Seeing the Light
By D. Eric Bookhardt, GAMBIT WEEKLY
It’s something the almost never happens, a once-in-a-lifetime event. Ordinarily it takes Douglas Bourgeois, the most meticulous artist in Louisiana if not the world, ages to complete a single, modestly proportioned canvas. His paintings involve near-microscopic details so fine and precise they make laser surgery look ham-handed in comparison, so he doesn”t usually have time to put together 100 new paintings, collages and constructions for a single gallery exhibition. Yet that is the sum total of his current offerings at Arthur Roger Gallery, and we can only wonder how so many splendiferous images came to appear in our midst like a proverbial Catholic miracle. The answer to this, like so many questions of late, has to do with a certain storm.Originally scheduled for this time last year, his show was postponed because the gallery had only just reopened in a city under martial law, a delay not only sensible under the circumstances, but which gave him time to assemble an almost unheard of quantity of new offerings. Yet, it is hard to imagine that he had time for much else. Something of a hermit, he still lives in St. Amant, near the family farm on which he grew up in Ascension Parish, on the frontier between the cane country of Acadiana and the vast industrial complexes along the river. This clash between his rural French Catholic roots and the forces of global commerce infuses his work with an eerie mix of mysticism and pop culture, of Roman Catholicism and rock. And if that sounds odd, remember, this is Louisiana, where three cousins named Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Lee Swaggart grew up in the town of Ferriday exploring their own, more Pentecostal mix of old-time religion and frenetic rock ”n” roll. For his part, Bourgeois grew up feeling torn between pop culture and religion, a conflict he resolved by studying art and incorporating both in his work.
Such themes are seen in The Enigma Orchestra, where a kind of Creole Hindu goddess rises from a derelict hand-cranked Victrola floating on a mystic sea. In some ways this suggests a “proud coonass” (as Cajuns once called themselves) version of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, only instead of elemental deities, this soul sister diva is enshrined by Delta blues icons, R&B and country music stars all entangled in a filigree of roses and thorns like a kind of graphic hagiography. The result recalls a holy card, only the figures are painted with the jewel-like luster of an Italian renaissance Pieta. Other iconic paintings include Lambs of Sugar Who Suffer the Sins of the World, a view of a little girl whose innocent sensuality recalls Jerry Lee Lewis’s 13-year-old bride (and cousin!), only this ingenue is surrounded by angels, fairy tale rabbits and a Blessed Virgin, as well as bubble gum and mystery parcels labeled “Mary” — actually “Mary Jane,” a reference to the vices that confront ever-younger school kids these days. If Lambs suggests innocence, Unnameable Music — a soul diva flanked by flaming hearts and daggers, busty babes, banjos and a Jesus crowned with thorns — explores the theme of experience, not to mention the uncanny parallels between holy cards and tattoos.
American Address reprises Bourgeois’ more pastoral compositions. With its vintage bed, a kitchen table and an empty refrigerator with door ajar, it ought to be a domestic interior, but it’s set in a swampy glade. A crown and scepter rest on the bed and an Irma Thomas sort of soul queen appears amid the crawfish mounds, personifying homelessness in the wake of Katrina. But such traditional perspectives are rare. Bourgeois gravitates to more iconic, kaleidoscopic and collage-like compositions, and in fact his collages and retables are amply represented here. But you have to look twice, as what may resemble clever collages of antique product boxes, comic strips and newspaper clippings sometimes turn out to be diabolically deceptive paintings of those things. Like all true mystics, the hermit of St. Amant understands that appearances are all illusory, and what matters is to see the truth and beauty within. Bourgeois not only sees such ecstatic inner verities, but goes so far as to share his revelations with the rest of us.