At first, Stephen Collier’s show, “The Pigeons in This Town Taste Like Shit,” looks like the worst kind of drug-addled sarcastic gallery show you might see on the Lower East Side, but here, in New Orleans, it works. Context is everything.
Wooden panels covered in a cartoony trompe-l’oeil cinderblock pattern are propped against walls and sitting on cinderblocks. Each work represents a tragicomic character composed of geometric doodles in primary colors: a sad vampire with bloodshot eyes, a topless woman wearing an industrial chain smile, a dude so apathetic the letters O-K frame his eyes—a pair of stoned sunny-side-up eggs.
Influenced by Thorstein Veblen’s book Theory of the Leisure Class, Collier assembles his pieces from the clichés that constitute the city in the public imagination: king cakes, theatrical masks, topless women, vampire television dramas, and—of course—lots of booze. Concrete casts of the famous Hand Grenade souvenir glasses from Tropical Isle haunt the show with their toxic neon green faces, reminiscent of Clemson frat boys on spring break.
In New York, these trickster characters would reek of the rich, faux-badass art bros who cropped up in the wake of Nate Lowman and Dash Snow, but New Orleans doesn’t have the money or the infrastructure of Lower Manhattan. Collier’s emulation of construction materials brings to mind the very real abandoned buildings and slab foundations still visible in the surrounding Upper Ninth Ward, not an imagined idea of a reckless urban bohemia.
Collier also pinpoints the Crescent City’s particular relationship to adornment, masquerade, and tourism that frames low culture as idiosyncrasy, not as irony. Let’s not forget that tourism accounts for a large chunk of the city’s income. New Orleans wears the tackiness of capital on its sleeve, as do Collier’s figures, which are, at bottom, hilarious and smart. These costumes and clichés that the city wears don’t evidence an escape from or a disguise of a purportedly real identity behind; they are part and parcel of everyday life, whether we admit it or not.