Catalogue Essay: Douglas Bourgeois at Arthur Roger Gallery, January 1994
Douglas Bourgeois grew up Catholic in a rural hamlet in southeast Louisiana. Born in 1951, he attended a parochial elementary school where he served as an altar boy, and in his teens enrolled in a training facility for future priests. Today, Bourgeois is not a churchgoer and eschews organized religion. Yet, the Church with its complex and mysterious tradition, ceremonies, symbols and iconography remains a pervasive influence on Bourgeois’ art, as on the culture which nurtures it. Indeed, living in St. Amant in Ascension Parish, Catholicism is literally part of the landscape.
Catholic school children of the 1950s did not have to wait for the arrival of the French Structuralists for an introduction to the concepts of “sign” and “symbol.” At the tender age of 7, candidates for First Holy Communion were taught to distinguish a sign and a symbol. A sacrament, they learned, is a sign that effects what it signifies; it does not simply stand for something else, it is something else. Thus, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not symbolic, but real.
As an altar boy assisting the priest in sacramental rites, Bourgeois would have gained a special understanding of how a supernatural reality might be reached through material means. In the sacraments, ordinary things like oil, water, bread and wine are transformed and made transcendent.
We see a similar transformation of ordinary things in the art of Douglas Bourgeois. In his small gem-bright paintings, marginalized disaffected people living in squalor are visited by saints, and the detritus of mass-consumerism – beer cans, cigarette packs, and the like – are transformed into objects of beauty. For Bourgeois, the act of painting is like the act of consecration; through it occurs a form of aesthetic transubstantiation. The impure objects of the visual world remain the same, but it is as if their essence were transformed – made radiant – through their loving depiction.
Bourgeois” quest for anima in the banal, for the transfiguration of objects in an imperfect world, is, at heart, a religious one. Yet, his stance, being extra ecclesiasm, renders ironic his employment of the conventions and iconography of orthodox religious art.
Bourgeois once confessed his early confusion or transference of the personae of the hagiographies he was assigned in school, and those of the pop star bios he read is always a fine coincidence of sainthood and celebrity – the secular, Show Biz equivalent of canonization.
While Bourgeois sometimes employs iconographically orthodox renderings of religious figures (The Infant Jesus of Prague, The Virgin Mother, St. Anthony), he more often depicts elevated, saintly visions of the starts of the entertainment world. Aptly, the vocabulary employed to identify celebrities is often quasi-religious; these are “idols” and “goddesses” said to be “worshiped” by their fans. Furthermore, there are the “cult figures,” venerated all the more for their obscurity, the “martyrs,” who, owing to their preternatural sensitivity and/or rebelliousness, died young, thus achieving immortality.
Pseudo-religious personages appearing in Bourgeois” paintings include Elvis Presley, a hillbilly saint known as “The King,” and Madonna, a singing sybarite named for the Mother of God. On more than one occasion, Bourgeois has made an affectionate portrait of Aretha Franklin – significantly, a “gospel” cum “soul” singer.
Bourgeois” minute shimmering paintings – often compared to altar pieces and religious reliquaries-possess a dream like, almost hallucinatory quality. His work occurs at an intersection of the temporal world and the realm of the sacred. Like those Renaissance paintings in which contemporary patrons are shown with saints, Bourgeois” art juxtaposes the real and the imagined, the celebrated and the obscure. Precise and richly detailed, Bourgeois” panels are as intimate, colorful and engaging as an illumination in a prayer book.
While Bourgeois” paintings display something of the horror vacuui quality of certain primitive art traditions, and abound with quotations from religious art, the artist cannot be classified as either a faux naïf (who imitates the folk artist), or as one of the Anachronistici (who imitates old masters). Instead, Bourgeois has developed an eclectic and highly personal painting style, which, while precise and realistic in its depiction of material things, is never merely naturalistic.
His intentionally distorted figures have something of the awkward grace of those found in quattrocento art. Figures sometimes seem to melt beneath their elaborate vestments; the corporal is diminished in the realm of the sacred.
While concerned with the spiritual, Bourgeois’ is not the work of a self-proclaimed visionary. Unlike that of the folk artist, whose work is an unschooled out-growth of a specific culture or religion, Bourgeois’ art is a sophisticated, ironic and knowing response to a specific culture (southeast Louisiana), and religion (Roman Catholicism). Bourgeois operates outside of the mainstream, but he is no “outsider” artist.
Working in relative isolation – the artist lives with his parents in the ranch-style home in which he was born – it is tempting to compare Bourgeois to Charles Ives or Joseph Cornell. Like these independent American artists, Bourgeois is isolated, but very much of his time; tackling great themes and private obsessions, and confronting mainstream culture in his own micro-habitat – and in his own way.
It is ironic that while Bourgeois venerates celebrity in his art work, he personally shuns it. Bourgeois doesn’t engage in the self-promotion and theoretical huff-and-puff that is the stock in trade of many contemporary artists. Instead, Bourgeois chooses to dedicate his time to his art, creating paintings distinguished by their fine technique, visual complexity, spiritual yearning and sense of irony.
For Bourgeois, art is a vocation.