Much has been made of the Acadian -- or Cajun -- lifestyle, and its storied joie de vivre, originally the response of an exiled people to an exotic if challenging locale. Before widespread educational and economic opportunities transformed south Louisiana, Cajuns were considered backwoods rustics, the hillbillies of the swamps. Most Americans knew nothing about them, but that all changed when the food and music of Acadiana gained acclaim in recent decades. But Cajun art has remained a bit of a mystery despite some big-time artists having roots in the region.
That may be because most art schools instill a global point of view, and while Cajun artists may be more inclined than most to reflect their roots in their work, the results are often more subtle and varied than in Acadian music or cuisine. So it's no great surprise that the Ogden Museum's Spirit of Place expo of contemporary Cajun art is a big, wide-ranging show. Does it live up to its name? Yes, but it's not always easy to put your finger on how or why. Then again, sometimes it is.
Francis Pavy has long been something of a poster boy for thinking globally while painting locally. In Drummer With Cane Grass, a musician with a drum set keeps the beat in a salt marsh, a scene made even dreamier by Pavy's bold patterns and electric colors, like a latter-day Matisse on acid. If the tone is global, the drummer's vaguely Cajun features and the cane grass make it almost as local as crawfish etouffee. No less bold, yet more complicated, is Shawne Major's Rocking Horse, which is larger than life and covered in beads, chains, tiny children's toys, pull tabs and found objects reflecting her bricoleur approach. Bricoleur is a French term for improvising something out of whatever's at hand, and here the result is talismanic: a kind of rocking-horse totem.
More talismanic objects appear in the work of the late visionary art legend, David Butler. Airplane is a brightly painted classic, a seemingly crude whirligig with many propellers and pinwheels, plus bits of toys, trash and bric-a-brac fused to a tin fuselage that may have started out as a sea serpent or mermaid. Also visionary but very different is Stephen Dugas' Das Leben Ist Ein Kampf (German for 'life's a bitch'). Here a blond Rhinemaiden in a horned Valkyrie helmet floats in the clouds over a strange black dude with eyes all over his body, holding an apple in one hand as a snake coils up his arm. Not your typical Garden of Eden scene, it's more like some kind of weird, Hindu-Cajun-Wagnerian Voodoo demonology. Dugas says it came to him in a dream. Hmmm. But then, the Blue Dog is also demonic if you think (or dream) about it. Here, Blue Dog artist George Rodrigue is represented by some pre-Dog, faux naive portraits of three former governors who had a big impact on Cajun life: Huey P. Long, who brought roads and schools, his brother Earl Long, who consolidated Huey's legacy, and Edwin Edwards, our first Cajun governor and most-elected former chief executive (currently serving a term in a federal pen).
If Rodrigue is the most famous Cajun artist, Keith Sonnier may be the most highly regarded. The New York art-star son of a Grand Mamou hardware store owner, Sonnier is himself a 'bricoleur' who makes sleek neon sculptures from odds and ends and industrial scraps. Dauraldi Abri suggests a stylishly radioactive, post-apocalyptic relic, like something left over from Blade Runner. Sonnier says he was inspired by the glow of neon signs reflected over the region's amphibious rice farms when he was growing up.
Other noted Acadiana artists represented include plein air painter Elemore Morgan as well as local art impresarios Mark Bercier and Tina Girouard, among far too many others to discuss adequately in such a brief space. So let's just say this is a lively, interesting show that lives up to its name through its earthy flair and atmospheric elegance. While the colorful dreaminess that typifies Louisiana art is much in evidence, there is also something else at work here, a subtle if pervasive sense of a culture that revels in life itself, one that routinely transforms the bounty of its exotic landscape into a spirited celebration of the senses.
- The bold patterns and electric colors of Francis Pavy's Drummer With Cane Grass reflect a mix of local and global influences