you’ll miss everything that happens.” To me the goal of looking at art is to linger in the mystery of the question, “Why do humans make these things that are not necessary for survival?”

 We don’t need to “understand” an artwork, but we can cultivate curiosity about our reaction (or lack of reaction) to it. The map is not the territory, and the territory isn’t something I can explain. I write about art the way a field guide points out a plant in the forest but doesn’t tell you what the flower means. I write about art to demonstrate a practice of slowing down, staying receptive, and feeling at ease with the mystery of it.

Top photo: Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Gris-Gris 2
Photo courtesy Other Plans

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