New Orleans: Between Heaven and Hell, a new history-based work by UK artist Robin Reynolds, will debut May 9 at The Historic New Orleans Collection to preview the institution’s upcoming exhibition Art of the City: Postmodern to Post-Katrina, presented by The Helis Foundation.
Between Heaven and Hell is the second in a series of Reynolds’s heavily-researched historical works linked to prominent events and anniversaries—this one commemorating the city's tricentennial. It has taken more than two years to complete, and it follows the artist’s 2016 panorama of London, which coincided with the 400-year anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.
The colored pen-and-ink work—measuring three feet by six feet—is a view of an American city, held aloft by parading figures from throughout its 300-year history.
“As a subject [New Orleans] was irresistible, but also overwhelming,” said Reynolds, who was drawn to the city’s character. “You hear people say, in conversation, ‘only in New Orleans,’ and you don’t have to be there long to see why. The history is almost impossibly rich in variety, and the characters, past and present, are endlessly entertaining.”
In character with the artist’s other works, Between Heaven and Hell celebrates the joy and eccentricities that have long defined New Orleans, while integrating the stories of the city’s painful past—from its central role in the domestic slave trade to the fires, plagues, wars and weather events through which it has survived.
Reynolds working on the drawingReynolds initiated the project in 2016, and Dr. Sarah Borealis, a New Orleans-based historian collaborated with THNOC’s reference staff for the research. In an accompanying interactive tool, created by the artist’s brother Simon Reynolds, visitors can pick their way through the work with the help of microhistories prepared by British writer Cathy Loughran. These will, in turn, lead visitors to objects and documents in THNOC’s holdings.
“I hope this will be like a treasure map,” said Borealis. “People will be able to understand, okay, this interesting story isn’t just something that came from a textbook. There’s a letter, there’s a series of correspondence, there are ephemera, a person’s physical objects—all are saved in this institution in the French Quarter, often right where these things happened."
Jan Gilbert, interdisciplinary artist and curator of the Art of the City, sees the work, with its interactive element, as a public art piece.
“I am a public artist, so I like the idea that this can be accessed from anywhere. You don’t have to be standing in the gallery to reap the richness of this. I’d like to think it’s going to bring people to New Orleans.”
The piece, which offers an outsider’s perspective on New Orleans, will remain on view until it appears in the full iteration of Art of the City. The exhibition comprises views of the city made by contemporary artists and is scheduled to open in fall 2018 when THNOC’s new exhibition center opens.