“A New Place to Dwell: Seeking Douglas Bourgeois’s Magic Realism”, Estill Curtis Pennington Essay


Seeking Douglas Bourgeois’s Magic Realism

By Estill Curtis Pennington

In 1981 Douglas Bourgeois painted Blue Christmas, a work featuring Elvis Presley lying back on a bed beside a fully lit and decorated Christmas tree. Hanging in the blue-draped window just behind him is a bushy holiday wreath. A white candle burns intensely on the sill, and a starry night sky is visible out the window. Elvis’s left hand is thrown forlornly back to cover his eyes, suggesting his Yuletide loneliness for the loved one about whom he sings poignantly in the song from which the painting takes its title. Like many Bourgeois works, Blue Christmas is highly structured, vividly colored, and emotionally charged. As an iconic representation of Elvis it stands alone, hardly in accord with the versions fostered by the Graceland images of a ”king” who could whip his many followers into a frenzy. This is a highly vulnerable Elvis, grieving at the thought of “decorations of red on a green Christmas tree” that “won’t mean a thing, dear, if you”re not here with me.”

Blue Christmas bears an additional quality that distinguishes Bourgeois’s work: it travels the realm of magic realism, a term that can be understood to denote works of art that defy typical description by depicting ordinary objects with an extraordinary attention to detail. In Bourgeois’s case, the comprehension of each detail also requires the linguistic and genealogical tools of the deconstructionist era. His work evokes certain critical issues associated with representational art in the twentieth century, notably its “value” in the face of more avant-garde expressions. At the same time, it arrives at a place previously inhabited by a splendid array of characters from Louisiana’s cultural history: jolly flatboat men arriving at New Orleans landings, Mardi Gras saints and sinners in costumes on parade, corrupt politicians preaching social gospels, and corrupt preachers articulating political ideologies.

At its best, deconstruction returns the viewer to an Aristotelian state of mind: if an object can be observed, then it is open to description. Description involves language, and the veracity of language can only be determined by consideration of the assembled descriptive episodes that we call history. Precedent for this interpretative mode can be found in the writings of Michel Foncault. He challenges each reader/viewer to begin with a genealogical investigation, which establishes specific structuralist choices informed by social relationships. Foucault”s cosmology departs from the romantic/neoclassic idea of eternal verities: knowledge of reality is symbolic. What we ”know” are signs, and signs gain their meaning as distinctions from other signs, for “there is no knowledge of reality but only of symbolized, constructed experience.”

Most directly, the magic realism in Bourgeois’s art is nourished by the singular gumbo of popular and religious themes that has long fed Louisiana culture. It sustains the simultaneous, often unsettling juxtaposition in his work of the absurd and the profound, the sacred and the profane. Consistently, we see visitations, both mystical and neighborly. Crooners in black tie appear to scantily clad women in dormer-window bedrooms of the type commonly found in Louisiana. Saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary appear to ordinary folks in modest domestic circumstances. Even St. Theresa can show up in the lodgings of a handsome sailor who seems about to set sail for World War II.

To comprehend the magic realism in these and other Bourgeois images involves tracing its hybrid genealogy. This portion of his artistic family tree has three branches: the twentieth-century European precedent, in which the term was first coined, and its precursors; the early expressions of magic realism in America during the 1930s; and its recent manifestations in the South. Naturally, this third branch—and its grounding in southern life and culture generally—is particularly important. Like many contemporary southern artists whose work is chiefly figural, his career was initially constrained by the northeastern art-world establishment and its preoccupation with nonobjective modernism. However, the past fifteen years have seen a noticeable shift away from that locus, in the South and elsewhere. Increasingly, as the critic Donald Kuspit has noted, ”the point is not where one”s culture comes from but how one uses it locally, how one makes it one”s own.”

Early-twentieth-century European magic realism, especially those works created in northern cultural centers from Brussels to Berlin, evolved from the expressionistic art of post-World War I Weimar Germany and can be seen to include Georg Grosz as well as Pyke Koch in Amsterdam and Rene Magritte in Brussels. These magic realists defied the legacy of impressionism, the broken brushwork and abstraction of such incipient modernists as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. Magic realist technique is firmly grounded in the fin schilder (fine painter) tradition of late-medieval Flemish painting, of which Jan van Eyck and Petrus Ghristus were exemplars. Van Eyck’s Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami (1434), laden with symbols of prosperity, fecundity, and mortality, affirms the value of the portrait as a secular pursuit even as the works of Christus and other altar painters secure the idea that mystical events can occur in everyday settings. The specificity of magic realism, its pinpoint accuracy, demonstrates the artist”s ability not only to record a setting but also to enrich it with wondrous detail. This appreciation of detail outside the richness of church settings also affirms the “magic” of everyday life.

Twentieth-century European magic realism evinces an intense concern with accurately rendering the solidity of material things in two dimensions in order to create a setting for narrative images in which people and events are depicted with an unsettling psychological edge. That quality frequently appears in Bourgeois”s work. What are we to make, for example, of Little Lamb (1995), in which a jovial accordionist plays the background accompaniment to a first communion? This normally solemn event, here observed with minute familiarity, is set ajar by a countercultural reference to the unsettling rhythms of Creole/zydeco music. Dutch magic realists, especially Pyke Koch and Carel Willenk, created similar images of ironic displacement. Koch spoke of magic realism as “based on the representation of what is possible but not probable; surrealism, on the other hand, is based on impossible situations.”

The critic James Gardner implied Bourgeois’s link with twentieth-century European magic realism in an assessment of the artist’s abilities as a fin schilder that compared him positively with Gerrit Dou and hyperbolically lauded his ability to create a “Van Eyck depiction of a can of Barbisol.” For Gardner, 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.

That blend of mundane, though well-wrought minutiae and the semi-mystical can often be found in Bourgeois’s work. In Treasures (l992), for example, the vision of yellow cake with chocolate icing floats in a sea of green peas above a suave young man’s head. The cake, one of various treasure items floating about, seems the ultimate prize. Eyes closed, the man seems to be somewhere between trance and ecstasy. In keeping with the fin schilder tradition, Bourgeois makes no effort to suggest atmospheric depth, merely the consistent wonder of obvious things. The exceptional intensity of those green peas, especially, prompts us to wonder: if everything is equally real, how can distinctions be made? This question runs through Bourgeois’s works and gives them a subtle edge, for his ironic juxtapositions often constitute a challenge to the reality of the status quo, especially the presumed safety of suburban life and authority of policemen and clerics.

Bourgeois is a legatee of the sociological agenda of the European magic realists, with their iconoclastic assaults on the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. Their approach provoked the social historian Arnold Hauser’s lament that the twentieth century “is so full of such deep antagonism, the unity of its outlook on life is so profoundly menaced, that the combination of the furthest extremes, the unification of the greatest contradictions, becomes the main theme, often the only theme of its art.”

In paintings such as The Development (1993), we are in a terrain where the notion of security within one’s home is contradicted by the maddeningly real presence of things that do not belong there, that clutter and obscure any sense of domestic serenity. The manicured suburban lot is juxtaposed with that of the humbler neighbor who has kept his yard overgrown, evidently just the way he’s always had it. It’s a sharp juxtaposition of two disparate outlooks and social classes, neither of which can claim autonomy in a world overrun by the detritus of daily life. In Mistaken Identity (1991), the sanctity of the household bathroom has been invaded by a policeman, who points his pistol at a naked man having a shave. Then there is Thrown Away (1993), with its perplexing title: what is being discarded, the sanctity of suburban life or the household detritus strewn about the front yard?

Jarring contradictions and juxtapositions such as these did not characterize early American magic realism, which sought comfort in the familiar imagery derived from patriotic rural America. The term first appeared in American art scholarship in the catalogue for the 1943 exhibition American Realists and Magic Realists, organized by Dorothy C. Miller and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Lincoln Kirstein, who wrote the catalogue introduction, explained that domestic magic realism could be seen as an outgrowth of the Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) movement in Northern Europe. Kirstein was deeply suspicious of the sanctification of modernism at the expense of refined representational art. He regarded magic realism as a duality, one in which continued fine-painting ability could be applied to new themes and subject matter derived from the confusing contemporary world, from which the artist drew both conflict and inspiration. For their part, curators Miller and Barr were mainly concerned with placing “precisionist” painters such as Charles Sheeler and “regionalist” painters such as Grant Wood in a context outside the reactionary regard they had attracted.

As American art was maturing in the early twentieth century, an acrimonious dispute between representational and nonrepresentational artists, and the critics who articulated their efforts, clouded the climate of taste. For some, nonrepresentational painting expressed an essential function of art: creativity in a manner previously unseen. For others, suspicious of the technical integrity of modernism, nonrepresentational painting was a shocking attempt to displace genuine ability with outrageously idiosyncratic expressions that were incomprehensible to anyone outside a small group of those who possessed an informed vocabulary.

Kirstein shared many of the cultural convictions of the American magic realists Paul Cadmus and Jared French, notably their appreciation of modern dance and photography and their obvious participation in a new sexual freedom. His stated appreciation of their work sprang from his high regard for their technical abilities as “fine painters” in the European tradition. While their subject matter pressed the boundaries of accepted social convention, their works remained firmly grounded.

“The slender technical innovations of modern art,” Kirstein wrote in his book about Cadmus,

are based on compulsive or obsessive immediacy, the temporary shock of clot, smudge, or drip. Crudity becomes the badge of courage and freedom, unchained from rational method and intoxicated with demons instinctively evoked from the unconscious. Here is magic narcissism, but the release from objective recollection reduces most abstract painting to tasteful wall covering, a species of visual ground cover.

Kirstein and others saw cubism and other abstract styles imported from Europe crashing in the Great Depression of the 1930s, “turning American eyes inward,” as the critic Robert Hughes has written, “on themselves, their ills and troubles, and their national character—which, more and more, was held by artists and pundits to be quite different than anything you could find in Europe. A mood of cultural xenophobia spread, along with a strong hankering for didactic and legible public art.” The expressively colorful and highly evocative narrative implications of magic realism partially satisfied this longing for an informative art.

American magic realism can be seen in the familiar works of certain regionalist painters of the 1930s, especially in the historical fables of Grant Wood and the ritualistic baptisms of John Steuart Curry. Seemingly, many of their subjects derive from the broad sweep of rural American life and myth—the harvesting of crops, homely acts of piety and custom, and fleeting, sanitary glimpses of heterosexual desire.” Yet a slyer subtext appears in certain of their works, a questioning of the seeming wholesomeness of the American way. Grant Wood’s Daughters of Revolution (1932), for example, paints a rather sardonic image of patriotism’s legacy. And the disconcerting subliminal undercurrents in Curry’s paintings of baptisms and his paintings of bathing scenes are given resonance by the intensity of the prairie light in their backgrounds. Nascent American magic realism, as the art historian Seymour Menton observes, was a response “to one of the Western World’s basic dilemmas of the twentieth century, that despite technological growth, and the supremacy of science and reason as correctives to the basic chaos of human existence, things are often not what they seem.”

Ultimately, any exploration of the magic realist element of Douglas Bourgeois’s artistic genealogy must focus on the relationship between his work and undercurrents in southern life and culture. The South is often perceived as a region where the humorous and the grotesque coexist in a pervasively gothic atmosphere—themes that certainly appear in Bourgeois’s art. One can locate such themes in both the literary and artistic communities of the twentieth-century South, alternately accented by affirmation and suspicion of their value as creative incentives.

In The Mind of the South (1941), written not long after the novel and movie Gone with the Wind had tapped a national gusher of sentimentality about the region’s antebellum period, some, such as the social historian W. J. Cash, denied the more extravagant claims of an idyllic, agrarian Old South. On the other hand, Cash’s contemporaries in the Fugitive/Agrarian movement, led by the writers John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren and based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, affirmed the value of the South’s mythology. They likened it to the fabric of Arthurian legends, contending that it played, as the English writer Michael Wood has noted, “just [as] an important part in the construction of identity as does historical fact—indeed it is often difficult to tell them apart.” Ransom, Tate, Warren, and their circle confessed to admiring a symbol-laden culture, one prone to the dualities of reality and sentiment—dualities that in their view made for good literature and good art. For these writers, the inherent character of the South offered a symbolic line of defense against the debilitating intrusions of the modern world, particularly industrialization and urban expansion.

Bourgeois sounds a similar alarm in paintings that contrast a naturalistic state with the detritus of modern life. In The Basement (1991), an allegorical figure lies bound in barbed wire on the floor of a laundry room that is stocked with detergents, cleansers, and solvents. The Suitcase (1990) features two vine-entwined lovers standing on a linoleum floor in a forest clearing amid decrepit living-room furniture and a scattering of bleach and detergent containers and disposable cans. And The Edge of Town (2000) is haunted by a robot that walks the backyard of a tract home on the forested outskirts of suburbia, accompanied by a wide-eyed doll-like woman in evening dress.

The theatrical quality of these and other Bourgeois images calls to mind the view of the noted southern cultural historian Richard Weaver that “for the North the South is too theatrical to be wholly real.” He finds the South to be “dramatic. If racial tension, conflict, violence—as well as unrealistic but lofty aspirations—made for tragedy, they also made for spectacle; the Gothic South in general made for spectacle.” Emotive theatrical spectacle is exactly what we experience when encountering southern magic realism.

Several artists who preceded Bourgeois in representing the theatricality of the Louisiana scene, including Caroline Durieux, Weeks Hall, and John McCrady, who worked there at mid-century, can be considered magic realists. Each of them painted works in which their depiction of familiar social types, such as choirboys, belles, French Quarter revelers, and politicians, bordered on caricature, a caricature that was relieved by a historically minded attention to detail. McCrady’s most theatrical painting. The Shooting of Huey Long (1939), at once violent and cartoon-like, depicts the U.S. senator’s assassination on September 8, 1935. Long lurches toward the viewer as his presumed assassin, Dr. Carl A. Weiss, Jr., is riddled with bullets just behind him. This drama of blood and frenzy is set where it occurred, a hallway in the lavish marble and-bronze Louisiana state capitol, which Long had built when he was governor.

Bourgeois is at his most joyously expressive in his representations of pop singers, icons of the age. Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley appear often, each invested with a mystical aura. In Zette About to Rock the House (1988), the stage is broadened to contain a nun and a Latino bongo player. Scapegoat Cabaret (1991) showcases a panoply of the grotesque under the span of a proscenium arch. Like Tennessee Williams, in some of whose best work Louisiana is the backdrop, Bourgeois’s sense of drama draws upon the darker myths of the South—those oft-exaggerated tales of hurt and suffering, seduction and betrayal, longing and desire—all of which are played out in lush, exquisitely detailed settings.

It is this emphasis on setting that brings certain themes in southern visual culture and Catholicism together in atmospheric union. It is impossible, for example, to imagine the plantation myth being played out against the backdrop of a cattle ranch. What’s required is the juxtaposition of an awe inspiring gentility of taste with an odorous undercurrent of decay and mendacity. The collateral imagery provided by setting carries a resonance that many can see and feel.

Many of Bourgeois’s figures—for instance, those in The Suitcase—are posed against the backdrop of a dark wood, a device evoking the infernal that, in Western art and literature, dates back to Dante’s use of it in The Divine Comedy. Born into and nurtured by a Roman Catholic culture, Bourgeois, as the cultural critic Camille Paglia has written in another context, displays an awareness that is “central to the tradition of Christian art, with its bloody, seminude tortured saints in transports of martyrdom.” Paglia’s assessment of the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe could readily be applied to Bourgeois. “The stringent sexual repressions and yet high sensory stimulation of Catholicism,” she wrote, provided a ”special vision; these tensions and limitations allowed him to look directly into universal sexual reality. He saw and accepted the cruelty and aggression in our animal nature, our unevolved link with the pagan and primeval past.”

St. Anthony Appears to Tony (1989) and The Temptation of St. Rose de Lima (1990) draw upon the dark Catholic baroque. St. Rose, whose courtyard is evidently situated in New Orleans’s French Quarter, stands in front of a stiffly posed naked young man who is conspicuously well developed. St. Rose’s nimbus quivers, but her resolve seems strong. Elsewhere in Bourgeois’s work we see Christ in the garden, the stoning of St. Stephen, ritual purification, and bleeding hearts galore.

As the art historian Nancy Grimes wrote in assessing the work of Jared French:

For magic realism to serve as a useful critical category, it must be limited to those works that are both magical and realist; that is, those works that imbue everyday reality with a supernatural or ritualistic aura. In this restricted sense, magic realism presents the world through a veil of apprehension, anxiety, or awe, moods evoked by ritual as it summons forth supernatural forces.

Lurking beneath the surface of southern cultural consciousness is a sense of the absurd, a sense that all finery can be reduced to a grotesque level by a quick sequence of unexpected events, notably war and inclement weather. Magic realism, an art of what might be as opposed to what could never be, is alert to that potentially rapid transition from manicured lawn to fetid swamp.

Grotesquerie has long been used in southern art and literature to spotlight certain truths. Examining the juxtaposition of realism and the grotesque in the fiction of Eudora Welty, her fellow southern author Katherine Anne Porter found Welty’s writing

almost to have the quality of caricature, as complete realism so often does. Yet as painters of the grotesque make only detailed reports of actual living types observed more keenly than the average eye is capable of observing, so Miss Welty’s little human monsters are not really caricatures at all, but individuals exactly and clearly presented: which is perhaps a case against realism, if we dared to go into it.

It is this strong application of caricature, whether by pen or by brush, to vivify the harsher realities of the human condition that is a hallmark of contemporary southern magic realism. It is seen in paintings by Dan Cooper, Bill Petrie, and Terry Rowlett, but it is especially apparent in the work of Douglas Bourgeois.

Bourgeois’s most serious attempt to depict a literary figure—not surprisingly, a Southerner—is his 1981 portrait of Carson McCullers. She reclines, hands clasped behind her head, against a wisteria backdrop, her mouth fixed in a wide-open, almost hysterical smile. Her expression recalls the moment in her 1940 novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter when the deaf-mute protagonist, John Singer, suddenly realizes that

the riddle was still in him, so that he could not be tranquil. There was something not natural about it all—something like an ugly joke. When he thought of it he felt uneasy and in some unknown way afraid. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and valor.

Bourgeois has posed McCullers in a similar manner, head leaning back against the symbolic wall of wisteria, which seems to have prompted the author’s moment of hysterical enlightenment. Hysteria—extreme behavior, the “acting out” of impulses and desires—underlines the theme of the South as a place of repression screaming to be released. But the immediate and personal nature of hysteria opens the subject of self-indulgence, implying the kind of insincerity we associate with kitsch objects.

As James Gardner has noted, appreciation of Bourgeois’s exquisitely intense art has largely been restricted to the South, ignored in part due to lingering suspicions about realist painting in the East Coast art world. “From the rise of the New York School at mid-century until the postmodern mutation in the 1980s,” writes the New Orleans-based art historian and curator David Houston, “realist painting was considered a rearguard activity. Critics such as Clement Greenberg and artists such as Ad Reinhardt maintained a formalist arts-for-art’s-sake dogma, arguing for a serious art that operates in the realm of abstract universalism, banishing all other approaches to the realm of kitsch.” But as the rise of pop in the late 1950s and subsequent artistic styles showed, “kitsch” (from the German for petty bourgeois) can be considered an art form that, according to the art historian Andrew Ross, “has serious pretensions to artistic taste, and, in fact, contains a range of references to high or legitimate culture which it apes in order to flatter its owner-reader-consumer.” One need only drive through any cluster-mansion housing development in suburban America to see the conjunction of high-style architectural reference and an absurd sense of scale. The interiors of these houses are often imitations of grand-manner English precedents, as redefined by the economies of Laura Ashley and Martha Stewart. Magic realism requires an attention to detail so intense as to leave no doubt about the object’s integrity.

Kitsch abounds in Bourgeois’s imagery, whether he is depicting denizens of the French Quarter or historical figures. Joan of Arc is made to look more like an icily ambitious pageant contestant than a serious redeemer of her country’s identity. And Joseph Cornell the Student (1982) wryly captures Cornell’s infatuation with film stars. But Bourgeois uses kitsch most effectively in works such as Refrigerator (1994), in which an exotic-looking, extravagantly gowned woman has thrown open both doors of the appliance in order to display its almost obscene bounty to a crumbling, hoopskirted cake doll on the checkerboard-linoleum floor. The overwhelming abundance of identifiable things, amplified by color and detail, transmogrifies this encounter into a sacred event of kitsch.

The term kitsch began being used interchangeably with camp in serious writing about pop art after Susan Sontag, in her seminal 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” armed the pop revolt against formalism and abstraction with an aesthetic that prized the absurd and the commonplace. Against the “power of taste-making intellectuals to patrol the higher canons of taste,” the willful practitioner of camp devotes ”idiosyncratic attention to the practice of cultural slumming in places where others would feel less comfortable.”

Near the end of Eudora Welty’s story “Petrified Man,” Leota, the beautician protagonist, relates an encounter she has just had with a local odd character: “I said. ”Fred, that ole petrified man sure did leave me with a funny feelin”.” He says, ”Funny-haha or funny-peculiar?” and I says, ”Funny-peculiar.” Douglas Bourgeois is peculiarly funny. The ironic juxtapositions in his work, with their various cultural and emotional overtones, make his imagery difficult to grasp at first glance. But those intense juxtapositions, redolent with the same air of the humorous and the grotesque that wafts through much of Louisiana, are what make them so magical.

The value of looking at Bourgeois’s paintings as magic realist manifestations is threefold. First, it identifies certain visual and literary sources, from within and without the South, that provide a critical interpretative scenario for the artist, elevating him above a mere local curiosity. Second, it affirms the metaphoric power of representational art as a record of immediate signs and symbols in the popular culture. Third, and most vitally, it reinvigorates the dialogue about the importance of painting as a creative act in this time of image glut, a time when simply identifying the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life becomes an act of sly scholarship.

It may be that the expressive works of this artist achieve a merger of the primitive with the articulate. Contemporary realist painting in the South, especially that of Douglas Bourgeois, may provide a last arena of material culture for serious regard, a profound counterpoint to those who contend that painting is dead.