Sunday, November 1, 2009

Blue Dog: The Ghost of Tiffany, 1990-1992

In 1989 artist George Rodrigue, an investor, and that investor’s agent-brother opened The Rodrigue Gallery of New Orleans just behind St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. In those first months the gallery exhibited George’s Cajun paintings, mostly large genre works featuring his friends and family as models. However, as I mentioned in a previous post (Blue Dog: In the Beginning, 1984-1989), the loup-garou recently entered his paintings, and he returned from a 1989 Los Angeles exhibition of his work mulling over a new subject.

As Super Bowl XXIV (held in New Orleans) approached in January 1990, George wondered how he would get people through the door of his gallery. All too often he watched the tourists on Royal Street walk by without giving the window a glance. In its first six months the gallery had sold one painting (the first week it opened, as it happens), and George considered the possibility that no one but him could sell his work. Maybe a New Orleans gallery was not a good idea.

Before giving up, he painted Blue Dogs. And the week before the Super Bowl, he filled the windows and much of the gallery with them. His investor, his agent, his friends, indeed everyone he knew, told him he was crazy. No one liked them.

These early Blue Dogs were little changed from their Loup-garou predecessors. The paintings all had Louisiana landscapes in the background. The dog’s color was blue-grey, and it had discernible fur. Its texture was rough and frayed at the edges, and in many ways it was still a wolf. The only significant change was in the eyes. They still were dog-eyes, oval and somewhat realistic, but now, instead of red the eyes were yellow. (below: Midnight Moon, 1990, 30x24; Devil Dog, 1990, 20x24; On My Master's Grave, 1990, 24x20)

Remember, the Blue Dog was not some overnight epiphany. Its metamorphosis was slow (and on-going, for that matter), and the paintings are so well-defined by particular periods of development, that there are many of us that could look at a collection of one hundred Blue Dog paintings from 1984 to 2009 and easily place them in chronological order.

Despite the objections around him, George painted these haunting works and filled his gallery with them. He saw a change immediately. The Cajun paintings required lengthy explanations. For years he sold his paintings on the road, traveling to meet his collectors and explaining his work over long dinners and extensive conversation. He counted on introductions from his friends at restaurants and other businesses, and once he had that initial contact, he convinced people to take a harder look. He convinced them that his paintings were different and worth the hefty price tag.

But with the Blue Dog paintings, people asked questions as they walked into the gallery. Whether they loved it or hated it, they still were curious, and this gave the Rodrigue Gallery staff an opening to discuss the work with strangers.

That Super Bowl weekend in 1990, George painted in the gallery (as I recall, the only time he ever did so in New Orleans). He watched as people approached the window and stopped dead in their tracks. His work never had this kind of shock-quality before, and he found it exciting and inspiring. It was completely new --- an absolute blast.

What’s with this Blue Dog? If I could count how many times I heard that question. People poured in the gallery asking it. And we (the sales staff) couldn’t define it! We stumbled over explanations of werewolves and ghost dogs and Tiffany. We needed help from the artist, and yet he too was stumped. He had created a phenomenon he could not explain.

Furthermore, that Super Bowl weekend NBC News, People Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and countless other news agencies photographed and filmed the Rodrigue Gallery window and interviewed George Rodrigue. He began to talk about the paintings without mentioning their Cajun background (both the literal canvas landscape background, as well as the hundreds of Cajun paintings before them). He found himself talking more about the painting’s model, Tiffany, a ghost that died ten years before. (For more on Tiffany, visit Blue Dog: In the Beginning, 1984-1989). The gallery staff echoed him, and we became more confident. We sold paintings.

Following that break out weekend, George explored these ideas on canvas. It was almost as if he defined his next paintings before he began them (a bit unusual for him). He couldn’t wait to get back to his easel.

This was the next big change in the Blue Dog Series. Was this the ghost of Tiffany searching for her master? (pictured: Right Place, Wrong Time, 1991, 48x36; Wrong Century, 1991, 24x36)

(note: visit here to read about George's history with painting the nude figure)

If this Blue Dog was a ghost on a journey, then just maybe it could leave the bayou. For the first time in twenty years, George painted without the oak tree, without a landscape, and I would have said at the time (although today I would not --- more on this in later Blue Dog posts), without Louisiana. (pictured: Loup-garou, 1991, 72x48; for more on this painting see the post My Favorite George Rodrigue Painting)

The world opened up. He could paint this image, this strong, exciting shape, anywhere. He used to say in those days,

“I can take it to the far side of the moon!”

(below: Home on the Moon, 1991, 24x48; I Was a King in High Places, 1991, 48x24; I Just Don't Wanna Be Me, 1991, 24x36; The Immaculate Dog, 1992, 36x24)

At the same time he played with his titles, and for the first time people laughed with him at his work. He could be a serious painter and still have fun. It was the most exciting period of his career since those first landscape ‘jewels’ in 1969. (below: My Favorite Part of Town, 1991, 30x24; You Can Run, But You Can't Hide From the Blues, 1991, 24x20; Don't Turn Your Back On Your Troubles, 'Cause They Just Multiply, 1991, 40x30; Take These Chains From My Heart and Set Me Free, 1992, 48x24)

George let loose not only with his concepts, but also with his brush. He no longer felt constrained by the tight brushstrokes and mahlstick that were so necessary for his paintings of Cajun people. And as I’ve mentioned before, he had felt trapped for years, particularly in the mid-late 1980s, by commissions, by family gatherings and festival posters, and by special projects like painting portraits for Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s Louisiana Legends or painting guest speakers for the Flora Levy Lecture Series at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (detailed with images here).

With the Blue Dog he dared to paint loose and big. He tried house paintbrushes and acrylic paint right out of the can. (below: I Hear the Blues, I See the Blues, I Sing the Blues, 1992, 48x84; Mr. Watson Come Here, I Need You, 1992, 1/2 of a diptych 36x48)

George always says that his favorite painting is the one he’s working on now. It is the actual process of applying paint to canvas that he enjoys most. These large, expressive pieces were a complete change for him, and I would argue that they are the true beginning of the Blue Dog Series.

In the spring of 1992 George’s friend Chef Paul Prudhomme asked him to paint outdoors at his annual festival in Opelousas, Louisiana. George agreed and painted before a confused hometown crowd: Where’s the oak tree? Where’s Jolie Blonde? What on earth are you painting? By the time he finished his Blue Dog, he had lost his audience. He packed up his things and left.

But one man had been watching all along. He followed George and waved down his van, and that’s how George met Michel Roux of Absolut Vodka. Roux commissioned him on the spot to create a painting, Absolut Louisiana, which would appear full page in USA Today in late 1992. They would sell four hundred posters, all for charity.

It was the most successful painting of the Absolut Statehood campaign, and the posters sold out in less than two hours. I remember hearing at the time that people placed their orders from airplanes. (pictured, George Rodrigue with Michel Roux in the Rodrigue Gallery of New Orleans, 1992)

Also in this same year public broadcasting produced a short movie for VHS and select PBS venues featuring Whoopi Goldberg as the voice of Tiffany, the Blue Dog. This charming film reinforced the concept of a ghost searching for her master, and so the idea stuck for a while, both with George and his public. (below: Me, Myself, and I, 1992, 24x30; Tiffany Remembers the '70s, 1992, 36x24; The Re-birth of Tiffany, 1993, 36x24)

It’s important to note that at this time George still was unclear on how to define the Blue Dog. He knew that, just like with the loup-garou, his deceased pet was not on his mind as he approached his canvas. In fact, he was not thinking about dogs at all. He was thinking about shapes, colors, designs and texture. (I remember him getting frustrated when people would ask, “Do you dream about your dog?” or “Where is she buried?” or “Does she speak to you when you paint?”)

No question, George loved his dog, and she was a great studio companion, but it ended there. He knew that these paintings were about something else. And as time went on, he struggled with that definition. And yet, it’s that very ambiguity that keeps the series alive and allows it to move forward. It’s that very ambiguity that keeps the work exciting for George. The meaning changes as the artwork changes, and the artwork changes as the artist does. Like the loup-garou, Tiffany’s ghost hung around for just a few years before a new direction, a new meaning, and new paintings took over.

Wendy

This post features only original works on canvas. However, the Blue Dog silkscreen development is just as important and surprisingly quite different. It deserves its own narrative and is better saved for another day.

For a complete history of the Blue Dog leading up to this post, see (1) Blue Dog: In the Beginning, 1984-1989, and following (3) Blue Dog: Out of Control, 1993-1995 and (4) Blue Dog Man: 1996-1999, (5)Blue Dog 2000, The Year of Xerox, (6) Blue Dog: The Abstract Paintings, 2001-2003

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11 comments:

  1. Fantastic art and information as well. Thank you.

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  2. Great photos
    thanks for sharing

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  3. Absolutely wonderful! Thanks for the Blue Dog share. I love it!

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  4. Wendy-
    Thank you so much for including the painting Home on the Moon. My Mother gave me and my two sisters this print for Christmas years ago, and my Dad, surprised my Mom with the same print. Only we did not know the name and had not been to find any information on it - until now. Again, thank you!

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  5. Hi zoinnks -- I'm so happy you found the info you needed on that fabulous piece! Many thanks for reading - Wendy

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  6. At a recent visit to New Orleans, I was pulled into a local hotel by the warm visages of Blue Dog. She welcomed me and charmed me, much as does fair New Orleans and Louisiana herself. We visited the gallery in the French Quarter. I too became enthralled and curious to learn more about the artist, the legends, and Blue Dog. Thank you for this lovely story of what is most important in the creative process; to allow it. And thank you for the lovely Blue Dog. She is a masterpiece of simplicity and a wholesomeness of heart.

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  7. What a wonderful message, Anon. Thank you for this beautiful sentiment on behalf of both New Orleans and its art. We hope to see you again in the Big Easy!

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  8. <3!!! Thank you for sharing!

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  9. This is a wonderful read - Thank you - I am contemplating something unique that when I found and started learning about the Blue Dog is starting to inspire some of my thinking and hopefully will help to guide me in my efforts.
    I wish you and George all the good fortune.
    Thank you
    Rich

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  10. masterpiece art, i love blue dog very much, thanks for sharing, warm regards from Indonesia :)

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  11. Finally found this movie on vhs as David DuBos is my cousin(Patrick DuBos/Uncle Bob's children) and I watched it at Aunt Dottie's and Uncle Clarence DuBos's house before Katrina. Don't know if they still have their copy but I loved it. Glad to find it. A Treasure....

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