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Brush with Greatness 

With a 40-year retrospective opening Saturday at NOMA, Cajun artist George Rodrigue is finally getting his props in Louisiana.

George Rodrigue had his first New Orleans art show in late November 1980 in the lobby of a downtown savings and loan. Even back then, his paintings already had been exhibited in Paris, Los Angeles and a host of smaller venues around the country — but not in any "respectable" gallery or museum in Louisiana. He was just too local.

So, he took what he could get in the way of a show in New Orleans, and on the Monday before Thanksgiving of that year, Rodrigue unloaded paintings of landscapes, Cajuns and legendary Louisiana figures like Huey Long and set them up in the lobby of First Homestead Savings and Loan.

And then he waited.

The show got a small boost the day before from a cover story I wrote in the now-defunct Dixie Roto magazine, which was The Times-Picayune's Sunday supplement back then. The cover shot was of Rodrigue standing next to a life-size oil painting of The Kingfish with the headline, "A Louisiana Rousseau" — a reference to a comment about Rodrigue made by Le Figaro in Paris. The comment was prescient, as Henri Rousseau, like Rodrigue, painted in the primitive style and was often ridiculed by his contemporaries.

By Monday afternoon at the S&L, several local TV stations showed up to interview the "Cajun artist." Rodrigue, a man of few words, no doubt challenged the TV crews for sound bites — but deep down he understood the wisdom of letting his paintings speak for him.

And speak they did. The guy who had once sold paintings out of the trunk of his car, sometimes literally trading them for (very good) meals, was about to hit the big time. The price of his Cajun paintings took off — they had been selling for less than $5,000 apiece for years. That changed quickly.

In 1984, Rodrigue took advantage of another break. He met then-NBC political correspondent Ken Bode, who fell in love with Rodrigue's work while doing a story about Louisiana's presidential primary, which coincided with the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival that year. Bode worked Rodrigue and his art into his Nightly News report that Saturday, and for years afterward invented new ways to feature Rodrigue in his network reports from Louisiana. Before long, Rodrigue could count Tom Brokaw, Whoopi Goldberg and other major celebs among his collectors.

But it would take a long time — more than 27 years from his cramped exhibit in the S&L lobby in 1980 — before Rodrigue would get a real show in New Orleans. That's finally happening this Saturday (March 1), when the New Orleans Museum of Art will present a 40-year retrospective of Rodrigue's work for a three-month run (through June 8). The show, appropriately titled, Rodrigue's Louisiana: Cajuns, Blue Dogs and Beyond Katrina, will include more than 250 examples of Rodrigue's work — from sketches done as an art student in the 1960s to Blue Dogs completed last year.

NOMA director E. John Bullard, writing about the show for Arts Quarterly, called Rodrigue "undoubtedly Louisiana's most famous contemporary artist" and praised him for "demonstrat[ing] that an artist does not have to abandon his home state to achieve success and acclaim."

Well, sort of. There were, after all, those intervening 27-plus years.

During that time, Rodrigue's subjects evolved from south Louisiana landscapes to his Cajun ancestors, famous Louisiana characters, commissioned portraits, nudes, his iconic Blue Dogs, and his more recent hurricane series and then back to Blue Dogs and nudes. His work has been featured in New York, London, Chicago, Tokyo, Paris, on four Neiman Marcus catalog covers and in innumerable Absolut Vodka and Xerox color printer ads. It is no exaggeration to say that Rodrigue has become a worldwide sensation.

And now he's finally getting his props at home.

Sitting in his Faubourg Marigny studio — a converted garage behind his 19th-century home that is filled with his own and many other major artists' works — he takes it all in stride. "I never thought I would have a show in New Orleans," he says. "Then again, I never thought I'd have a show in a museum anywhere."

He bursts into a characteristic chuckle, then turns toward a three-quarters-finished Blue Dog and picks up a brush.

I first met George Rodrigue in February 1980. Almost a year earlier, I had come across his Cajuns of George Rodrigue hardcover book on a friend's coffee table. The book showcased more than 100 of Rodrigue's paintings of ghost-like Cajuns floating across dark south Louisiana landscapes — page after page of hauntingly beautiful images of people and settings that were at once familiar and yet utterly distant. What I knew about art could (and still would) fit easily inside a thimble — and probably rattle around like a BB in a boxcar — but this stuff spoke to me.

An uncle who lived in Lafayette arranged for me to meet Rodrigue at the artist's home and gallery there. Or so I thought. When I arrived, Rodrigue was shooting pool with a buddy. I did my best to compliment his work and make conversation, but he paid me no mind as he and his buddy continued their game of 8-ball.

Then I blurted out, "I'm a reporter from New Orleans, and I was thinking of doing a story about your art."

Rodrigue was literally in the middle of drawing back on his pool cue, leaning across the table, as he heard my words. Without missing a beat, he stood straight up, handed the pool cue to his pal and said to him, "Put this back on the wall on your way out." He then turned to me and said, "Come with me."

Yes, even then, Rodrigue understood the importance of publicity.

We adjourned to another room and talked for four hours — about the Cajuns, about modern art, about art cliques, about the Old Masters, about a whole world of things relating to the artist and his work. In casual settings, Rodrigue comes across as a typical carefree Cajun, but when the subject is art — his art — he is very serious, even passionate, about what he does and how and why he does it. In that way, too, he is typically Cajun. As a people, the Acadians wear an outward joie de vivre but harbor a collective inner sadness, a longing almost, that reflects their centuries-old diaspora. Talk to most Cajuns about food or music, and the conversation is light; talk to them about their land and their people, and you'd better tread lightly.

Rodrigue's canvases of the Cajuns — he always paints them in white, so they appear like ghosts, and never with discernable feet or shoes, so they appear to be floating rather than standing on solid ground — capture that sense of a people apart, disconnected from the rest of the world both in time and place, yet bound together by a culture that has already disappeared.

How did George Rodrigue come to capture the essence of the Cajun experience on canvas? It started almost by accident. When he was in the third grade, growing up in New Iberia, he contracted polio and spent months convalescing at home. To help him pass the time, his mom bought him a paint-by-numbers kit. "I didn't like what the numbers were directing me to paint," Rodrigue recalls, "so I just painted what I wanted. I painted things I knew and things I liked — alligators, nutria, whatever."

After graduating from Catholic High in New Iberia, Rodrigue explored the rapidly expanding boundaries that were suddenly open to young modern artists in the 1960s. He attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now ULL) for three years and then Art Center in Los Angeles for three years. Then, in the late 1960s, after returning to Louisiana to be near his ailing father, he rediscovered the magic of painting what he wanted — and what he knew. Rodrigue's Cajuns "heralded the emergence of a Cajun revival that swept the country," notes NOMA's director, Bullard.

Today, at age 63, Rodrigue still paints what he wants. As he prepares for the NOMA retrospective, he reflects on the fact that "one thing just followed another" in his career. "I had no real pattern or goal," he confesses. "At every step, I just tried to keep it interesting for myself. Whether I'm painting hurricanes or bodies or blue dogs, I just try to keep it interesting for me."

That kind of single-mindedness was both a blessing and a curse. In the early days, it kept him focused on his art, but as time passed it also kept him out of the artistic mainstream of his contemporaries — a path that now seems like a stroke of genius but isolated him artistically for years, much like his fellow Cajuns had been isolated culturally for almost two centuries.

'Early on, the art scene in New Orleans snubbed me because when I came back from California, everybody was doing abstract expressionism and I was doing Cajun primitive landscapes. There wasn't any room for me," Rodrigue says. "People looked at my landscapes and said, "That's been done before.'"

Rodrigue shrugged off the snub by recalling a lesson he learned in California, where he had seen Andy Warhol's large rendition of a Campbell's Soup can. "That gave me a different perspective in terms of looking at contemporary art here as opposed to the contemporary art scene in L.A. What I was producing was something that Louisiana had not seen before. The subject matter may have been familiar, but the perspective was new."

The retrospective at NOMA will showcase all of Rodrigue's unique perspectives. Instead of grouping his works chronologically, as was done at a seminal show in Memphis last year, the NOMA exhibit will cluster them by subject matter — starting with his early landscapes, then his Cajun scenes, his portraits of famous Louisiana characters, the evolution of his iconic Blue Dog, his lesser-known but equally colorful hurricane series, and a variety of nudes painted over the course of several decades.

Rodrigue says the show will include 181 original paintings, 55 original silkscreens (along with a history of his silkscreen prints), plus an array of sketches and 15 large-scale sculptures. It will easily be the largest collection of Rodrigues ever assembled.

'While Rodrigue's work is quite familiar to New Orleanians, the comprehensiveness of this retrospective will be a surprise and pleasure to even his most devoted fans," wrote Bullard, who is co-curating the show with Memphis show curator Dana Holland-Beickert. "And it may convince those who so far have resisted the charm and power of his work that Rodrigue has made a unique contribution to the culture of Louisiana."

At each step, museum visitors will get a glimpse of how Rodrigue's perspective has evolved over the span of four decades. While this is evident in all his paintings, it is especially so in his Blue Dogs — and that, no doubt, is where the flow of visitors will bottleneck.

Rodrigue's ubiquitous Blue Dog has become even more of a legend than the Cajun folk tale it was initially meant to depict. "The Blue Dog grew out of a Louisiana story about the loup-garou, a Cajun werewolf," Rodrigue says. "My mother told me that story when I was a boy. It was a way of keeping kids in line — "If you don't do right, the loup-garou will get you.' It literally means "wolf dog,' and it supposedly lived in the cane fields and in graveyards."

Rodrigue's first Blue Dog painting showed the legendary Cajun werewolf perched outside a haunted house. For a model, he used his family pet, Tiffany, which always sat — a tad crookedly, as in the paintings — at his side while he painted. Other early renditions put the wolf dog in various Cajun settings.

'When I showed the early loup-garou paintings in Los Angeles, with my Cajun paintings, I heard people in the audience calling it "that blue dog.' This was in the late 1980s. They were drawn to it very early on," Rodrigue recalls. "I eventually dropped the Cajun landscapes that surrounded the dog and started painting the dog with a more contemporary background. Also, the color of the dog became brighter, and the shape became more graphic."

A shape-shifting wolf dog?

Yes, but that, like other aspects of Rodrigue's career, came about accidentally. Almost 20 years ago, Rodrigue became inexplicably ill — so ill that he had to stop painting. Each time he returned to his studio, he grew progressively sicker. Doctors failed to ascertain why. Turns out he had contracted hepatitis and developed a near-fatal reaction to the oils in his paints. Once he switched to acrylics as his primary medium — hence, the brighter colors of the more recent Blue Dogs and other paintings — his condition improved. To this day, however, Rodrigue cannot drink alcohol or remain long in unventilated areas while painting, especially on those rare occasions when he uses oils (as he still does for portraits).

And just as the Blue Dog evolved in its appearance on canvas, so did the story of who and what the dog represents. Without question, the dog began as a depiction of the loup-garou. Equally certain is the fact that Rodrigue's long-deceased studio companion Tiffany was the original model for Blue Dog. From there, the dog lapses into a legend all its own.

For a time, Blue Dog was the departed Tiffany searching across time and space for Rodrigue, who painted her in scenes from famous paintings and in equally famous places. In one memorable rendition, the dog is visiting Reubenesque denizens from Ingres' The Turkish Bath — all sprawled beneath a hallmark Rodrigue oak — thereby fusing three of the artist's favorite motifs: a Cajun landscape, the Blue Dog and nudes.

From there, the legend of the Blue Dog gets even fuzzier, and Rodrigue himself will divulge few details. He once told me that Tiffany eventually stopped searching for her creator and began searching the universe for meaning — much like the artist himself. In that sense, dog and artist became one. Rodrigue even published a book, Blue Dog Man, the title of which suggests that notion.

It would not be a stretch to conclude that the entire Blue Dog series is actually Rodrigue taking us all on his personal journey, not unlike his opening invitation to a new friend 28 years ago, when he put down the cue stick and said, "Come with me."

As Bullard alluded, those who follow him to NOMA will be in for quite a ride.

click to enlarge Cajun artist George Rodrigue works on a canvas in his Faubourg Marigny studio.
  • Cajun artist George Rodrigue works on a canvas in his Faubourg Marigny studio.
click to enlarge Huey Long was among the famous Louisiana characters Rodrigue painted in canvases like The Kingfish.
  • Huey Long was among the famous Louisiana characters Rodrigue painted in canvases like The Kingfish.
click to enlarge Blue Dog has explored many realms of time, space and culture. In Right Place, Wrong Time, the azure canine visits Ingres' Turkish Bath in a work that combines three of Rodrigue's favorite motifs  the Blue Dog, his south Louisiana oak trees and nudes.
  • Blue Dog has explored many realms of time, space and culture. In Right Place, Wrong Time, the azure canine visits Ingres' Turkish Bath in a work that combines three of Rodrigue's favorite motifs the Blue Dog, his south Louisiana oak trees and nudes.
click to enlarge Aioli Dinner In Aioli Dinner, Rodrigue's magnum opus and his first major painting of people, the artist portrays his Cajun ancestors as ghost-like images in white against a dark south Louisiana landscape. The work recreates a Cajun dinner club in which the men sat and ate while the women cooked and the children served. Every figure in the painting is a Rodrigue ancestor. The original painting has never been sold and remains in Rodrigue's private collection.
  • Aioli Dinner In Aioli Dinner, Rodrigue's magnum opus and his first major painting of people, the artist portrays his Cajun ancestors as ghost-like images in white against a dark south Louisiana landscape. The work recreates a Cajun dinner club in which the men sat and ate while the women cooked and the children served. Every figure in the painting is a Rodrigue ancestor. The original painting has never been sold and remains in Rodrigue's private collection.
click to enlarge The iconic Blue Dog first appeared against Cajun landscapes such as in Watch Dog.  The artist later expanded the palette to include more playful backdrops and representations of popular culture.
  • The iconic Blue Dog first appeared against Cajun landscapes such as in Watch Dog. The artist later expanded the palette to include more playful backdrops and representations of popular culture.
click to enlarge Amelia Amelia is from Rodrigue's colorful but lesser-known hurricane series.
  • Amelia Amelia is from Rodrigue's colorful but lesser-known hurricane series.
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