Douglas Bourgeois: Psychedelic Southern Gothic
By Micheal Knowlton, JAXTAPOZ
Douglas Bourgeois, both magician and mechanic, deconstructs and reconfigures reality as a hermetic and skewed detail-packed world. He is an artist of these times, this country, and, specifically, New Orleans. Every object has its own life and is essential to the theme of each canvas; at work are dialects: the struggle between classical and naïve, the tension between religion and pop culture, and the clash between nature and progress. There is a feeling for the sanctity of life and a respect for the dignity of man, coupled with a look at a darker, seamier human race refracted through a distinctly Southern gothic warp.Bourgeois mines the autobiographical; paintings refer to 1950’s boyhood and schoolmates in rural Louisiana where he grew up the son of a sign painter and barber. Painting on wood panel with oils, he venerates music culture from the 50’s on, portraying legends famous to obscure. Bourgeois has painted Elvis, but sticks with mostly black musicians—Little Eva, Bootsy Collins, Nat Cole, Aretha Franklin, Martha Reeves, and the Vandellas, Florence Ballard, Rakim Allah, and Ronnie Spector are his domain. These music paintings resonate with an authenticity that is not affected. Bourgeois is telling their story.
Each painting has a theme that emerges from the culminate clues. Packing interiors top to bottom with sumptuous textures, patterns, colors, and reflections, Bourgeois persuades the viewer that the space they see is utterly believable by using framing devices such as baroque bordering and stages, which themselves offer metaphoric possibilities and show his extraordinary detaining technique. Other times he turns from the 3D effects of deep space to painting on a flat grid, tweaking the space by painting collages using cameos and overlays and mimicking torn-looking borders. He leaps at the minutia of parquet or linoleum floors and patterned fabric with obvious relish. It’s no surprise that he is influenced by Indian and Persian miniatures and has paid homage to them in Spin, Salt-N-Pepa.
One tug of war taking place within monumental, if smallish, paintings is a dialogue between hyperrealism and Southern naïve folk art. The viewer notices that each object has a small outline and leaves no shadow in the space in inhabits. All the shadowing exists solely on the objects themselves, bringing to mind Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and giving the work an ethereal and airless quality. Then the content: a transcendent reality of confounded physics, biology, and religion—a “metarealism.” Combined with an astonishing authority of technique, the net effect is positively psychedelic.
This hallucinatory style finds a home in Double Luck, an Easter egg hunt of letters, alarm clocks, toys, candy, cigarettes, oilcans, persimmons, records, and china. There is a meticulous and convincing detail in texture, modeling, reflection, rust, and smudges that is at odds with a lack of shadow that would occur in the overlapping objects. It becomes a painted collage and a conceptual coup. Bourgeois has staked out a claim in style that is serving him well.
Without pandering to the clichés of New Orleans’ tourist art, Bourgeois burrows deep into the regional psyche. The Southern melting pot demographic is represented in his group portraits. The faces of high school students in Lacrima Cristi High Seniors are masterful and hilarious, looking like Robert Crumb’s best pen and ink portraits and paintings. Bourgeois says, “I love the way they let show hair grow long without styling it back then. It had a mind on its own.”Another cabaret theme painting is Scapegoat Cabaret, where three single parent/child pairs perform in a high stakes talent show while chained by their ankles to a dungeon wall next to an obscured slave auctioneer who stands behind a table covered with implements of torture. A small jacket with the face of David Duke fronts the stage. This painting refers to the gubernatorial election between Edwin Edwards, now in jail, and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, who also went to jail for bilking supporters. During the election, Duke denigrated single mothers for having babies in order to get bigger welfare checks.
A harrowing frozen moment titled Mistaken Identity presents a white policeman drawing down on a nude black man shaving the in bathroom. The man is naked in every way—besides his clothes on the floor, there is an inventory of his every intimate commercial hygienic product, from Roscoe styling gel to Vaseline. Attention then fixes on the rest of the bathroom in the way that a trauma can force time to a halt and cause a memorization of minute details. Every rust spot is perfect on the tile, the radiator, and under the sink, as the details suck the air out of the room and compress the moment that teeters in flux.
In Out of Here, acrid factory smoke cuts across a starry night sky as a cab waits, its skewed headlights shining in the window of a bedroom in shambles. Taking stock of details reveals a woman, beaten and bruised on every limb, pulling on pants to gather her three kids and get away from the rest of the mess. Other still life items include Miller, Bud, Wild Turkey, a broken lamp, a phone off the hook, and a rifle behind the bed and out of its case. The urgency in compounded by a shoebox full of paper money. The tense paw-chewing moment is as surely pregnant as the mother herself.
Louisiana born Bourgeois resides in St. Amant in Ascension Parish where his family has lived for generations. The Cajun, Catholic, and African mix in Louisiana spawned a culture that is persuasively the richest in America. Bourgeois recalls that as a young boy, “I remember hearing Fats Domino and Irma Thomas on jukeboxes, which would be at wedding receptions. I remember when Fats Domino when playing at a club in Ascension Parish and there were cars parked all the way past my house. For a rural area, it was [an] exciting moment”
An altar boy and almost a student of the priesthood, Bourgeois’ early memories include annunciation paintings, with the magic of an angel appearing to mortals. In school, the nuns gave him his first encouragement to paint. At the same time, there was an indelible impression of the King, Elvis Presley. Along came Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. On TV there was American Bandstand and Soul Train. Then musical history accelerated—in quick succession came Motown, girl groups, the British invasion, Bob Dylan, and protest songs. All of these had a profound effect on the young boy who attended Catholic school and was seminary-bound until his senior year, at which point he decided against the priesthood and transferred to public high school. This moment was liberating for young Bourgeois, taking place in 1968 at the apex of flower power.
In the 70’s, Bourgeois lived in New Orleans and was later allied with the Visionary Imagists, who were associated with the Galerie Jules LaForgue in the city’s French Quarter. His work from this period had the naïve clunkiness of Howard Finster, but over the years had steadily moved toward a more classical realism, which only has enhanced his work. The border of Daily Cross is a feat of painting, opening to multiple panels showing Mary holding a dead Jesus next to Tupac Shakur’s mother holding a picture of her dead son. In another panel a butterfly bets blasted in the air.
Bourgeois, a polite man, has a soft and musical Southern draw, and is articulate but doesn’t waste words. For an artist who, in his early career, received national distinction as one of 10 chosen for the prestigious Awards in the Visual Arts Fellowship grant, Bourgeois exudes a genuine humility. The grant allowed him to move to a recycled shotgun shack onto his family property, setting it in the subtropical garden festooned with magnolias, ball cypress, palmettos, bananas, ginger, muscadine, and possum haw holly. An avid gardener, Bourgeois’ love affair for flora and fauna along the Mississippi River is strong. The natural beauty of the area is under constant threat because the river is also a petrochemical corridor. This dynamic of man versus nature is a recurring theme in Bourgeois’ paintings.
The artist’s garden took a minor beating from Katrina, mostly just debris cleanup. Says Bourgeois, “Ascension Parish is about 70 miles upriver from New Orleans so we weren’t hit as hard. My home and studio were OK, no leaks or flooding. I lost a pine and a few smaller trees but it was a dry storm.” Like everyone, he lost electricity, and food was scarce because the population of the area doubled, at times tripled, with hurricane refugees passing through. Bourgeois relayed messages, becoming an informal switchboard for people seeking relatives, using both phone and internet. “All my artists friends in New Orleans had a hard time and there is still a lot of grief and loss to deal with.”
Without preaching, Bourgeois reveals affection for ordinary people, exalting the underdog. Anyone living in the South today is aware of evidence of the past; there are slave quarter buildings with shackle posts and other signs of Southern history that still exist today. And while that time has passed, there is a residual legacy that Bourgeois’ sleight-of-hand realism and storytelling gifts help us to understand and transcend.