Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What I See

This is a sketch I did in colored pencil of a sculpture I spotted at the R. Grey Gallery on First Thursday. (I think I'll have to go back to sketching in pastels, as they seem to have scanned better; the only things I was really trying to capture here were the colors and the general shape of the markings, and most of the color was lost in the scan.) I thought the sculpture, cryptically named "Markings No. 3-X," could have been a few different things:

A new variation on crop circles.
An artistic treatise on tagger graffiti.
Deconstructing the Russkies: A Biography of a CIA Codebreaker in Mixed Media.

In fact, it was one of Thomas Mann's sculptures for his installation "Storm Cycle," which depicts the chaos of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina using photos and pieces of debris left by the storm. This particular piece illustrates the home inspection process in the weeks following the hurricane. Teams of contractors went from home to home, checking for damage and for bodies. When they completed the inspection, they spray-painted a large X on the side of the house. In one quadrant of the X they sprayed their initials; in another quadrant they sprayed the date; and in the other quadrants they noted whether bodies or pets were in the house.

The odd markings intrigued Mann, especially since they were often made in bright colors that set off the equally brightly painted homes of New Orleans.

Mann constructed his piece using five wooden boards painted a vivid green to replicate wooden siding. He used yellow spray paint to draw an X across the siding and partial markings in each quadrant. Then he mounted a compilation of eight photos he took of actual homes with these markings, and of the contractors making them, on the lower half of the sculpture and a miniature metal sculpture of one of the markings on the upper half of the sculpture.

Each piece in the installation had a miniature sculpture mounted in the top half, which serves as a small symbol of the larger piece. These miniature sculptures in particular are professionally done; there are excellent carvings of animals in pieces about the pets that were left behind in Katrina, and a lovely miniature replica of an angel Mann discovered in a destroyed church building. The larger pieces were hit and miss sometimes, but mostly hit -- I loved the colors in Markings, and I loved the blinking lights and frayed wires in "Power Down," a piece about the extended power outages in New Orleans. (I found a piece about the blue tarps used on buildings with damaged roofs less visually interesting, even though the story behind it was kind of interesting).

The use of actual debris added another layer to the experience. I recall one sculpture that was mounted on a piece of dirt-covered laminate cut from a countertop, to illustrate the grit that Katrina left everywhere. Using MREs and instant Taster's Choice packets added another layer to the visceral blue-tinted photos of crying men and women crowded in the Convention Center after the Superdome filled up in "Stranded."

But what really makes these pieces is not the art itself -- as good as the art often is -- but the combination of art and good storytelling. The sculptures each come with a long explanation of the meaning of the piece and the larger context in terms of the damage done by the hurricane and by delayed or inadequate relief efforts. It's part journalism, part diary entry. Each piece is a little slice of post-Katrina life.

Some of the best pieces contain both journalistic style records and personal tales. The written entry for "Power Down" talked about how folks had to use their own generators to rebuild so they could operate power tools, charge cell phones and cook dinner. Mann wrote about lending a generator to a friend who was still using it five months later -- power still had not been restored, and one major power provider, Entergy Corp., declared bankruptcy because so many of its poles, lines and transformer substations had been destroyed. Even a month without power was devastating, Mann wrote: "A month after the power goes down, your refrigerator has passed the science experiment phase and has entered the demonic wormhole arena."

Some pieces expose corruption and incompetence. The blue tarp piece talked about the inferior quality of the tarps used by FEMA contractors, which were destroyed when Hurricane Rita came through right after Katrina.

Some pieces shed light on daily acts of heroism and of individuals making the best of this new world. Through Mann's storytelling, we meet a dog called Wall Street and the woman who saw to it that he was fed every day; an artist named Chris Cressione who had covered his car with other people's refrigerator magnets; and a hero, Paul Guerra, who drove stranded neighbors to the Superdome in his 7-ton truck and later drove them from the Superdome to the airport.

There's less than two dozen pieces in "Storm Cycle," but give yourself plenty of time if you go to see it. You'll want to read every word.

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