Douglas Bourgeois New Orleans, Art Papers

Douglas Bourgeois

New Orleans

By Eric Bookhardt, ART PAPERS

Douglas Bourgeois may be the most successful obscure artist in America. His smallish paintings command respectable prices—for their size, by New York standards—and his most recent show of over one hundred paintings, drawings, and collages sold quickly Arthur Roger Gallery; November 4—December 12. 2006. This is a noteworthy feat in this flood ravaged city. Despite a 2004 Contemporary Arts Center retrospective that traveled to several cities and was the subject of an Art in America spread, he remains obscure because he works slowly and only shows every three years. Scheduled for 2005 but cancelled by Katrina, this exhibition was larger than most.

This all seems to suit Bourgeois just fine. A native rural Ascension Parish, Louisiana, where he still lives his tiny hometown of St. Amant, his work exudes humid lushness and Caribbean-Mediterranean extravagance regardless of subject matter. The Enigma Orchestra, 2005, a nineteen-by-twenty-four-inch view a blues singer who stands like a Hindu goddess on an antique phonograph floating in a mystic sea, is emblematic of Bourgeois’ dual obsession with religious mysticism and rock ‘n roll. Swathed in silky, iridescent fabric and holding a jeweled scepter/microphone, she is surrounded by thorny rose vines against a mauve sunset. Amid the roses are the smaller forms of gospel and blues icons Mahalia Jackson and Wilson Picket, as well as the dapper, guitar-strumming figure of legendary blues singer Big Bill Broonzy. While the composition evokes Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the cast of characters clearly reflects the blues culture of the Gulf South. If that sounds over the top, it is, but Bourgeois somehow makes it work with rich jewel-box hues and rendering precise that comparisons with Van Eyck inevitably come to mind.

Although inspired by blues and soul musicians, he seems equally concerned with their origins in the under-class cultures at the margins of society. One of his longstanding projects involves portraits based on high school yearbook photographs. An especially complex example of this is Unnamable Music, 2006, a twelve-by-sixteen-inch oil on panel. Here, a young Creole woman gazes impassively amid an array of charged symbols that include flaming banjos, Sacred Hearts pierced by swords, vintage pinup girls, teddy bears, Bambi-like fawns, and a bleeding Jesus under a crown of thorns. A collision of innocence and experience, this suggests not only the over-sexualizing of youth in modern American culture, but also its historical origins in the jazz and ragtime era of hot babes and blazing banjoes.

Nonetheless, her human dignity remains inviolate.

Unlike the vapid nostalgic de la boue common to some attempts at socio-aesthetic slumming, Bourgeois’ approach seems sincere. Even his depictions of social dysfunction convey unexpected beauty, or even love in the ruins. His brush seems to consecrate whatever depicts—this may well be the most unique aspect of patient and painstaking approach. He sees the evils, he also sees—and paints—an underlying beauty with hints of redemption. Somehow, he does this in the aftermath of Louisiana’s indigenous Visionary Imagist idiom, which paralleled Chicago Imagism while touching on the magic realism of Latin America. If his painterly verisimilitude recalls latter-day American imagists such as Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin, the tone of his work contrasts strikingly with their studied posture of caustic irony. While the appeal of all three artists” work rests partly on bravura technique, the implied message in Bourgeois’ is that hope is not only courageous, but perhaps even the most realistic point of view. We can only hope that he’s right.