Thursday, April 1, 2010

Rabbits and Chickens In (and Out) of Rodrigue Paintings

George Rodrigue’s sense of play spills over from his life into his art. Even in his Cajun paintings, which many consider to be his ‘serious work,’ he plays jokes on the public, entertaining himself and his audience with absurd subject matter, scale, and titles.

The truth, however, is that when it comes to the actual process of applying paint to canvas, everything George paints is serious. From the ridiculous to the sobering, each stroke, each concept, each finished painting is purposeful, deliberate, and painted in the best way he knows how, painted as if it were a jewel.*

Consider Chicken on the Bayou, painted in 1986. According to George,

“So fond was the Landry Family of their chicken Clotile, that they commissioned this portrait of her.”

He barely says the words with a straight face before the real fun begins:

“I call it… The Two Hundred Pound Chicken on the Bayou!”

Once his laughter subsides, he explains in the most serious manner that the chicken is painted like a Cajun person, no different than Huey Long at the Evangeline oak. Its hard edge and strong shape appears cut out and pasted onto the Louisiana landscape, and like the Cajuns, it glows with its culture. (pictured, Huey Long... on the bayou? 1980, 60x36 inches)

For the past forty years, certain aspects of George’s paintings remain predictable and consistent. No matter what the subject, whether Evangeline, the Blue Dog, the President of the United States, or a giant chicken, if the painting is an outdoor scene, then any subject is framed by a tree, illuminated from within, and part of a carefully planned puzzle, so that shifting any element destroys the design. Shifting any element, in fact, disturbs George’s serious application and composition. (pictured, Don’t Turn Your Back on Your Troubles, ‘Cause They Just Multiply, 1992, oil on canvas 48x36 inches)

This is the reason it all works! If George paints bunnies and chickens (and dogs) in a realistic scale, and shows them running around the base of a tree or sitting at a person’s feet, the mystery is gone; the subjects become ‘characters’ or, worse, lose their status as subjects altogether; and the paintings lose both their sincerity and their power. (pictured, Have You Ever Loved Someone Who Just Couldn’t Love You? 1992, oil on canvas, 30x24 inches)

Scale is a key element for George in both his paintings and in life. Forget the small chocolate bunny! He tells a story of poor André who refused to leave his bed one Easter Sunday (1979) because he was terrified of the giant rabbit sitting at the dining room table. It took much of the day for George to coax him out of his room and talk him into a picture. (Check out those feet – both André’s and the rabbit’s! - resulting in a photograph that could just as easily be a Rodrigue painting)

Once he got over the giant rabbit, a shaken André spent a happy Easter after all, hunting for eggs beneath the oaks in the backyard with his friend Kerri Kuykendall.

Several years later (1984) Jacques too received a giant bunny and humored his dad with a photograph.

Mardi Gras 1979 in Lafayette, Louisiana prompts another memory of rabbits and chickens. George hosted his annual unofficial ‘krewe’ party, proclaiming himself King on a bandstand in front of his house on Jefferson Street.

(pictured, George Rodrigue, frequent painting subject Ray Hay, Catholic High buddy Ed Vice, and George’s son André)

This particular year, George’s friend Louis Mann was King of the Lafayette City Krewe, Bonaparte. He made special arrangements for an unauthorized stop at George’s platform for a photo op and gift exchange. George gift-wrapped a live chicken in a beautiful box as a surprise for the crowd. When Louis opened the box, the chicken flew out in a frightened, frantic fluster, terrifying the 18-year old girls making up the Royal Court (and their official debut), and pooping all over the King’s elaborate and expensive hand-made costume.

Louis and George count this story among their favorite memories and laughed about it for years. However, Lafayette’s city officials, horrified, moved the parade route permanently, so that it never again passed in front of George’s house. (pictured, George’s studio, circa 1980)

Ten years later, in 1989, First Lady Barbara Bush presided over the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. She asked George, who had just completed a portrait of her husband and grandchildren, to paint three of the wooden eggs. Rather than rabbits and chickens, he chose Jolie Blonde, the Oak Tree, and the Cajun fisherman, Tee Coon, as his subjects.

These were the first Cajun eggs in a tradition that started more than one hundred years earlier. Today the eggs remain in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Named after George’s long-time friend and gallery employee Douglas Shiell, Douglas, You Hopped Out of My Life and Laid the Blues on Me (1993, acrylic on canvas, 40x30) is one of George’s most popular works.

He drops the Cajun landscape in this striking design of black, red and blue. The Blue Dog (just like young André in the 1979 photograph) appears cut out and pasted onto the rabbit, so that the design remains typical of his Cajun paintings. Simply put, George paints the rabbit in place of the oak tree and the dog in place of the Cajun figure, substituting one strong shape with another, while holding true to his unique and well-defined artistic approach.

My favorite of these ‘rabbit and chicken’ designs is a silkscreen from 1993 called Chicken in a Basket (23x34 inches, edition of 100).

I remember the day seventeen years ago that George showed me the stuffed chicken he purchased from a roadside taxidermist in South Louisiana (…if only I was kidding). I’m sure I said something like,

“That’s disgusting!”

To which he replied, while laughing,

“Isn’t it cool? I’m going to do a silkscreen!”

(pictured above: the actual chicken-in-a-basket, photographed with George this morning after he removed it from its usual perch in our TV room).

Lest you lose your appetite for Easter dinner following that true story, I leave you with a harmless Easter bouquet, a pastel from 1984, as well as best wishes to you and yours during this special season.

Wendy

*Louisiana architect A. Hays Town advised George in the late 1960s to “treat each painting like a jewel,” according to George the most important advice of his career.

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4 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this with me. It made my Easter. Love always, Dorian Bennett

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  2. Wendy, Thanks for remembering a great moment in Dad's life! Hope you all have a Happy Easter!

    Lisa Breaux

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  3. What a great laugh you gave me, Wendy! You must be constantly on your guard from attacks of humor a la George...

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  4. Love the chickens! Much as I love chickens and roosters, you can keep any stuffed ones not suitable for eating.

    Happy Easter!

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