ST. AMANT — Thirty-four years after fleeing New Orleans to avoid its engrossing melodramas and finally get some work done, artist Douglas Bourgeois is still living alone in this small Ascension Parish community.
At 63, he’s a confirmed rural hermit. “But not country enough to fix things,” he said with a laugh.
You would not guess this from talking to him. His conversation is urbane and charming in an unassuming way. With his thick dark hair cut like Elvis’ and only lightly dusted with gray, he continues to look like the hipster he was at 26 when he supported himself by waiting tables at the vanished Jonathan’s, a suave but short-lived restaurant on North Rampart Street.
He runs errands in the morning, paints in the afternoon and climbs into bed about 10 to read for half an hour before sleep. On his bedside table now is a biography of Sun Ra, the visionary jazz musician who insisted he was from Saturn.
Bourgeois doesn’t want anything he doesn’t already have. In fact, he wants less.
“I recently cut the cord with satellite TV and canceled almost all of my 20-year magazine subscriptions,” he said last week. “I never did have a smartphone — I’ve resisted.”
Occasionally, he goes days without seeing other people except for his parents, who live on an adjacent acre. Both have been ill for several years. He cooks for them daily, carefully labeling the containers, and he sleeps in their house every other night, sharing the caretaking job with his sister. He doesn’t leave St. Amant often.
Asked about such long-term dutifulness and sacrifice, he responded with consummate lightheartedness.
“That’s the Bourgeois way. It’s just what these Cajuns do. We were brung up right!”
But he did drive into New Orleans a few weeks ago to glimpse 17 of his luminous paintings hanging in a second-floor gallery at the Contemporary Arts Center. As one of five Louisiana artists chosen to participate in Prospect.3, the international contemporary art biennial now on view in venues across the city, his work will be displayed through Jan. 25.
“I’ve almost never seen that many of my paintings in one room — so many!” Bourgeois said of his hallucinatory creations, the oldest dating from 1979 and the newest from 2014.
“They’re like your children. I knew I couldn’t remember them all, so I wrote them down. They may never be in the same room again for a long, long time.”
In New Orleans, Bourgeois has long been one of the most celebrated of contemporary Louisiana painters. Over the years, he’s had 10 solo shows in Louisiana and four outside the state, and he’s been part of more than 40 group shows. Local curators, critics and other art-minded people remain ardent supporters. It’s easy to see why.
Shimmering like enamels in bright Caribbean colors, his paintings are so intensely detailed and densely layered with pattern and imagery that in a good year, he produces only five. Each is a marvelous fever dream.
People and objects that have never been in the same space in real life are suddenly and theatrically caught up together. Pop singers like the Ronettes and Al Green appear next to Edgar Allan Poe, St. Anthony or the German expressionist painter Otto Dix. Anonymous others, sometimes with bruises or tattoos, wear transfixed expressions like Hindu gods and goddesses.
Many of the painter’s hybrid visions come to him via rock ’n’ roll; others emerge out of Catholic mysticism — dual fascinations that Bourgeois, a former altar boy and lapsed seminarian who came of age in the 1960s, has made into his artistic wellsprings.
A 2013 painting in the current show, “Double Holy Spirit Coco,” was inspired by a music video Bourgeois saw on YouTube in which a soul singer, Coco, does a dance number in a high school gym.
“There is something so ecstatic about it. It almost made me cry,” said Bourgeois, who took photos from the video and then created his own tableau: a dark-haired, sultry female singer flanked by hovering sacred hearts and diving birds caught in crowns of thorn. An unreal formation of circular fluorescent light fixtures proliferates from her head like a technological halo run amok.
“I’m not a Broadway musical kind of dude,” he said. “I always like the messy, sloppy, tattooed messes.”
Like the best magical-realist fiction writers, Bourgeois is prone to bend reality in signature ways. Lush gardens bloom from suitcases and open drawers. Products from Maalox to maxi pads float in space. Refrigerators, dinette sets and phonographs appear in the woods. The Louisiana landscape often figures in, too, mysterious, teeming and obsessively reproduced. Every wrinkle in a banana leaf is rendered like the folds of a saint’s robe.
“He’s unique and belongs to a rural, quasi-outsider tradition,” said Dan Cameron, chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art and formerly curator of contemporary art at the Contemporary Arts Center. Cameron once included Bourgeois’ work in a 2007 New York City group show titled “Unsung.”
“He’s basically an artist like Henri Rousseau, who really was self-taught, in that they’re both intentionally constricting their own visual reality at a conscious remove from wherever the official currents of culture happen,” Cameron said. “Not only is (Bourgeois) not in New York — he’s not even in New Orleans. He’s in St. Amant. It gives his work a particular idiosyncratic flavor. Increasingly, it’s impossible to mistake his work for any other. A lot of artists you can’t say that about.”
The surprise that never gets old is his execution. Bourgeois paints his fantasias in a representational style that brings to mind the meticulousness of Indian miniatures, the visionary naivete of folk art and the forced perspectives of Giotto’s 14th-century frescoes.
“His work is devotional in the incredible precision of his technique,” said Michael Sartisky, former director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and a steadfast Louisiana art collector. He recently decamped to Asheville, North Carolina, with two of Bourgeois’ lushest paintings. “You feel the investment of spirit made by the artist in every brushstroke. It runs totally counter to the prevailing mode of today,” he said.
For Bourgeois, being able to survive as an artist was a gradual process that took decades. It began in a drawing class when he was an undergraduate at LSU, where he met the late Ecuadorian-born artist George Febres, who was there getting his master’s degree.
An irrepressibly creative soul who also was a Faubourg Marigny gallery owner and unofficial cultural viceroy from the 1970s through the ’90s, the flamboyant Febres took the shy, young Bourgeois under his wing and introduced him to influential arts administrators and collectors throughout New Orleans. This led to prestigious exhibits followed by awards, fellowships and inclusion in a 1982 traveling show that began in Washington, D.C.
These days, there’s rarely any backlog of Bourgeois paintings — in fact, there’s a waiting list. His longtime dealer, Arthur Roger, receives each work as soon as it dries and often sells it immediately for between $18,000 and $38,000, a price range considered high for a local painter.
Bourgeois’ art is so sought-after that sometimes, to Roger’s mystification, the paintings are sold before they’re even finished. Thus, they generally disappear fast into private collections and are seen again only when they’re gathered for a show like Prospect.3.
For his part, Bourgeois is thrilled not to be anywhere near a sale. His life centers around the cozy, rustic world he’s made for himself in a compound of buildings tucked away off a country road. It’s steps away from where he grew up with five siblings, a mother who made chicken and butterbean stew (“where the legumes thicken the stew,” he said) and a father who was a sign painter and later a barber who cut his own children’s hair and saw to it they got ice cream on the way home. “I’ve got cousins, aunts and uncles a mile and half down the road,” Bourgeois said. Sixteen sets, living and dead, to be exact.
Years ago, when he first moved back to St. Amant, Bourgeois lived with his parents in their slab house and kept a suitcase of paints under his bed. “I’d set up different stations,” he said. “But adults need places to make their own messes.”
In the early 1990s, after his father gave each of the kids an acre, one of his uncles found an abandoned shotgun shack and moved it to Bourgeois’ property so he could have his own painting studio. Fixing it up was a family affair. Another uncle’s electrical wiring of the place, he said, “was like artwork.”
A decade or so later, he found a pecky cypress bungalow about a mile away and had it moved to his land. This is where he lives. It’s tiny, simultaneously humble and rich: an otherworldly Cajun dollhouse hung and strung with other people’s art. In it, he practices certain old-fashioned virtues. When reporters come to interview him, he bakes pear muffins and puts them in a bowl under a napkin. He sets out a wedge of Brie and black pepper crackers — both available nowadays in a Gonzales grocery, to his everlasting wonder.
Essence of spirituality
With windows spanning three sides, the view from Bourgeois’ living room is expansive. “I call it bird TV,” he said as flocks of blackbirds exploded out of nearby trees.
Surrounding the house is his woodland garden, where bald cypress trees, spider lilies, prayer plant, walking iris, Milky Way aspidistra and native palmettos grow luxuriantly. Bourgeois is an avid gardener. Everything that’s here, he’s planted.
Asked if he still feels close to the religious imagery in his paintings, Bourgeois said he does. “When I was educated in Catholic schools, it was such a big deal,” he said. “I really felt it. I wasn’t just phoning it in. I think we all want to find the essence of spirituality — to treat people well, to leave everything like you found it, not to mess up the Earth too much.”
He plans to keep painting and maybe travel more in the future. He has never even been across the Atlantic.
“Who was it who said, ‘In the daytime I am bourgeois, living a buttoned-up, practical existence, but at night I make art and am a wild man’? Or something like that? Was it Andre Breton?” he asked.
“There are people whose lives are the art, like rock stars. They’re living artworks,” he said. “I envy them in a way, but I’m very happy with a more transformative thing, to have my life go into my painting and meld with it.”