Richard Misrach

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

John Devine

Richard Misrach, Untitled (New Orleans and the Gulf Coast), 2005; inkjet print, edition 3 of 5, printed 2010; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the artist; © Richard Misrach

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Richard Misrach, like many others, traveled around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast taking pictures. To mark the fifth anniversary of Katrina’s devastation, Misrach selected sixty-nine of the images he snapped between October and December of 2005 and assembled copies into five identical suites (plus an artist’s proof) of eight-by-eleven-inch inkjet prints. The suites have been given to five different museums: the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In recognition of the gift and to commemorate the catastrophe, the MFAH mounted Richard Misrach: After Katrina in early August; NOMA opened a roughly concurrent exhibition on August 29, the date of Katrina’s landfall.

Misrach’s photographs, taken with a four-megapixel pocket camera and employing a snapshot aesthetic, focus on the graffiti that residents painted on houses, cars and elsewhere after the storm. Installed along both sides of a hallway in single file except where punctuated by four-square grid arrangements, these images tell individual stories within an overall narrative arc, beginning with simple pleas for help and moving through warnings to looters, reports of losses of pets and people, material needs, reassurances, phone numbers for the missing to call, defiance (or bravado) against the storm, humor in such adversity, anger (at politicians, government agencies and insurance companies) and concerns with, as the graffiti in the penultimate picture puts it, “WHAT NOW?”

Misrach’s narrative arc climbs peaks and descends into valleys, sometimes in the same photo. Fairly early in the sequence there is this message: “DON’T TRY. I AM SLEEPING INSIDE WITH A BIG DOG, AN UGLY WOMAN, TWO SHOTGUNS AND A CLAW HAMMER” (there’s a blues song in there somewhere). Later, in a photo of a car atop a boat on a trailer, a sign, presumably from the boat owner, exhorts the car owner to remove the vehicle without crushing the boat; the humor we might find in this sign might be leveled by the boat owner’s expectation that the car owner is still in town—or alive. Still later in the sequence, the simple graffiti “Isaiah 26:3”—Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusts in thee—introduces a series of photos in which the writings express anxiety, frustration and anger with insurance companies, one home owner even writing his State Farm policy numbers on a board next to the sign “CALL ME!”

Misrach is best known for his magisterial Desert Cantos, an epic meditation on man’s encroachment on and depredation of nature, so it’s tempting to read his post-Katrina photos as nature’s revenge. But there’s little proselytizing here. Misrach is content to let the photos—and the graffiti—speak for themselves (though within his sequencing, of course). The sobering subtext to After Katrina is the evidence herein of the horror that followed Katrina’s landfall that first week in New Orleans when society broke down completely, and the struggles that continue all along the Gulf Coast since that society was—more or less—restored.

John Devine is a freelance critic based in Houston.

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