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Review: From the Estate: George Dureau at Arthur Roger Gallery

The retrospective honors the local artist’s impressive legacy


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Two years after his death, George Dureau is finally getting the recognition he deserved but never really pursued. For an art photographer, having an Aperture Foundation large-format monograph devoted to your work is the gold standard of recognition, and when Aperture published George Dureau, The Photographs last month, it assured his place in photography's pantheon, a position further enhanced by his inclusion in upcoming museum symposiums at New York's Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere. Now this sprawling show of his photographs and paintings at Arthur Roger Gallery provides further insights into the many facets of his persona — facets that can seem more complex in retrospect than when he was alive. Never has someone so otherworldly blended so easily into the background. A colorful French Quarter character known for his flamboyant paintings populated by stylized mythic creatures rendered in Creole earth tones, Dureau also was an influential photographer who in the 1970s mentored the iconic New York art star photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. What set them apart and led to Dureau's posthumously elevated status was his remarkably empathetic vision. The prosthetic arm in his portrait of Wilbert Hines (pictured) is initially jarring, but its cold presence provides a contrasting foil to Hines' stoic yet fiery pathos. Bohemians and street people provided a steady supply of athletic or voluptuous models for his paintings, and his photographs of hunky, sculptural black men were celebrated as more sensitive counterparts to Mapplethorpe's colder sensationalism. It was Dureau's ability to show us the strength and dignity amid the vulnerability of marginalized people that ensured his place in art history. His theatrical personality could come across as a pompous artist-aristocrat in a Marcel Proust novel despite his modest Mid-City roots, but his disarmingly extroverted playfulness enabled him to incorporate whomever he met into his operatic universe in which everyone was a magical creature. That quality made him easy to take for granted even as he created some of the most psychologically profound photographs of the latter 20th century.


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