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Gateway to Heaven

The curious work of an artist with eyes wide open

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Painting as if discovering these ideas on his own, Douglas Bourgeois seems a reincarnation of a late 14th-century painter poised at the dawn of a cultural revolution. A 52-year-old Louisiana artist whose work is currently on view at Anderson Gallery, Bourgeois paints highly labored and detailed narratives that bind secular and religious themes based on personal experience.

That personal experience flavors a unique body of work. Religious imagery no doubt figures heavily in his visual vocabulary because of his Catholic upbringing in St. Amant, a small Cajun community just south of Baton Rouge. Other cultural influences that have intersected and collided apparently influence Bourgeois to assume the role of social commentator. These are some of the issues that surface repeatedly in Bourgeois’s paintings: The rural character of St. Amant and places like it are being threatened; racial segregation was the norm while prevailing popular music was performed by black artists and worshiped by white listeners; the genteel lifestyle that outsiders imagine Southerners leading mask the realities of economic hardship and social injustice.

No matter his subject matter — Martha and the Vandellas, a friend portrayed as St. Francis, homelessness, or pollution —Bourgeois tackles it with religious fervor. Religious imagery surfaces in almost every painting; in every instance, his art seems his link to God. In “Kim and Ed — The Remix” the artist unites the likenesses of rapper Little Kim in a down-and-dirty getup with very Victorian Edgar Allen Poe. Enclosing them in a Medieval boothlike structure as if to sanctify their meeting (and cut the scantily clad rapper some slack?), Bourgeois surrounds the figures with a mix of modern and ancient styles of furniture. Since time is irrelevant here, the artist is free to associate the couple as equally significant. He confirms their similarities as artists by literally merging the rapper’s lyrics with Poe’s poetry in tiny text printed on the sky.

Bourgeois’s painting style sometimes appears na‹ve, but he is hardly ignorant of technique or compositional strategy. One of his many tricks consists of the small, complex patterns he paints to adorn objects like clothing and wallpaper. Sometimes covering large areas of the painting, the patterns not only add visual richness; they coax the eye into a mantralike calm. Recalling the decorated architecture, clothing and interior furnishings in 14th-century painting, the artist’s patterns are as intricate, but the clothes and wallpaper Bourgeois paints are sometimes tattered. In his serious paintings, the artist’s clever juxtaposition between decoration and decay underscores inherent conflict, and in his more playful images, the patterns help to build a joyful mood.

“Nightflame,” an image portraying a black woman affected by the disintegration of her immediate and distant environments, illustrates the artist’s acuity with composition. The figure stands in a room where wallpaper and flooring, both patterned, are peeling, while in the distance a view of factories spewing smoke and flames into a dark sky appears through the windows. Her surroundings appear threatening, but Bourgeois makes her fortitude evident by visually supporting her with a symmetrical lineup of vertical windows played against strong horizontal moldings. Such are the strategies of master artists.

Although curious, the meeting of high and low culture, the sacred and profane, and naivete and wisdom appear to be a sincere effort by Bourgeois to commit his experience completely to art. In fact, he paints as if his life depends on it. Thanks to this earnestness, a satisfying experience is in store for those who look on. S

“Baby-Boom Daydreams: The Art of Douglas Bourgeois” is on display at the Anderson Gallery, 907« W. Franklin St., through Oct. 26.

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