On ViewVenus Over Manhattan
October 7 – November 6, 2020
Isn’t power a drag? Isn’t it a show, a performance replete with costumes and character roles and play-acted identities? The artist Andrew LaMar Hopkins has mastered this strange dance between power, performance, and play. At his exhibition Creólité, Hopkins’s paintings present the upper crust of antebellum Creole America in resplendent tableaux coded with a drag sensibility.
Many of Hopkins’s paintings trace his family’s legacy in 18th and 19th century New Orleans. Hopkins is a descendant of Nicolas Baudin, a French emigrant who received a Louisiana land grant in 1710. Baudin was part of the Creole society that defined much of the Gulf Coast’s French-inflected look and feel—its wrought-iron architecture, its ornate and symbolic furniture, its aristocratic cuisine (compared to Cajun, its peasant complement), and its vibrant street life. Hopkins portrays Creole society as a multiracial alternative to the United States. Creólité is a modern literary movement that understands Creole identity as a “mental envelope” of various African, European, and Indigenous perspectives. “Creole,” for example, isn’t historically a racial term—it referred to anyone born in the French Louisiana Territory—and antebellum Creole culture had less rigid racial hierarchies than the United States did. By 1830, free Creoles of color collectively owned $15 million worth of property in New Orleans. Still, don’t call this utopia: many free Creoles of color also owned slaves.
Hopkins’s subjects are both white and of color, and he sets them within deeply researched settings that restore a sense of Creole majesty. In addition to the artist’s ancestors, famous Creoles like the Haitian revolutionary François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, voodoo icon Marie Laveau, and preeminent naturalist John James Audubon appear in lush, faux-naïve settings. The Tomb of America’s first Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe in Creole New Orleans (2019), a painting of the man who designed many of New Orlean’s most iconic buildings, resembles a mourning sampler—Americana textiles that honor the dearly departed.
But Hopkins does more than dredge up a rich culture mostly forgotten after the Civil War—he stages its richness and complexity and cultural heterogeneity as a Rabelaisian masquerade ball. In several glossy paintings on canvas board, various dandies pose with canes and cloaks among orange trees, neoclassical furniture, society portraits, and even, in Gabriel Aime at le Petit Versailles (2019), Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi. The two most overtly homoerotic paintings are hung in prime spots above the gallery brownstone’s fireplaces, while nearby, a portrait of a stately elegant white woman among chinoiserie is rendered with less elegance than the beefcakes. Hung intimately between the two rooms is a 2019 self-portrait of Hopkins’s drag alter ego, Désirée Joséphine Duplantier, a high-class grand dame of the New Orleans well-to-do.
For Hopkins, the creólité mythos allows for the breakdown of all sorts of colonial-imposed dynamics, whether racial, gendered, sexual, or classist. Hopkins is often compared to folk painters like Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin, but in this sense he’s also akin to Florine Stettheimer, who depicted high society with similar theatrics, and to the subversive history painter Kent Monkman, who provides an Indigenous and gender-bending perspective of American colonialism. In Creólité Hopkins both revivifies a vanished culture and illuminates the performative mechanics of our present upper class. In fact, there’s probably no better place than an Upper East Side brownstone to view these paintings. Here, Hopkins’s folk aesthetic, garbed in high drag, provides carnivalesque alternatives to this rarified gentility.