Dapper Bruce Lafitte at Fierman Gallery

KINGPIN OF THE ANTPIN
ARTWORK BY DAPPER BRUCE LAFITTE
MARCH 24th – APRIL 30th, 2017

           Dapper Bruce Lafitte. Do Not Go To The Superdome. 2017. Archival Ink on Acid Free
           Paper. 18" x 24".

“Kingpin of the Antpin” is an exhibition of drawings by New Orleans-based artist Dapper Bruce Lafitte. In this solo show of new work, Lafitte depicts the challenges of living in this significant southern city such as the socio-political consequences left by Hurricane Katrina.  In previous years from 2006 through 2015, the artist had been known as Bruce Davenport, Jr., and had concentrated on what he referred to as “the culture,” portraying the vibrant street life of New Orleans with its high school marching bands and Mardi Gras participants dressed as Indians. In his recent efforts, generally designated as “the history,” Lafitte focuses on the effects that are still unwinding from the hurricane, in a series of smallish drawings made with archival ink. The political thinking in the show, titled “Kingpin of the Antpin,” is highly sophisticated even if the work is not. Lafitte makes a real effort to portray the living realities of a class not usually visible either in real life or in contemporary art. Determining whether his technical skills are sufficient to do so is moot, given the ethical importance of the difficult reality he portrays.

The raw art that Lafitte practices, rendered in ink and marker, becomes particularly moving in light of the awareness that the events he is painting are entirely real. The drawings enact a rough historicism, which makes their seeming naiveté that much more powerful. Lafitte’s style mimics that of children; its perspective is simple and its portrayal of people untutored. Even so, technical constraints do not pose an obstacle undermining Lafitte’s purpose: the discussion of the poor, almost entirely black, who are displaced by the hurricane and who are treated in an openly military fashion by the state. 

In Lafitte’s case, the reading he proposes seems accurate and clear. In the 2017 work, “Do Not Go To The Superdome,” crowds of people, mostly wearing white shirts, are shown walking up stairs leading to six doors that open to the stadium. Simplistic in its rendering, the work nonetheless possesses real feeling. In all of his drawings, Lafitte also adds written tags, in pen or marker, that comment on the scene—here, for example: ”IM NO SAINTS FAN,” “NO ROOM IN THE DOME FOR NOBODY,” and “HURRICANE KATRINA YOU SO JIVE.” These bits of writing contextualize the image by constructing an atmosphere, often both elegiac and angry, within which the visuals function. 

Herded into large crowds, installed in huge public sites like the city’s Super Dome, the unhoused multitudes appear to be anonymous in their suffering. But the truth is that suffering is never impersonal but always particular—ask anyone in a harsh predicament! Lafitte comes from the culture he is drawing, and so he has a sympathy born from a genuine connection to his subject. His simple technique has the effect of underscoring the suffering he shows. Of course, art is always a mediation of experience, and is not the reality it is derived from. Instead, it proposes a version of events sometimes close to, and sometimes far away from, what truly happened.

 

          Dapper Bruce Lafitte. Walking From New Orleans. 2017. Archival Ink on Acid Free Paper.
          18" x 24".

In “Walking from New Orleans,” a work done this year, the artist presents scores of people, dressed in white, walking away from the city on the highway and grass shoulder next to it. A row of differently colored cars flanks the edge of the shoulder in the middle of the composition. On the grass, in marker, are written memorials for persons unknown to an outside audience: “RIP MRS. PAT GREEN,” “RIP UNCLE RED.” The sentence alongside these memorials lays out Lafitte’s feelings: “It was as nobody was a race when Katrina came to town. Everybody was a human being.”

 

           Dapper Bruce Lafitte. My First Time Seeing A M-16. 2017. Archival Ink on Acid Free Paper. 18" x 24"

           Dapper Bruce Lafitte. My First Time Seeing A M-16. 2017. Archival Ink on Acid Free Paper. 18" x 24"

The above assertion is likely the heart of Lafitte’s message: in the midst of harsh circumstances, there is no difference between race and class. But by extension, of course, this means that there is never a difference between race and class, unless it is imposed by authorities. The soldiers portrayed in the work “My First Time Seeing an M-16,” for instance, wear green fatigues and carry rifles.  They direct the traffic of the homeless as the latter make their way to the convention center’s entrance in complicated patterns of two-by-two files. The streets are gray; the convention walls are orange with a gray roof partially covered with written comments; and there is a strip of bright green grass on the right, where the television crews are stationed. A yellow truck and blue sedan enliven the gray at the bottom of the image. One can’t tell whether those proceeding to the convention are prisoners or victims—this is surely a conscious social comment made by the artist. 

These works might be characterized as naïve or outsider art, but in fact they are something else: untaught but powerful historical presentations of a culture dominated by poverty and overwhelmed by natural forces.  In general, Lafitte makes known the predicament of the dispossessed through these urban scenes that show the effects of water on the streets, along with pictures of the poor leaving the city, watched over by national guardsmen who hold automatic rifles.  While Hurricane Katrina was beyond everyone’s control, inevitably it came down hardest on the disadvantaged. Lafitte’s colorful drawings keep alive the awareness that the marginal matters, consisting as it does of real people whose suffering counts.

Jonathan Goodman, New York