For Haiti, the apocalypse already happened. The 21st century has been a series of catastrophes, culminating in the January 12, 2010 earthquake that killed a quarter of a million people. The UCLA Fowler Museum’s “In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art” presents a helter-skelter, sunshine-and-noir take on the Caribbean island’s recent art. It’s one of the most original and powerful shows of a strong fall season in Los Angeles.
The Fowler has been collecting and presenting the art of Haiti throughout the museum’s existence. This exhibition follows up the much-praised “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” (1996). “In Extremis” debuts many new acquisitions. The greatest number come from one of the show’s organizers, Art Institute of Chicago scholar Marilyn Houlberg, who died this past June.
Vodou, along with Zen, is one of the few faiths with the power to interest the non-believer. With that comes absurd incomprehension, ranging from zombie thrillers to “voodoo economics.” (And “Zen” bottled tea.) Much of the art here depicts the Gede family of trickster-spirits or the more formidable Barons. These spirits represent both sex and death, envisioned in complementary opposition. Among the woman-chasing Baron Samedi’s boons to humanity is the decay of corpses—for decay prevents the creation of zombies, and the world knows worse fates than death.
The media of “In Extremis” span beaded flags, metal sculpture, assemblage, paintings, lightboxes, and video. There are even a couple of Basquiat paintings, apparently for the sake of a famous name. They’re outliers and won’t be what you remember this show for. An elaborate altar by Jean Robert Celestin (bottom of post) ends the exhibition.
The greatest revelation is unquestionably the Atis Rezistans, a group of sculptors in the Grand Rue, Port-au-Prince. The Grand Rue is the city’s great commercial street, devastated by the earthquake. A group of artists began welding sculptures out of debris, more or less in the vein of American “muffler men.” The works at the Fowler show the inventiveness of Picasso’s cast sculptures from junk. There are certainly parallels to California Assemblage, though the entropy is more deeply felt. Some of André Eugène’s spectral figures (top of post) dissolve, like a cartoon Tasmanian Devil, into a wiry swirl of motion lines.
A star piece of the 2011 Venice Biennale was a “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by Jean Hérard Céleur. This was a near-repetition of a 2006 sculptural trio now at the Fowler and, even better, the latter is a gift to the museum from Houlberg. Céleur considered the Fowler work his masterpiece. Three horrific stick figures are fashioned from motor-bike chassises and human skulls; one has an immense phallus. It’s said the figures represent AIDS, political oppression, and poverty. The mixed-media, politics, and rudeness recall Ed Kienholz. But Céleur’s vision is both more spontaneous and more truly sci-fi nightmarish. It is an emergent art that talks about what’s really important in life—and yes, that often comes down to sex and death.