I have lived in Louisiana for over a decade and have never been to its capital city. A few weeks ago, I got a message from Mat Keel and Liz Lessner at Yes We Cannibal, a gallery, artists residency, innovative art space and work-in-progress in Baton Rouge. Mat said that Tom Beller sent him and he was wondering if I was interested in writing about the current exhibition. I missed that particular show, but a few weeks later decided to go check out the art scene in Baton Rouge. I called Adam and we made a date to make the roughly two-hour drive.
1. Are We There Yet?
Adam picked me up and we set out for Baton Rouge. I read aloud from Jerry Saltz’s newest book, “How to Be an Artist,” a book that aims to help artists or people who want to be artists navigate some of the psycho-emotional road blocks one encounters on that path. About an hour into the drive I looked around. “This makes the New York State Thruway look picturesque.” The I-10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is not the most interesting stretch of American interstate. Still, it felt good on a weekday to be leaving New Orleans with the purpose of seeing art in unfamiliar spaces.
2. Loren and LSU Museum of Art
We drove through downtown and parked a few blocks from the LSU Museum of Art (LSUMOA), which opened at 11. We paused outside some glass double doors beyond which was clearly an art space. Was this the museum? The hours posted on the door were 12 -5, but there were people inside and the door was unlocked. A woman broke away from a small group on one side of the gallery and came toward us. I knew this woman, Loren, an artist I had met many years ago in New Orleans. She explained that they were doing a thesis defense and could we return in an hour. I quickly jotted down my number and we promised to be in touch. People say, “It’s a small world,” but it isn’t. It’s a big world and these connections make it feel cozy.
Once inside the multi-use art building, it took a few minutes to find the museum, which was on the second floor. The elevator doors opened revealing a long, horizontal window, showcasing the Mississippi River below. The reception desk ran the length of the window and the attendant told us that the space made a clockwise circuit starting to the right. I was trying to figure out, without taking any pamphlets, if we were looking at a curated show or a collection of works. Everyone has their own way of approaching art. Mine includes a willingness, a desire even, to be disoriented. That disorientation can extend to the space as well. I like the white cube, the ubiquitous, street level box of a space designed to display art, free of external distractions, but sometimes the errand of looking at art will give you access to unique spaces and that is its own discovery. The window overlooking the river made an impression on me as did an inexplicably empty gallery a few rooms in. Looking at art is about a posture of receptivity, not about keeping your attention within predetermined frames.
As for the artwork, I spent the most time at LSYMOA looking at Julie Heffernan’s painting, Camp Bedlam and Adam’s favorite was Eugene James Martin’s The Enlightened Nose.
3. Yes We Cannibal
As we were walking back to the car I sent a message to Liz that we were on our way to Yes We Cannibal (YWC). It was a scant five-minute drive from the museum, just across the railroad tracks. We passed the address and turned around on a side street that resembled country: big trees, overgrown lawns and scattered houses deep in the lots.
We parked the car and went inside. A woman wearing latex gloves was arranging objects on the floor in a circle. We introduced ourselves. Erin Woodbrey from Provincetown, Massachusetts was the current artist-in-residence and was setting up her exhibition which opened the coming weekend. Mat and Liz joined us a few minutes later then gave Adam and I a tour of the space in back of the gallery, which included a kitchen, a secret garden in the form of an overgrown, a reading room, a studio, and a residence for visiting artists. I liked catching the space this way, in progress and between events. Adam and I talked at length to Liz and Mat, discovering where we had lived in the past, what brought us to this region, who we knew in common, and how we could cross paths again in the future. When we left YWC my mind was full and I could have called it a day, but we had one more stop.
4. Elsie’s Plate and Pie
Make that two more stops; before the last art venue on our list we stopped at Elsie’s Plate and Pie, a small restaurant nearby that Mat and Liz had recommended. If you must know, Adam had a crawfish melt sandwich and I ordered a salad with blue cheese. We ate in the car and the food was good.
5. Baton Rouge Gallery Center for Contemporary Art
Two New Orleans artists, Mary Jane Parker and Alex Podesta, had work at The Baton Rouge Center for Contemporary Art. This space is not nestled in the concrete of downtown and wasn’t a gritty warehouse district conversion as I had imagined. The pretty yellow building is situated in a park. (The structure was built as a pool house in 1927 and closed in 1963 after the Swim-in protecting its policy of segregation.) As for a contemporary art space, it’s tricky. When a space is not a white cube, not a sweat-equity spruce-up, when it’s sporting signals of colonial architecture, in some subtle way, I can find myself under-prepared for an encounter with contemporary art.
Contemporary art is a loaded term covering more than the idea that the work was made recently. It implies that the work engages in an ever-evolving dialogue that has no home base. It encourages certain expectations that reside within the work and within the venue. It was a warm, lazy southern afternoon, the morning had been full of conversation and the green, green park seemed to dull my mind and senses. I would fall asleep in the passenger seat on the way back. (Sorry, Adam.)
New Orleans is a flatland, really, really flat. Leaving Baton Rouge, I got to see hills, slight but there. I grew sleepy thinking of other places. New geographical terrain is a side benefit of regional art travel.
By now you know that this trip (and this column) was not about artwork. Art is is way of organizing one’s time, one’s geography, and one’s thinking. It’s a map for exploring your city, region, or world. According to Self-Determination theory, one of our basic needs as humans is to feel connected to others. Art is a conduit for connection, a network that links institutions, start-ups, pop-ups and people worth knowing. Anyone can find connection in it and anyone can belong.