Looking for the Darkness on a Sunday Afternoon June 9, 2008Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Acadian, Blue Dog, Cajun, George Rodrique, landscape painting, Louisiana, New Orleans, New Orleans Museum of Art, NOLA, NOMA
It was hard to peer closely into the darkness while surrounded by a happy mob searching for their Blue Dogs.
The other visitors moved through the George Rodrigue retrospective like an assembly line of amoebas, blobs of people expanding and contracting as they moved by fits and starts through the gallery, their progress governed by the little audio tour boxes clasped to their heads. It’s my own damn fault about the crowd, waiting until the afternoon of the last day. Rodrique’s Blue Dog work has far too large a status as local cultural icon to think there would not be a mob on Sunday. Me, I had not come for the Blue Dog. I had come to experience close up the painted twilight beneath his mythic oaks, and the darkness of those trees themselves.
It seemed everyone in line to enter clutched Blue Dog books, hoping to get a an artist’s autograph. I struggle to understand the attraction. The eyes of the blue dog are disturbing: fixed circles that seem soulless and infinitely deep, like the empty sockets of some stone idol. Those eyes betray Rodrique’s original inspiration of the Cajun boogie-man/swamp monster loup garou, but the packaging in a small terrier or whatever Blue Dog might be strikes me as pure kitsch, something of a cross between Hello, Kitty and the nasty bunny rabbit line popular with middle school girls, tarted up a bit with oils to make sure there was a high-end line of originals to go with the posters and coffee mugs.
I had not come for the dogs (or even the blue bears, which I had not seen before) and certainly not for wildly popular portrait of Drew Brees with Blue Dog or the fawning picture of Ronald Reagan. I am drawn to the earliest landscapes and portraits, like the reproduction that hangs in my house of the 1984 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival painting–the subjects human like luminous ghosts or figures brightly lit on an night time exterior film shot. The strange luminosity that seems to come from within the figures results in large part from the contrast with the blackness of those trees that stand over and behind the figures, a landscape in the palette of camo. I had come to see what I could just detect in the mass produced prints, could only see in the art book with a magnifying glass–the complex blends of blacks and browns, greens and grays from which those trees were made, the brush knife work of applied paint mimicking the patterning of a Live Oak’s bark.
The images I had not seen before which struck me were late paintings of dark oaks with a luminous blue-green sky of a color not typically associated with planets with nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres. The color makes the seen ominous, which most of his dark landscapes are not. It is as if he had distilled the frightening eyes of that Blue Dog into something purely blue and unnatural, and cast it into the sky to light the scene
If this all sounds a bit Gothic perhaps it is, in a sense far older than the fashion trend of the late 20th Century. Rodrique’s work before Blue Dog or the portraits of famous Louisianians is a window into a world Gothic in a way that the Shelleys or Pre-Raphaelites would recognize. In a few of the paintings there are colors in a patch of sky that suggest celestial twilight, the set of warm colors sunset paints on the clouds, but in so many others there is no clear indication of the time of day. It is a timeless darkness that seems not an obscured light from above but something that radiates from the trees . These are not the scenes one will encounter just up the street beneath the widely scattered trees in City Park, as magnificent as they are. It is a window into the Forest Primeval, into Mythago Wood.
This is not the darkness of the grasping trees of a frightening Disney forest with boles for eyes. It is a cool and inviting dark like a room on the shady side of a house on a cool day, a mysterious attraction like the mouth of a cave. It is an invitation into another world which in the end is something all great art does. The only frightening thing in these mythic woods is the thought that at the end of the path there might be a pair of perfectly circular bright orange and soulless eyes, fixed and unblinking, waiting for you.