In his Prospect.3 show at the CAC, painter Douglas Bourgeois finds personal significance in public pop culture figures.
“Logic? No, I don’t think it’s logic. Maybe it’s a way to rectify certain elements in my life, or in life in general.”
Painter Douglas Bourgeois is talking specifically about works that are on display in the Contemporary Arts Center as a part of Prospect.3, but also his paintings in general. Since the late 1970s, Bourgeois has painted pop culture figures, usually in surreal settings. He has become best known for his painting of Irma Thomas that he transformed into a Jazz Fest poster in 2008 when the planned poster fell through. The poster depicted a young Thomas in a florid, miraculously green swamp and invited thoughts about their shared fertility, but the stage gown she wears and the microphone she stands at complicate that interpretation. The original version is part of the show of 17 works on display in the CAC that serve as a mini-retrospective, and the appliances and furniture that flank Thomas in the original further complicate the reading.
I didn’t run my take by Bourgeois, but I suspect he’d politely appreciate my interpretation and tell me he hadn’t thought about that. He paints intuitively, “almost compulsively,” he says. “I can’t help myself.”
He used to write down descriptions of paintings he wanted to do, then look back and the list and decide which ones he’d actually pursue, if any of them. He doesn’t do that as much as he used to. “I’m trying to be less sensible, yet enough of a viewable picture that you get something from it,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t have to. That’s how I look at paintings.”
It’s tempting to see symbolic meaning in the figures who turn up in his paintings, whether they’re The Dixie Cups, Elvis, Jody Watley or Salt-N-Pepa, but Bourgeois doesn’t think that’s quite right. “They’re human, but they have gifts that let them communicate on a bigger scale. They’re like personal guides,” Bourgeois says. One of his most recent works depicts singer Lana Del Rey and the late Bobby Womack—who was alive when Bourgeois finished the painting earlier this year—on the surface of the moon, and they’re unified by being “non-compliant,” an adjective that could apply to many of the subjects in his work. He has a number of paintings of unlikely pairings, including one that presents Lil’ Kim and Edgar Allan Poe together, and another with The Runaways sharing a canvas with painter Otto Dix. In the case of the icy Del Rey and the passionate Womack, the unlikely actually happened as she joined Womack on “Dayglo Reflection” from his 2012 Damon Albarn-produced album, The Bravest Man in the Universe.
“It was a strange album for Womack. His voice was very gravelly, like broken glass.”
For years, Bourgeois was a pop culture obsessive, particularly where music was concerned. He subscribed to Spin, Vibe, and The Source among other magazines, even after he moved from New Orleans to St. Amant to help take care of his parents late in life. He is trying to simplify his life though, and has given up satellite TV and the subscriptions. That doesn’t mean he has stopped trying to find new music, though. Now he regularly reads a number of music blogs, and instead of buying CDs, he downloads most of his music these days. In our conversation, he was easily as happy talking about The Bravest Man in the Universe as he was his own work. Discussing Damon Albarn’s electronic production of Womack led to Jack White’s production of Loretta Lynn, Dan Auerbach’s production of Dr. John, then another artist Auerbach produced, blues singer Valerie June. “I check everything,” Bourgeois says. “I’m just so interested in that stuff.”
One of the paintings in the show is a direct result of consuming culture through his computer. “Double Holy Spirit Coco” presents singer Coco O of the Danish electronic duo Quadron under a canopy of neon tubes flanked by handlers with birds bleeding in crown-of-thorn-like nests dripping overhead. Bourgeois saw the video for Quadron’s “Hey Love” online, and that set him off. “The video had Coco in an empty gymnasium dancing with six or seven partners, and something about it made me very emotional,” he says. “It made me so happy I wanted to cry.” He didn’t know Quadron prior to that video, but he went back to check out their albums and found his way in.
“She’s a cabaret soul singer from Demark, and yet their reference—and reverence—is for American soul music with southern roots. I love that kind of connectivity.”
Although most of his figures are, like Coco, Del Rey, and Womack, famous in some circles, he doesn’t approach them as celebrities, nor does he think of his paintings a form of cultural criticism.
“Most people don’t know who the fuck I’m talking about,” he says, laughing. “I see them as artists, and I’m identifying with them as artists, and how they fit into the world around them. How does the artist function? Is it universal? Are you limited to your little niche?”
In the past, critics have made much of the Catholic iconography in his work, including the thorns, birds, gardens, vines, and flaming hearts. He was a priest-in-training in his teens, but it didn’t take. Now, his spirituality is as idiosyncratic as his work. “I’m still a spiritual searcher,” he says. “I tell people, Keep the good part. I’m more of a zen Buddhist Zoroastrian nature-loving—I still can’t figure it all out. But basically, it’s love over fear. Jesus: cool dude. Great teacher, but I think we’re all divine.”
The visual language of the Catholic Church is clearly present in his paintings, which often have a shrine-like quality. The detritus of modern life dots his canvases, whether it’s a bag of Lay’s potato chips or a bottle of Advil on the floor. Because his figures rarely cast shadows, the scenes are less like frozen moments in dramas and more like designs. His canvases rarely imply a three-dimensional existence for those painted into them. In “Our Lady of the Monster Beats,” the woman rising out of a mountain of boom boxes appears to be the topper on a pyramid more than a phoenix emerging from a pile of blasters.
Some of that comes from a very practical place. “I’ve never done shadows,” Bourgeois says, laughing. He has in watercolors, but he was inspired by Renaissance paintings that made it seem like figures were illuminated from within. His figures are posed as if they’re onstage, no matter the context. Bourgeois gives viewers the musician as they know him or her, and he neither tries to offer up a counternarrative in his depictions, nor does he paint them in motion.
“They’re very still,” he says of Del Rey and Womack. “As much as I admire painting that appears to be in action, if I were to try to draw Bobby Womack moving around or Tina Turner from the ’70s dancing, I’d have to draw little reverberations in the air [laughs] I have limited expressability for action.” The combined flatness of his paintings and the stillness of the figures highlights their iconic status. “It’s almost like I want it more frozen, and I don’t want anything obscured by shadows,” Bourgeois says.
He thinks of his work as akin to illuminated manuscripts, and the brightness of his color choices mirrors the gold leaf that created the sense of illumination in the Renaissance illustrations. And like the images in illuminated manuscripts, Bourgeois treats his subjects as icons, connected to real life but not necessarily bound by it. They’re meaningful figures not in the abstract but to him and document his inner life far more than the lives of the icons themselves. Unlike illuminated manuscripts, there is no text to connect Bourgeois’ dots, but in a time when musicians seem domesticated and there are few rock stars, it’s encouraging to see Bourgeois map his inner life on to pop and dance music figures. His work speaks to the dynamics of his own inner workings as well as significance stars can take on, even when familiarity dims some of their shine.
“There’s something in there that makes me want to honor them,” Bourgeois says.