For this, I blame the dog days of summer. And The MAC. Reviewing art in Dallas is a kiss-a-lot-of-frogs enterprise; when it's 100 degrees in the shade, it's damned hard to get enthusiastic about schlepping through venues you know are long shots. And, let's face it, in recent years, there's been a lot of croaking coming from The MAC. So many ho-hum shows, so little going on.
In fact, after viewing the first few canvases, I almost cut and ran for the truck, figuring the AC wouldn't yet have evaporated. I've always found The MAC's smorgasbord approach to hanging a show a little disorienting; they throw it all out there in two cavernous rooms without much guidance, and one has to kind of sniff it over to get oriented. Being a severely linear thinker, I started with Bourgeois' earliest work, a none-too-remarkable series of canvases from the late '70s and early '80s featuring heavily caricatured pop-culture icons and stereotypes depicted in folk-artsy narratives. Despite some nice passages of paint, I almost wrote him off as one more university-trained faux primitive.
Almost. But then, four or five canvases in, I saw something that made me stop: "Blue Christmas," Bourgeois' 1981 oil-on-canvas depiction of Elvis in repose, drug-induced or otherwise. Full of narrative detail, down to curtains decorated with guitars and Nembutal tablets, it was marvelously filled with surrealist detail. Better still, unlike the earlier celebrity saints and martyrs, this was not distorted in neo-WPA fashion, but honestly and sympathetically rendered by someone who could actually draw. I went on.
By the time I worked my way around to "Nightflame," Bourgeois' haunting, discordant, thematically confused 1988 painting about Southern pathology and South American tragedy, I knew: Bourgeois is that rarest of contemporary painters, an original pictorial genius.
I do not use the G-word casually, or without reservation. Bourgeois, who lives and works in rural Louisiana, is a mass of contradictions. Catholic-school and college-educated, he is a 50-something gay man who paints beautiful people living in urban and suburban nightmares. His fantastic visions careen wildly between utopian and apocalyptic. Though socially and politically aware, his paintings aren't quite satire; while they contain commentary, they stray too far from the mark too much of the time to be called incisive.
His art-historical antecedents run from Gothicism through Grant Woods and the WPA artists. Though he is a regionalist painter in the best sense, he eschews Louisiana flora and fauna. Given to environmental diatribes, it's hard to say whether he's a canary in the mine or Chicken Little. Basically, Bourgeois paints hip-hop saints, beautiful black folk and gorgeous white trailer trash living amid danger and squalor. His paintings are a cross between surrealism without the in-jokes and slapstick minus the laughs.
The accompanying catalog does a fine job of discussing Bourgeois' intentions and art-historical precedents without too much hyperbole. In the end, though, the images speak for themselves. It isn't what they say that's compelling, so much as what they do: They command us to look, to puzzle, to examine, to reflect. Though Bourgeois' narratives can be oblique and his commentary half-baked, the visual images he creates are utterly unique and haunting. Take, for example, his 1997 oil "Sanctuary," which depicts a gorgeous black man with a crown of thorns surrounded by menacing implements of postmodern torture: guns, tape recorders, cameras. You may not agree with any of the assertions, but the image is undeniably compelling. Ditto his 1994 oil "Refrigerator," featuring a hungover-looking, evening gown-attired Southern belle reaching, zombielike, into a very strange icebox. Undeniably cool, the image will stay with you long after you stagger back into the heat.