Prospect.1 New Orleans
Various sites, New Orleans
Through Jan. 18

These days it seems as if every city has a “biennial” of contemporary art, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Inspired by exhibitions long hosted in Venice and New York, dozens of up-and-coming world metropolises now play host to enormous free-for-alls that frequently “seem to be stocked by a standard jet set of curators, artists, collectors, and advisers.” The artworks often feel like cookie-cutter creations that merely reflect whatever’s popular in the art world. Now “New Orleans has joined the biennial rush,” but with an important difference. Prospect.1 was conceived not to showcase a rising city but to revitalize a ravaged one. Many local artists contributed, responding to the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina with site-specific works. “The result is something magical: a merging of art and city into a shifting, healing kaleidoscope.”

“The best thing about the show is the sprawl,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. There’s no central exhibit space, so seeing the works means traveling through the city. L.A. artist Mark Bradford’s Noah’s Ark is a house-size work patched together from plywood and covered with old posters. “The rugged, welcoming vessel stands three stories high in a sandy, weedy lot.” New Orleans native Victor Harris displays his staggeringly “intricate and savage” Mardi Gras costumes, while German Katharina Grosse has spray-painted a derelict house in colors “that suggest an inferno.” In another context, such works might seem sentimental. But New Orleans “is to other cities what a poem is to prose,” and the artists seem to recognize that they need to rise to the occasion.

In an art world that rewards cool postmodern posing, Prospect.1’s artists run the risk of being labeled “bleeding-heart believers,” said Walter Robinson in But a little honest emotion may be just what today’s art needs. “Maybe the most touching exhibit” here is Mrs. Sarah’s House by New Yorker Wangechi Mutu. A wood-frame outline of a house, decorated with light bulbs and containing a single chair, it’s dedicated to a local woman who saw her house washed away. Yet for every work here that emphasizes mere survival, there’s one like Fred Tomaselli’s 2004 Abductor, which hints at the creative energy great crises can unleash. In another place, the theme would seem like foolish optimism. But “in New Orleans, the jazz capital of the world, an elegy can be a joyful thing.”