By Roger Green, ARTnews
Voodoo traditions and New Orleans’ strongly Roman Catholic heritage go some way toward explaining the city’s bizarre emotional energy. New Orleanians, while they love earthly excesses-witness Mardi Gras-also lead exotic spiritual lives. The Visionary Imagists, a group of younger Louisiana painters and sculptors, are currently expressing this spirituality in meticulous figurative works whose subjects range from God to ecological crisis. Their “visions” are recorded in a style that is both fantastical and humorous.
The outstanding talent in the group is 39-year-old Douglas Bourgeois, whose paintings and painted shadowbox-like constructions are minor miracles lf a fastidious realist technique. He manages to make moralizing, quasi-religious themes persuasive and approachable. Bourgeois is a slight, soft-spoken man. He paints slowly and carefully with gem-bright colors, re-creating the textures of drapery, skin and metal with glistening immediacy. The technique works as well for his witty portraits of rock and movie stars as it does for the Elysian landscapes and the pictures of ordinary people overcoming adversities. All express what Bourgeois calls his “personal search for the ineffable.
Bourgeois’ celebrity subjects include Elvis Presley, Frances Farmer, and Montgomery Clift-all of them, he explains, victimize heroes. A newly completed shadowbox that resembles an altarpiece or perhaps a reliquary is Bourgeois’ homage to Aretha Franklin. Mystical Aretha juxtaposes a detailed likeness of the singer with a pink satin cross on which a copy of one of her records has been crucified. In these works Bourgeois cleverly equates film and recording stars with the saints he was encouraged to emulate in parochial high school. “Both are searching for some higher satisfaction,” he says, “a transcendent goal or existence.”
It is a theme that runs through much of Bourgeois’ work. A recent gouache, Restored, is the “physical image of mental transcendence,” the artist says, somewhat mysteriously. At the left of Restored, a kind of before and after picture, is a winged male figure, bruised, shackled, and with his wings clipped, sitting in a prison cell. At the right the same figure, spiritually reinvigorated, is floating through a starry sky. Restored and pictures like it were inspired by friends who have been transforming themselves lately. “A lot of people my age are going through changes and are rearranging their lives,” says Bourgeois. “They’ve stopped drinking and doing drugs. They’ve gotten into therapy and are working hard at their jobs.”
Bourgeois himself has been making changes in his life. The Visionary Imagists’ concern for the environment recently prompted him to move out of New Orleans, where he had lived for many years and where he is still represented by the Arthur Roger Gallery, and to return to his birthplace in rural Ascension Parish, southeast of Baton Rouge. “I like it here,” he says about the sparely furnished studio where he works with only the cable television to distract him. “It’s a little haven.”