“Douglas Bourgeois”, New Orleans Times-Picayune


By Chris Waddington, Art critic, NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE

Nine small paintings equal two years’ work for Louisiana artist Douglas Bourgeois-a pace that seems positively speedy when one encounters his meticulously rendered pieces at Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. Detailed and delicate as the interiors of watches, these panel paintings are testaments to obsessive craftsmanship and its power to capture the vivid obsessions of our dreams.

"Under the Lens", 1995

Bourgeois has come to his current style over the course of two decades, so his subjects are familiar to local art lovers: landscapes of verdant woods and chemical plants; interiors of worn, old buildings filled with new consumer products; and a cast of men and women caught in the midst of private dramas. Each painting remakes Louisiana in 10,000 brush strokes, investing the peculiar, despised and commonplace details of our humid mysterium with the artist’s most precious commodity: his attention. By such efforts, Bourgeois commands the attention of viewers who know his task to be essentially sacramental-a task that does not exclude wit, sympathy or an all-encompassing fervor in which the iconography of Catholicism blends with that of consumer culture.

Bourgeois has garnered national praise for such work, and has been labeled an heir to Surrealism and Pop art; a naïve visionary with roots in folk traditions; and a devotee of Old Master disciplines-all of which is accurate enough, though Bourgeois’ unique spirit and style can’t be caught in the coarse net of such classifications. More important is his instantly identifiable signature: the gothic delicacy of line, the enameled surfaces and that magpie taste for collage which crowds slightly flattened forms in the atmospheric space of his paintings.

His creations are, first and foremost, splendid acts of visual and narrative compression. In “Under the Lens,” for example, his iconic composition frames the central image of a black man in a wreath of microphones, cameras, and dozens of guns-all pointed at his head. This martyr to the invasions of modern journalism is decked with a crown of thorns, his side pierced by a Christ-like wound, his eyes closed in a meditation that may be the only defense from such attentions. In such works, Bourgeois risks the dull schematism of allegory; but transcends it in the manner of all great artists, a manner summed up most clearly by poet W.H. Auden:

About suffering they never were wrong/
The Old Masters: how well they understood/
Its human position; how it takes place/
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking/
Dully along…

Thus Bourgeois presents viewers with a tiny bird that innocently probes the black man’s wound; fills his background with the unmistakable light of a Gulf sky and shimmering tree tops; and locates his actions in our world’s mechanical clutter: a martyrdom executed with 20th century implements that are accurate down to each knob and glinting lens.

Bourgeois is always accurate without succumbing to mere realism. In “Out of Here,” he shows what an overturned bedroom looks like after a woman has been beaten, as she dresses in the night, as her children wait amid suitcases and a cab appears in the window. But realism doesn’t explain why the rooms striped wallpaper so resembles the bars of a cage-stripes decorated with tiny pattern of hearts.

In “The Refrigerator,” a woman in an evening gown opens what seems to be an old fashioned kitchen appliance, but which proves to be the door to Enigma itself. Its interior, crammed with meat, guns, a globe weed killer and a doll’s head is as cluttered as the artist’s imagination. Canned beets have spilled on the floor-red as blood-and a crumbling cake, in the form of a hoop skirted doll, seems ready to intervene in this open-ended narrative.

Even the show’s most deceptively simple work, “Lacrima Christi High Seniors ”56,” has a narrative tug. Disguised as a page of portraits from a high school yearbook, it memorializes the cute and klutzy with cartoon economy, but adds up to something more than ironic kitsch when one realizes that many of the 42 portraits are of the same few characters. Hairstyles have been altered, weight gained or lost, clothes changed and heads turned to more flattering angles-all of which suggests how the lapse of time brings out the actor hidden in each of us.

As this show makes clear, Bourgeois is at the peak of his powers, able to fit his dreams and desires, his faith, fury and a good deal of Louisiana into his work. Don’t miss it.