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Change of Scenery

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There were many stories that surrounded Caroline Durieux, the legendary 20th century Louisiana artist who spent the latter part of her very long life as a doyenne of the LSU fine arts department. A New Orleans French Creole of the old school (b.1896) she inspired rumors because of her years in Mexico City, where her husband ran an export business in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. There the proper Newcomb grad fell in with the bohemian crowd surrounding the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and his preternaturally talented wife, Frida Kahlo. No one knows what transpired between Rivera and Durieux, but some famously bad blood developed between her and Kahlo. Perhaps Kahlo resented the way Rivera idealized Durieux in his luminously dreamy portrait of her that hangs with her work in this show. Finely rendered, it reveals a woman with large, poetic eyes floating above primly quizzical features, and it's clear he held her in high regard. For her part, Durieux adopted his social and political orientation in her own work. Rivera pushed her to make prints so her work might reach a wider audience, and she enjoyed some success in Mexico before returning home. Here, she continued in a similar vein, eviscerating the pompous while celebrating the ordinary folk she encountered on the streets of the city.

Nice Men, a lithograph of two haughty gents in formal attire, is typical of her social satire of the 1930s. With condescending slits for eyes and faces like smug reptiles, they suggest the ministerial retinue of a decadent Chinese emperor. The Veil depicts a frumpish society matron whose frilly hat and veil only partly conceal a puffy face in which most of the seven deadly sins are implicit. In Beauty Salon, rows of pasty-faced matrons sit under old conical hair dryers like so many space aliens.

Her street scenes are more simpatico if still satirical. Nuns in elaborate habits ply the byways of the Quarter like strange tropical birds, Carnival revelers collapse after a long day's debauchery, and ghosts ring the doorbells of Creole townhouses. Bourbon Street 1942 depicts a female jazz duo singing to a wartime audience of sailors. This illustrates how Durieux's flair for exaggeration and formal repetition presaged the Chicago Imagists in some ways, not to mention our own Imagists who studied with her at LSU. She later devised exotic new print techniques, but it is these works from the '30s and '40s that defined her legacy as one of the more quietly influential Louisiana artists of her time.

Mars Tokyo's retrospective at Barrister's reveals a latent Imagism in a variety of works that bristle with psychic intrigue. She says her 1980s pastels reflect her shock at moving from the Midwest to upstate New York. In The Angry Diner, an irate patron hurls a plate of food at a hapless waitress. The other patrons stare in shock as mayhem unfolds in an otherwise bland setting where splenetic angst suddenly tops the menu. That same psychic intensity pervades her views of cocktail parties and even Mom and Pop Diner, where the patrons' wide, wary eyes suggest suspense of a sort usually associated with Hitchcock. After a move to Baltimore, she produced a series of "teeny theaters," boxes the size of tiny birdhouses with theatrical facades and minutely detailed interiors, surreal miniatures that encapsulate the dramas of the world outside.

Her most recent work is a series of black-on-black canvases, patterned abstractions very different from her earlier efforts. What gives? It seems that after numerous bouts with depression, she was recently subjected to electroshock therapy that resulted in memory loss and brain damage. These black-on-black paintings reflect her experience of recovery as black gradually fades to gray and dark slowly gives way to light.

Caroline Durieux's lithograph Bourbon Street 1942 reflects her sharp eye for satire and a fondness for colorful street life.
  • Caroline Durieux's lithograph Bourbon Street 1942 reflects her sharp eye for satire and a fondness for colorful street life.

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