Within a window on a quiet street in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, Michele Basta-Smith has produced a powerful installation that reaches deep into the spectator’s subconscious mind and creates an arresting fascination that lingers long after he has walked away. It is part of the installation series fittingly titled: “Haunts of Strange and Far Places.” It is a captivating work of art that drew me back to visit it five times in my travels. Here is the artist’s portrait of the full tableau:
The work creates a whole from Basta-Smith’s recent output, including the charcoal floor, the central sculpture, “Companion,” and the illuminated background “Love Letter 1 - 8.”
The floor consists of charcoal drawings simultaneously evoking a surreal sea-scene and cave painting. An octopus, insects, ancient boats, and flying dragons are roughly drawn upon the space. It looks like a message from a distant human relative that either hasn’t acquired or has, perhaps, abandoned language. I didn’t get a very good picture of it, so here is a picture from the artist’s website that captures an earlier use of the same space:
A pedestal rises from this ground, dried paint evoking water flowing off of it, and the sculpture “Companion” stands. This chimera contains human, dog, and reptile features. I’m not sure how the body was constructed, but the skin was definitely executed with encaustic on top of something else, papier-mache maybe. Photography doesn’t do much justice to the work, which first draws you in through the expressive eyes of the animal portion, and then into the human’s distant gaze, and at last the tortured imaginative physicality of the sculpture as a whole. Here is the best I could do, in terms of the order of vision that drew me into the piece:
The background components, Love Letter 1 -8, are panels of wood, fiberglass and resin frames containing panels locking vegetables, fruit, flowers and cuttlefish in resin, and then illuminating them from behind, creating a ghostly effect of life trapped in amber.
The installation, taken as a whole, evokes a powerful meditation on life forms, and the life force within them. The chimera’s animal eyes are warm and compassionate, while the human appears shocked, dazed or vacant. The body of Companion, viewed from different vantage points, shows an accurate portrayal of the component anatomies fused together. This establishes readings that include the depiction of a moment within a long process of transformation captured in time; a comment on the co-dependent relationship of man and beast; or merely a surreal and disturbing vision that reminds the viewer of man’s underlying animal status. The panels and floor capture life in a way that taps into distant sense memory, evokes something we don’t remember with our civilized mind, but recognize deep within our animal one. Basta-Smith succeeds in creating ghostly, beautiful, and surreal figures that look like they inhabit a post-human spirit world.
Basta-Smith is making some very interesting art that is worth examination. Please go check out her website, the rest is equally striking. If you live there go see it. This art is worth your time. It will surely be in a museum one day, so see it now before it is a legend.
“Haunts of Strange and Far Places” is located at 3214 Burgundy Street.