“Nowhere Man”, National Review

Nowhere Man


This will be a boring review. The reasons for its being boring are, however, exceptionally good. The subject, Douglas Bourgeois, is an artist whose name will mean nothing to you, as it means nothing to most of the art establishment. Furthermore, you will have to take my work for everything I say about him, since the accompanying reproduction gives only the most insufficient sense of his diminutive dreamscapes. But the main reason I shall risk boring the reader is that I mean to praise Mr. Bourgeois very highly. And as any reviewer will tell you, it is a thousand times harder to engage attention with praise than with invective.

I should make it clear that I have not been paid off either by Mr. Bourgeois or by his representative, the Arthur Roger Gallery. Perhaps that did not even occur to you. It should have, since most of what passes for art criticism these days is bought and paid for by the galleries in one way or another and thus has about as much intellectual integrity as a bar commercial. If that seems reprehensible let me say in my colleagues’ defense that, given the art they usually deal with, I can think of no better, or indeed other, reason for their writing about it at all.

But Mr. Bourgeois is nothing like most other current artists. He is a serious, subtle man, the master of his materials and the possessor of a style and vision that tare unmistakably his own. When the degree of his excellence is measured against the degree of his obscurity, I believe you will agree that no other contemporary artist is more deserving of praise.

I have never met the man. I missed him recently at the opening of his first New York show, and since that was only the second time the 41-year-old has made it this far North and East, I’m afraid that we Northeasterners will not see him again soon. Bourgeois is no friend of flying and tends to stay put in St. Amant, a tiny town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where he lives with his parents in the house in which he was born. He has never visited Europe, and has never lived anywhere else except when he studied painting at the University of Louisiana.

On the telephone, Douglas Bourgeois comes across as the very quiddity of the Southern gentleman, softspoken and decorous by reflex and instinct. He does not repudiate the world of contemporary art, though he is quite certain it is not for him. “I’m sure it’s all very interesting,” he says, “but it’s too cerebral for me. I guess I’m looking for something with more heart in it.” One element of his art that allies him to his contemporaries however, is his taste for the “sublime d’en bas,” for the exotic nobility of the marginalized and the oppressed. The locus of his paintings is most often the cheap motel room or the railroad flat. His characters are disaffected transients, members of a Genet-esque underclass: a black man arrested by a white police officer, a young homosexual who has been beaten up by pug-nosed rowdies, a Vietnamese woman standing semi-naked on a stage. The rooms in which they eke out their lives are littered with hairsprays and deodorants, toothpastes, Q-tips and Barbisol cans, all accumulating in the mind to form a mood of almost suffocating banality. Accustomed as I have become to artists hawking their politics every chance they get, I wondered what this was all about. “There’s nothing really political here,” the artist reassured me. “I was just working out some of my inner demons, poking around with things that interested me. My art is not angry.” The white police officer, for example began life as a saintly apparition, but in midcourse the artist changed his mind and equipped him with the hat, holster, and gun you see now.

In fact, Bourgeois is not really interested in politics at all. His art is an aesthete’s challenge to an imperfect world. It is a challenge to us as well as himself to find any beauty, any nobility in that landscape of paltriness which he has rendered with such unflinching exactitude. If this can be done, if even such can be transfigured and reclaimed for beauty, then a kind of salvation has been achieved through art. This quest is in itself religious and naturally seeks to express itself in religious terms, even if they are not always recognizably orthodox. That Bourgeois was raised in the Roman Catholic Church is evident from the symbols that fill his works: the Madonna and Child and the Sacred Heart tattooed onto a chest or bicep, the Virgin and Saint Francis appearing as visions to slum tenants. Even where this religious sense is less explicit, it is present in, for example, the votive, iconic image of the singers Madonna and Aretha Franklin standing like guardian angels at the bedside of a wounded young man; or the nervous and repressed Emily Dickinson sitting with the Rapper Rakim in a desert island set in a sea of sulphurous, Pentecostal fire; or a totemic black woman, rising up like a chthonian goddess covered with caterpillars and moths.

If all this sounds more than a little overwrought, it is also typical of the supersaturated, empurpled gaudiness of Louisiana itself, a place where cultures collide: Bourbon France and the Founding Fathers, the Church Triumphant and the Voodoo cults of Africa, all fermenting together in the humid swamp lands. Douglas Bourgeois delights in this violent clash, and revels in his post-modern freedom to roam the world and the ages for anything that serves his art.

But if all this makes Bourgeois charming and fascinating, it is the wealth and the brilliance of detail that set these paintings apart from all other contemporary practice and place him, I feel, on a higher level of creativity. Though most contemporary art can be seen well enough through a telescope, anyone standing more than four inches from one of Mr. Bourgeois’ paintings, at least for part of his inspection, will miss half of its joy. So precise and so rich is his sense of detail that Bourgeois can produce at most six paintings in a year, or, by my calculation, about a square inch a day. Surely he is not unique among today”s artists in his affection for precise renderings of the real world: this has been in vogue for the past ten years or more. Rather it is the unerring choiceness and refinement of these details that set him apart.

Though modern art has been very good at conjuring life out of abstraction, its representation, especially in the last 15 years, have looked waxen, its details either insufficient or finically overworked. Douglas Bourgeois is able to reconcile the two tendencies in the way that the Old Masters were consistently able to do. Everything from wallpaper and bathtube to bedspreads and soiled clothes and the shimmering skin of Aretha Franklin is rendered with such scrupulous affection that I suspect we should have to look well to the other side of 1800, to artists like Gerrit Dout or Pietro Longhi, to see the like. Imagine a Jan Van Eyck depiction of a can of Barbisol and you will get some idea of what this art is about. Bourgeois is an animist for whom all objects in the visual world are endowed with a soul. As such, they are existentially equal, equally deserving of sympathy and love. It is this refusal to subordinate any one part of a composition to another-the usual practice of painters-that, I believe, imparts to his works their haunting, dreamlike, eidetic intensity.

Douglas Bourgeois is one of the rare artists alive today who deserve substantially better than they have gotten. Though all the paintings in his most recent show sold readily and at good prices, the exhibition received no coverage in the art press or any of the major newspapers. It was this injustice which, though it came as no surprise, compelled me to write in his behalf.