"New Orleans is the most beautiful city because it is gritty and raw. You love the city because of it, not in spite of it." So says painter Michael Bolerjack, and if New Orleans' dilapidation is more poetic than most urban industrial grime, his canvases convey this city's Caribbean mix of grit and mystery. A visual poet of distressed grandeur and vital decay, Bolerjack explores the dark inner recesses of our culture in canvases startling for their mashup of historicism and sensationalism rendered with iconic economy. This may have to do partly with his post-college day job as a tattoo artist and its emphasis on making dramatic statements in limited spaces. And like the best tattoo artists, he makes the most of suggestion, deploying familiar images in ways that convey dual or extended meanings.
Religious themes often play a role. In Exhibit I.N.R.I., two crucifixion-like figures appear within traceries like those employed by police to denote the positions of murder victims. The Last Supper (pictured) is a painting of a pelican feeding its young with its own flesh. Yes, that's the Louisiana state seal, but it also was a symbol of Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry long before Louisiana existed. With its bloody breast and gothic fenestration, the state bird again regains its ancient and mystical context. In another canvas, a Masonic "all-seeing eye" appears within a triangle created by two crossed pelican beaks in a variation of the pyramidal symbol on the dollar bill. The currency theme continues in portraits of Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln framed by traces of paper money engravings, only here the men look like zombies, as if they've seen too much in their travels through the financial system. Bolerjack is unusual for his deft ability to mingle the darkly brooding expressionism of George Grosz or Ivan Albright with commonly accessible imagery — an alchemical mix eerily reminiscent of the deeply eloquent shadows and bright lights of his hometown. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT