Throughout February, TEN Gallery is featuring the bright, colorful, and very personal show “Coming Home” by artist Kathy Rodriguez. The multi-media show features hard and soft sculpture, two (but technically five) installations, paintings of varying sizes, two small pencil and charcoal drawings, music, and two captivating interactive components.
Considering all the various ways Rodriguez chooses to share her homecoming story, the gallery is nicely populated but never crowded. In fact, the show itself leaves you wanting more in a very, very good way. It is one of those shows that you could walk through for hours and never become bored with.
Rodriguez puts a lot of herself into “Coming Home” and it makes sense when you know that many of the characters come from personal photos. Rodriguez was pursuing her Masters in Fine Art at the University of Montana beginning in August of 2005. If you are from New Orleans, or have spent any time talking to a New Orleanian, you know that this phrase “August of 2005” is a loaded one. At this point in a conversation, people who were not living in the city during The Storm either utter a sympathetic interjection, or find themselves speechless.
Rodriguez moved away to Montana about two weeks prior to the landfall of Katrina. Torn about whether to continue her studies, she soldiered on in the wilds of Missoula at her parents’ behest.
The process of taking stock hit Rodriguez hard. From cherished photos she began to re-create her Mardi Gras life. Characters in bunny suits inhabit her artistic world not as elements of the surreal, but as real-life memory. Thus began the translation she was forced to make, the spirit she was so compelled to render into reality for the Missoulians. When you call a show an “extravaganza” it had better damned well deliver. It had better have music and gold tassels and hospitality and magic and meaty delicacies and lemon lights. Rodriquez’s “Welcome to the Extravaganza” lived up to its name.
The young artist was a Mardi Gras Ambassador, offering New Orleans’ ultimate southern hospitality to the Big Sky country as only she might have. Drawing on the two place’s work hard/play hard commonalities, and a surprising shared affinity for parades, Rodriguez brought da’ funk and da’ noise of Carnival.
“Coming Home” realized this same intriguing sense of wonder. Upon entering the gallery, two tiny pencil and charcoal canvases immediately draw a viewer in. They sit quietly next to a bright, lemony pink bunny-suited girl like two little thought bubbles. In the top drawing, “Singing,” a harlequin-decorated box poises in the background of a warm, intimate scene between a giraffe-clad minstrel and a bunny-suited girl. The Pandora-like sphinx of a treasure trove offers itself as a sort of grab bag: looming, beckoning. Below “Singing” a particularly fetching baby elephant toddles, emerging out of the hazy clouds of memory. To the viewer’s joyous amazement, Rodriguez has fleshed out both the baby elephant and the snazzy “Plinko”-like grab box for our instant gratification.
Inside the mystery box are three big keys to the work: the best quality hard lemon candy money can buy; a mini-recorder of lullabies composed and recorded in low-fi by the artist’s musician brother, David Rodriguez; and a remote control that inflates the elephant. “Eat Me,” “Play Me,” “Blow Me Up.” If you know another artist who created an inflatable elephant for her one-woman show, please do comment below. If you don’t, then you should accept Rodriquez’s invitation whole-heartedly. When it comes to inventing some revelry out on the empty, barren plain of memory, Rodriquez proves that between “Welcome to the Extravaganza” and “Coming Home” she still has the innately New Orleansy skill of setting the carnival tone.
While Rodriguez unpacks the emotional baggage of coming home post-Katrina – she completed her degree and moved back home – we see her process, and literally see the boxes. They pile in corners and remind you possibly of the sense of permanency you may have lost with the storm. We are told that each generation experiences this phenomenon. The ‘Boomers had Betsy in 1965, and it serves as a testament to the dear-ness of the City that Care Forgot. It becomes a “use it or lose it” kind of scene in “Coming Home.” It acknowledges that the artist does indeed know what it means to miss New Orleans, even if the emotional baggage of coming back is painful and difficult.
The white buffalo that looms on the left gallery wall is a recent painting of an old friend to Rodriguez. He appeared in “Extravaganza” as a life-size cut-out and continues to translate between all of the artist’s worlds. Traditionally a bold message of peace and prosperity from the spiritual world to the physical world, the white bison is considered a Christ-like omen of hope in most Native American religious frameworks. Rodriguez’s original white buffalo was a huge cut-out, a “pagan” symbol that the Missoulians would have instantly related to. This ability to surpass religious boundaries is quite possibly the crux of the show’s success as much as it is the true spirit of Carnival.
The desire to see ourselves in others drives parade culture, unites rather than divides, and embraces in order to assimilate. What is striking about “Coming Home” is that it employs absolutely none of the traditional symbols of Mardi Gras, except for the telltale Harlequin print on the goody-box. Spoken in a unique visual language, the artist emerges genuine and the work a personal translation of the moveable feast that is Carnivale.