Imagine the pale, petite figure of Emily Dickinson sitting with the rapper Rakim on a tiny island on a flaming sea. A microphone dangles from a dead tree, catching the fading light of a doomsday sky as a black bird circles above. Imagine each detail (down to Rakim's gaudy jewelry and Dickinson's Victorian ink bottle and bouquet of cornflowers) rendered with a crystalline clarity not seen since the days of Botticelli and Jan van Eyck. Hold the image in your mind until it is etched with laser-like precision, then try holding it there for weeks at a time.
It sounds impossible, but this is what Douglas Bourgeois must have done while painting Two Poets, and indeed must do whenever he paints any of his profoundly time- and labor-consuming canvases. The resulting oils somehow reconcile disparate times, places, races and classes into a singular vision, and we can only wonder about an artist who melds Biblical epiphanies with the hip-grinding sensuality of rock music and the primal swamps and acrid refineries of his native Ascension Parish.
One of the most intriguing things about the sprawling CAC retrospective is how his evolution is revealed through its broadly chronological order. It is, in many ways, a show that reflects the artist's own struggle to unify the opposing tendencies in his own persona, for such images might be the work of a religious mystic-turned-rock musician or a rock musician-turned-religious mystic. It's a schism that goes back to his teenage days divided between a prep school for future Roman Catholic seminarians and a public high school a bit more in tune with the decadence, drugs and rock 'n' roll for which the late 1960s was known. In fact, one of the earliest paintings is Twilight High Yearbook, 1978, rendered in his early caricature style influenced by visionary outsider artists and the raw expressive extravagance of Chicago Imagism.
Here oily, swarthy guys with five o'clock shadows and names like Raphael Narcisse and Rip Sacrecouer appear with wildly coiffed, ruby-lipped sirens like Bambi Stiletto and Chinchilla Melancon, all very local, yet reflective of the broader stylistic influences of Elvis, TV, Hollywood and maybe even Sal Mineo. But pop culture gets religion in Blessed Virgin Appears to a Woman, also 1978, in which a glowing BVM appears in the suburban kitchen of a swarthy lady in an apron like an Ascension Parish Donna Reed. As with his 1982 Inger and the Hitchhikers tribute to Inger Stevens (driving her Buick convertible along the two-lane blacktops of the hereafter), it's a rather theatrical, even campy, exploration of the parallels between the pop cultural and religious varieties of charisma.
In the latter half of the 1980s, Bourgeois underwent a seismic shift from expressionistic caricature to near-renaissance precision as his content encompassed more social and environmental issues. The resulting pop-renaissance magic realism appears full blown in masterworks such as his 1988 opus, Nightflame, an interior with a woman in a ripped, floor-length evening dress, standing with downcast eyes in a dank and derelict room. Behind her an angel in a religious print stares out from tattered wallpaper as, through the windows, a refinery belches fiery flares and fumes into the night. A man's picture hangs on a chain around her neck, a touch Bourgeois says was inspired by the "disappeared," victims of Latin American police states, but which might also apply to those lost to the effects of environmental toxins.
And again we are struck not just by the central imagery but also by details like the cracked linoleum littered with old letters, discarded McDonald's wrappers and the like. In The Suitcase, a nude couple encircled by luna moths embraces amid the crumbling ruins of a house, walls giving way to the forest primeval as mushrooms sprout on the tattered, tawdry furnishings.
Such are the themes, the clash between tacky commodities and primal nature, between established power and the powerless (most poignantly evident in the doll paintings, a highlight of the Arthur Roger show). Yet all are painted with loving equanimity and compassionate matter of factness despite their pathos, and it is this all-seeing yet non-judgmental innocence, combined with startling renaissance virtuosity, that make Bourgeois such a formidable interpreter of these times.
- Daniel Bourgeois' works evolved in the 1980s into a sort of pop-renaissance magic realism, best seen in his 1988 opus, Nightflame.