Douglas Bourgeois’s transcendent, fantastical images of pop icons as religious icons, set against southern Louisiana scenery, are inspired by his rural life and his homages to what and who inspires him. The lush, but flattened foliage of Henri Rousseau, the detailed, surrealist portraits of Frida Kahlo, one can’t help but find the clear artistic influences in Bourgeois’s work.
With a BFA from Louisiana State University, Bourgeois lived and worked in New Orleans for several years before returning to his roots – St. Amant, Louisiana, the small community in which he was born and raised.
He is a pluri-awarded artist, and his work is sought after by collectors. His recent participation in Prospect.3 in New Orleans that ended January 25 of this year, was enthusiastically received.
Eager to find out more, we talked to him about his perspective on life and art, and discovered a possible philosophy to follow.
What effect has Prospect.3 had on you and what effect do you think it has had in Louisiana?
I was fortunate to have a wide selection of paintings shown in Prospect.3. Because it takes a long time for me to do a painting, it ended up being a selection of work from many years, a small retrospective. It was rewarding to have viewers from beyond the South Louisiana region see the work.
There was an intense focus on Prospect.3 and many of the satellite exhibits when it opened and the weeks afterward. What has changed from the first Prospect is the intense internet and social media coverage of the biennial, its individual exhibits and performances. I was stunned to see imagery from the exhibits shared all over the world.
This third iteration of Prospect seems not to have had the huge impact that Prospect.1 had because the first Prospect was so large, had more extravagant installations, national attention because of Post-Hurricane Katrina recovery, the excitement of its possibilities.
Prospect.3 was more modest in scale so did not get as positive a response as the first one.
Your art has been described as magical realism, classical realism, naïve art, and you’ve spoken about your artistic inspirations from Italian Renaissance artists to contemporary artists. But how would you define your art, or would you define it at all, or consider it a mix of sorts?
Well, the truest answer would be I wouldn’t define my art unless forced. But to give people an idea of what it is, I usually say it’s figurative -depicts humans-, narrative -some sort of unspoken Story or situation-, naïvely real -there is some dimensionality but the space is condensed, no shadows or accuracy of perspective.
I do tributes to favorite writers, artists, and singers but also scenes with unnamed everyday persons experiencing epiphanies or moments of awakening. Media-wise, they are mostly oil on panel paintings. I also do small mixed media collage, wood burned collage, box constructions, linoleum block prints.
What do you hope comes across in your work through symbolism, pop culture, and religious iconography?
Even though there are many cross purposes and seemingly conflicted themes in my work, the paintings are my attempt to reconcile these “disparate” elements. To me, a heart-shattering soul song is as transcendent as a Giotto fresco or Dickinson or Blake poem.
My hope is that it’s interesting enough for someone to pause and see the image. If it affects someone, that’s a bonus. The same intensity I felt when first seeing religious imagery I feel in other visual arts, literature, raw rock and roll, gospel singers, the ineffable Louisiana landscape.
You seem to have transmuted your Catholic upbringing, which exposed you to European religious art, into your work. How has your view on religion and spirituality developed over time, and has it affected your work?
My view on spirituality has developed into a more open exploration of spiritual thought and experience. I realize I don’t have answers, I accept profound mystery. Historically, religion has been used to oppress and divide. But real spirit is only about love. Ridding myself of ingrained programmed fear is the challenge.
Even though I am not a practicing Church goer, most of the compassion and sense of humanity I have was taught to me by good people of religious faith. I continue to learn, read , listen to as much wisdom as I’m able.
What is life like in St. Amant and how has it influenced your work? Are there other artists living in the area?
St. Amant is an unincorporated community, no mayor, but part of a basically rural parish in South Louisiana.
Below Interstate 10 is considered Gulf South, it’s sub-tropical, very hot in summer. The community is quickly increasing in population and suburbanizing. There is still a lot of natural beauty in the landscape but rapid development with way too much loss of trees and wildlife habitat.
More ugly strip malls, chain stores, fast food, bulldozers, etc. The usual slash and burn routine. However, the familiarity with the people I grew up with, friends and family, they are supportive and comforting and humbling. There is no pretense, life is filled with births, deaths, ball games, local plays, music, family celebrations, festivals, church fairs, fundraisers, schools, lawn work, gardening. Pretty much like many villages in the world, but Southern Louisiana has a warm, friendly and generous vibe.
There may be a few other artists in St. Amant, but not like an artists’ community. Most of my artist friends live in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and other cities throughout the USA. The influence that St. Amant has had on my work is the relative quiet and space to hear oneself think. It has provided sanctuary to nurture my work patterns, to keep the discipline required to get work done.
Painting requires many hours of solitude, to let things “cook” naturally. More and more, the quiet rural quality is changing, but there is still much natural beauty and quality of place to continue living here. It’s home.
What are you working on now? And do you have upcoming exhibitions or shows that you could tell us about?
Right now I am working on a series of 16” round panels. They are depictions of lesser known music performers.
They will consist of oil painted portraits in the center with printed tin collaged borders. People like Rose Stone – of Sly and the Family Stone-, Paul Simonon, Solomon Burke, Candi Staton, Ian Curtis – Joy Division-, Lynn Collins, and Stromae – well known in Europe but not the US.
Arthur Roger Gallery is planning an exhibit in the next year or two. The Prospect exhibit caused us to postpone plans for a show this year -but a happy postponement it was!
Because my work requires a long time to complete and studio time is limited because of caring for my elderly parents next door, exhibits are more difficult to produce. Hope to have one soon, however.
* Curiosities *
Iko Iko” is a much-covered New Orleans song that tells of a parade collision between two “tribes” of Mardi Gras Indians, African-American Carnival revelers in New Orleans, Louisiana, who dress up for Mardi Gras in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel.
Kim and Ed are rapper Lil’ Kim and poet Edgar Allan Poe
Two Poets on an Island depicts American poetess Emily Dickinson and New York-based rapper Rakim -Bourgeois used to listen to his music.