Saturday, January 30, 2010

Painting to the Frame

As long as I can remember, George Rodrigue has talked about his sporadic but serious interest in ‘painting to the frame,’ a phrase he coined himself as far as I can tell. Although most of the time his paintings and frames are unrelated to each other (in fact, I recall him asking our framer, “Make the frame go away” so as not to distract from the painting), occasionally George comes across a frame that dictates the design, color, and even imagery on his canvas.

Upon his return from art school in the late 1960s, George faced the challenge of earning a living, while determined to paint full time and avoid a ‘real job.’ He not only saved money by thinning his paints, but also by purchasing old frames at junk shops and flea markets throughout the South. Custom ordering was out of the question, and yet he wanted the massive gilded and wooden frames to add importance, weight, and interest to his landscapes. At twenty-five years old, he wanted his paintings to look like they’d hung on the wall of the Louvre. (pictured, Rodrigue in 1969 and 2009, with paintings from those same years)

In some cases the frame was so interesting that George spent more time restoring it, often stripping paint, oiling the wood, or cleaning the details with small brushes, than he did on his painting. This is true of two small landscapes (11x14 inches each) from 1969. In both cases he painted his canvas to carved cypress frames that he had stripped of their gilding.

This was extremely labor intensive, and he used to work on the frames for days before beginning his painting. Rarely have I seen George as disappointed as when he purchased back the 1969 painting Bayou Country House (pictured below) at auction several years ago.

He had spent many hours stripping the 24x30 inch cypress wood before painting to the frame, and yet the man who originally bought the work (for $150!) applied a pale grey house paint, which he felt better matched the oil painting. Although it would be easy today to pay to have this paint removed (and in fact we did have the painting itself restored by a conservator recently), it hangs as is on our living room wall, a reminder of struggles with clients and their preferences; a reminder that the art takes on a life of its own, depending on where it hangs and how it's studied and talked about, beyond the artist and his intent.

That said, it wouldn’t surprise me to find George sitting at the dining room table, deep in thought, stripping the paint himself late one night.

George’s most famous image painted to the frame is the Aioli Dinner (1971). He found this 32x46 inch frame at Bob’s Junk Shop in Lafayette, Louisiana, and it inspired both the size and greenish color of the painting (for the history of this painting visit its post; to see the painting with frame in person, visit the New Orleans of Museum of Art, where it hangs currently at the top of the Grand Staircase, to the right).

Although shadows make it difficult to see in a photograph (even one as excellent as this, courtesy of Judy Cooper at NOMA), one side of the frame is considerably darker than the other. This is because when George found it, the frame held a vertical portrait (a photograph, under glass, of President McKinley), and the dirt gathered on one edge for decades before he turned the canvas horizontal for his purposes.

Today we have a framer on staff, and George prefers most of his works custom framed with a contemporary and simple molding that, as much as possible, remains invisible. However, that’s not always the case, and although he doesn’t set out to find the frames anymore, he still comes across them on occasion and creates a painting to the frame. (pictured, The Blue Room, 2009, inspired by the famous supper club in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans)

Five years ago on a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, we came across four huge (8x5 feet) ‘running dog’ frames made in India. The wood was painted with pale colors of red, blue, and green, and the frames were intended for mirrors. Ironically (if you recall his dismay with the painted frame of his 1969 painting Bayou Country House), George purchased the frames with plans to re-paint them himself and use them for paintings. Just this month he created Color Me Young for a ‘running dogs’ frame, spending several days afterwards painting the wood. So in this case, he painted his design to the frame, but then painted the frame to the painting. (pictured, George at his easel; frame detail; Jacques Rodrigue with Color Me Young, 2010)


To many, the notion of ‘painting to the frame’ (as well as the notion of writing or reading about it) may sound boring. However, it is another reminder of George’s inventiveness and, most endearing to my mind, his inherent and natural devotion to his own rules of painting (hard edges, graphic interpretations of his culture, strong design, repetitive imagery, etc; for details, visit any of the Blue Dog or Cajun entries listed under 'Popular Musings' to the right of this post) ---- the same rules he set for himself more than forty years ago.

The same can be said for George in life, actually, and I believe it’s the reason he’s described so often as down-to-earth. Not only is he still painting to the frame, he’s also still reciting the Eagle Scout creed….

So why did he wait five years to paint to the running-dogs frame? Well, he had nowhere to hang an eight-foot, eighty pound picture, and let’s face it, it’s just not any fun if he can’t show it off! But as he paints for the new 3,000 square foot gallery on Royal Street, size is no longer an issue. He has room to install almost anything, and you can expect to see (or not see) not only invisible, contemporary moldings, but also gilded, ornate, antique frames, and of course, running dogs.

Wendy

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Red Dog

The Red Dog first appeared in 1990 about the time George Rodrigue started re-thinking the loup-garou, turning it into an entity beyond a Cajun legend, turning it slowly into something else.

You may remember from the post Blue Dog: In the Beginning, 1984-1989 that George changed the red eyes of the early loup-garou paintings to a less ominous yellow as the image developed into the Blue Dog. Yet a part of him missed the werewolf myth, and for several years the yellow-eyed dog appeared exclusively in cemeteries, featuring the same dark night sky that inspired the blue fur from the beginning. Occasionally he took this to an extreme with paintings such as Devil Dog (1990, oil on canvas).

As a result, the darker roots remained alive on his canvas, and for sometime he experimented with illustrations of good (as symbolized by the Blue Dog) and evil (as symbolized by the Red Dog). Usually he kept this pretty light, and I recall in the gallery explaining the Red Dog as “the devil in her,” or “Tiffany’s mischievous side.” (pictured, The Devil in Me, silkscreen from 1991, and The Blues Can Hide a Bad Apple, oil on canvas from 1992).

George, however, rarely spoke of the Blue Dog as ‘Tiffany’ (even though, ironically, he says she was a somewhat mean little dog), but rather described the image itself as having a “split personality” or an “alter ego.” (pictured, Split Personality; Mischief On My Mind, original silkscreens from 1991 and 1992).

By the mid-1990s I remember explaining the Red Dog not as 'Tiffany's mischievous side,' but rather 'George's.' (Three Dog Night, 1993, 36x48, below)….

…something that seemed even more obvious from his painting titles. (My Mood Changes, 2005, 20x24; Bad Thoughts, 2000, 36x24; Angel on My Shoulder, 2006, 36x115)

Eventually the Red Dog took on patriotic symbolism… (Caught in the Fifties, 2000, 24x30)

…and references to love (She Stole My Burning Heart, 2007, 30x40)

But above all else, as I’ve described repeatedly throughout these essays, George’s interest lies in creating something interesting to his eye ----something that does not have all of the answers, but rather poses questions about life, while at the same time leaving no doubt as to each composition’s deliberate design and George Rodrigue’s passion for and study of color.

In art school his professors described him as a “colorist,” an ironic title when one considers his black oak trees from the 1970s. Yet he’s often told me that even a painting as monochromatic (and dark) as the Aioli Dinner required a palette full of color. George’s change from oil paint to acrylics in the early 1990s made his love for primary colors more obvious, and over the years his canvases have grown brighter and brighter.

Today, twenty years after the first Red Dog painting, people approach George’s work with statements like “Oh, I see he’s painting Red Dogs now,” as though it’s some new twist on the Blue Dog paintings.

And then there’s my favorite exclamation, “Look at that! It’s a red Blue Dog!” (The Red-headed Stranger, 2009, 72x48)

Or a pink Blue Dog! (Pink-a-boo, 2007, 60x40)

Or a golden Blue Dog! (My Gold Pet, 2006, 20x24)

Today he paints the Blue Dog in all colors. As he says in the children’s book, Why is Blue Dog Blue? (published 2003, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York),

“Artists don’t have to paint things the way they really are. I use my imagination to paint my own world. I can paint a dog any color I can imagine.”

If you think of it this way, then suddenly the Red Dog, no longer the ‘alter ego’ or the ‘devil in him,’ seems as natural as ….well ….. Blue.

As detailed throughout these blog posts, George Rodrigue has only a few consistencies in his art: his attention to strong design, his understanding of color, his original ideas, and his change or growth as an artist. This is why the Blue Dog paintings, so often mis-interpreted as the same from canvas to canvas or year to year, require so many entries (although in some ways the paintings of later years come to look more like the original silkscreens of earlier years, but I'll touch on this more in a silkscreen post down the road).

Within this “Red Dog essay,” however, the entire development plays out on one page. I hope it provides an obvious understanding of why it took George twenty years of change and growth to get from Devil Dog (size 20x24, 1990) pictured at the beginning of this entry to Color Me Young (size 42x78, 2010), pictured below.

Wendy

For the complete Blue Dog development, see the links under 'Popular Musings' to the right of this post

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Who Dat! …. Plus Voodoo, Cow Heads, and DC Mardi Gras

I awoke at 5:30 this morning to the screams of “Who Dat!” hollered from our sidewalk as though I were Stella herself giving up on the half sleep that comes from tumultuous relationships and reignited passion.
I awoke in a city blissfully plagued with hangovers and swollen eyes and strained vocal chords. (Maybe you did too? Our New York and Irish friends called after the game to report their evening exercise ---- jumping around the living room, followed by sazeracs at the local pub). It’s “Who Dat” insanity, and since I was reminded in Washington D.C. this week that I shouldn’t assume that all the world knows these Louisiana peculiarities (everyone from our cab drivers, to the maitre de at the Old Ebbitt Grill to the director of the Hirshhorn asked me for help), here’s the real thing (I leave you with the fun of translating):
“Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? WHO DAT?! WHO DAT?!”
I had a ticket, but I gave it up. Sounds crazy to you, right? But not really. I went last week and am still high on the experience of hugging strangers, of screaming like life itself depended on stopping the other team at that third down, of gripping my seat (and my chest) until the bitter end, just terrified something would go wrong (“If only they can get ahead by five touchdowns; then we’ll be safe….”). Like last night, I found it impossible to eat or drink, as the knots in my stomach took over. It’s a game, and yet God’s loudspeaker might as well have just announced world peace. I’ve never seen this town (or any place) so happy. (pictured Gus Anderson, Dickie Hebert, Jacques Rodrigue, George Rodrigue, Wayne Fernandez)

Douglas, the Rodrigue Gallery’s all-around take-care-of-everything person for the past twenty years went in my place, accompanying George as they high-fived police officers and hot dog vendors and the Governor himself. (pictured, Douglas Shiell and George Rodrigue in their seersucker suits, New Orleans, summer 2009)

Following the game, as I sat on the couch with the phone stuck to my ear and the Kleenex box in my lap, George ran inside to recount every play for me as though I hadn’t seen a thing. When he realized I recorded it, he opened a beer and shouted at the television until the wee hours. It was just one of those nights. (pictured, Rodrigue with Drew Brees, 2008; raising money for the Brees Dream Foundation; Rodrigue's portrait of quarterback Drew Brees from 2007; Rodrigue with Brittany and Drew Brees, 2009)

To my surprise I learned this past week that football and yoga don’t generally go together. There I was in a workshop and not only was I the only one who attended the game, but also I was the only one who watched it, or in some cases even knew that they won and what it meant. Okay, so I’m probably putting the words ‘football’ and namaste (loosely translated, ‘honoring the spirit within another person’) in a sentence together for the first time in history, but I can’t help but see this phenomenon ----this team bringing together a city that struggles with race relations and corruption and poverty and crime (and potholes) together in a celebration the likes of which even this party town has never known, and doing it all inside of the Superdome, a structure that just over four years ago held immense suffering.
This victory symbolizes the continued healing of a deep and painful wound ---- a wound that remains fresh here long after the rest of the world thinks we moved on (or, most distressful, that we’ll never recover). It’s as if the doctor at long last visited the waiting room and told the New Orleans family,
“I’ve got great news. She’s going to pull through.”

As I listened to the ‘Who Dat’s’ and the car horns early this morning, I developed this post in my head (replacing the “Red Dog” and “Bill Clinton” stories started last week) with not only thoughts of the game, but also various musings from what turned out to be a compelling week on many levels. However, the Saints victory is such a big deal that, let’s face it, no one really cares about the rest. Nevertheless, I’ll reduce my head’s runaway ramble to a few short lines and some pictures:

We visited Washington D.C. (returning bright and early yesterday to catch the game) where we attended the annual Krewe of Louisiana’s Mardi Gras Ball, a three-day event hosted for 5,000 Louisiana visitors in the Washington Hilton.

I was going to tell you all about the Marine Marching Band and the Louisiana Festival Queens, and the floats and beads and dancing, along with a few memories of George Rodrigue’s reign as King in 1994. (Pictured, King George in both his formal and casual attire)

I wanted to cover our fascinating visit to the Hirshhorn Museum, where we learned about the challenges of conserving Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde-soaked cow heads, delighted in stories about stealthy employees spinning Calder mobiles in the night, and viewed Phoebe Greenberg’s short film (and Cannes Award winner) “Next Floor” ---not to be missed.
I hoped to share a story about four-term Louisiana state Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc and his Hadacol Caravan (briefly referenced in the post Jimmy Domengeaux and Other Louisiana Characters), inspired by a lengthy conversation this weekend with his grandson Byron LeBlanc who was also in Washington. Byron unwittingly sent me off on another tangent, however, when he asked about his friend, songwriter Bobby Charles from LeBlanc’s hometown of Abbeville, Louisiana. Charles died last week at age seventy-one, but his legacy remains with hits like “Walking to New Orleans” (recorded by Fats Domino) and “See Ya’ Later Alligator” (recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets).
I never met Bobby Charles. George tells me he became a recluse in his later years, first living on the Vermillion River near Maurice, Louisiana, and later in Holly Beach, until Katrina took his modest home in 2005, sending him back to Abbeville. In 1987 George painted his portrait. He wanted to be immortalized not just through his music, but with an image of the strongest and longest love he’d known. And so behind the adult Bobby, George painted the baby Bobby cuddled by his mother.

And finally, I’ll share a little tale of voodoo. It’s rare that George shocks me anymore, but he got me good with this one. The Washington Mardi Gras attracts visitors from the entire state of Louisiana (New Orleans, ironically, is the least represented). We enjoy going because we see folks there that we might otherwise not see at all, considering how seldom we make it to Shreveport or Alexandria or Plaquemine’s Parish. This year George came across an old rival, one who handed out his business cards and cozied up to George and the rest of us at an event one evening as though the past never happened and the two were best friends. This public fawning riled George more than I realized. The following day at lunch, he announced to the large table,
“I’m puttin’ the gris-gris on him.”

And with that, he pulled out the man's business card, covered it with table salt, folded it into tiny pieces, and stomped on it under the heels of his Mardi Gras boots.

I never knew he had it in him. (and I shudder to think about the response in my yoga class!)
In closing, I want to thank you for reading this blog and giving me a venue to share a sentence that I (along with tens of thousands of others) have been waiting to say and to write my entire life:
...........drumroll...........
“The New Orleans Saints are going to the Super Bowl.”
WHO DAT?!!!!!!!!!!
Wendy
(pictured above with my favorite Saints player, Mike McKenzie, who is unfortunately not playing much these days due to injuries; photo courtesy Michael C. Hebert)
For a follow-up post (after the Super Bowl) visit "A Happiness Epidemic: Saints Fever"
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Sunday, January 17, 2010

I First Loved Picasso

As a kid, sometime around age twelve, I discovered my mother’s art books. She protected her prized tomes within plastic covers, locked behind the glass doors of a large, bright yellow wooden bookcase. Her collection included overviews of the Renaissance, Ancient Greece, and Lost Worlds, as well as Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, Durer, and Michelangelo ---all massive books she purchased while an art student at LSU around 1960.

Art books are expensive, and back in those days her family (an overnight success story in the oil industry in the mid-1950s) had the money to support the whims they understood, such as fashion and cars (in my mother’s case, a yearly new Cadillac convertible), as well as the whims they never understood --- her major in Fine Arts and her collection of art books.

By the time my sister and I appeared, the money was gone, the dresses relegated to a ‘costume closet,’ and the cars long sold. But the art books remained (and remain) protected and precious. Among them is a boxed set of linen-covered monographs of ‘modern’ artists. These include Klee, Kandinsky, Dali, Braque, and my favorite, Picasso (pictured).

Pablo Picasso died in France in the spring of 1973. I was a young child, but I recall my mother showing me his work and talking about this ‘creative genius.’ Her hero-worship affected me, and the artist rose even higher on that pedestal when my elementary school art teachers chose him for our studies. Looking back, they probably found Picasso more accessible to young students than the more ‘lofty’ Abstract Expressionism of the day, as typified by artists like Motherwell and de Kooning. (Pop Art, as far as I can tell, was either not yet understood or not yet taken seriously enough to be worthy of the classroom).

Ironically, a decade earlier, as George Rodrigue studied art in Lafayette and Los Angeles, he too faced the lingering academic art of the day, Abstract Expressionism. Yet it was Pop Art, a movement dismissed by his teachers, which made the biggest impression on him during these years. (See the post Art School: Lafayette and Los Angeles, 1962-1967)

When I reached high school and later studied Art History in college, I recall Picasso as practically vilified in academic circles. There was talk that he hadn’t done anything worthy of study since Cubism or Guernica, and that he ‘lost his touch’ as an old man, floundering between grotesque figures and half-hearted revisits of his earlier styles. (below, a late Picasso)

Rather than discourage me, these criticisms made me more curious, and I poured through my mother’s books searching for the answers --- hoping to train my own eye to see the master’s downfall in his artwork.

Yet I saw only brilliance.

I returned to his simplest images repeatedly, and I wondered: Why should this picture be in a book? Why should he call it finished? What could it possibly mean? Why do I come back to it again and again? (pictured, A Bull on canvas by Picasso, and below that, a Face on ceramic)

And finally, why is it that I would give up all my worldly possessions to own a simple Picasso drawing when even I, who can’t so much as draw a daisy, could probably produce a fair copy?

It was during this time that ‘art’ took on specific meanings for me. I became an art snob in my circle-of-one. I gained freedom of thought, and I dared to look at art in my own way.

Little did I know that I was training for my future life with an artist, not only to study the work itself (for my own appreciation of what George has done in the past, for the projects currently on his easel, and for his unwillingness to retrace old ground); but also to face both the obvious insults (“my 8 year-old kid could paint that!”) as well as the disguised ones (“Rodrigue is a brilliant businessman, a marketing genius!”*)

* George insists that I’m overly sensitive in this area and that most people don’t see this attitude as a negative. Perhaps he’s right, but it still places me on the defensive. (pictured, Untitled Sketch by Rodrigue 1994)

Picasso’s whole life --- the Blue Period, Cubism, the African paintings, and so much more --- is inside his simplest works. Had he painted them all at age nineteen, they would mean nothing. But at age ninety, they mean everything. The fact that he probably painted some in a matter of minutes or that second grade students everywhere can duplicate some of his most abstracted designs is irrelevant.

I asked George about Picasso, and he pulled a well-worn book, Goodbye Picasso, (by David Douglas Duncan, Grosset & Dunlap, 1974) from the shelf, turned to a bookmarked page and said:

“I remember how messy his house was, and I was so impressed.”

He also describes an art school assignment at the Art Center College of Design, in which he was ‘to create a painting in the style of an old master.’ George chose a guitar and collage, ala Picasso. (pictured on top, a Picasso "Guitar" from 1912; below, Rodrigue's "Guitar" from 1965)

I’ve told George for years that he’s Picasso in many classrooms --- not the same artist and not the same talent, but a similar inspiration to what I recall from my own school years. It’s all so familiar (and somewhat unsettling), as though I’ll look up at my mother’s books and see “Rodrigue” not on a shiny new book, but on the worn-out titles and the plastic-covered jackets. (It’s the same eerie feeling I had at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where their memorabilia room held George’s various personal items --- the same things I see everyday in our house).

Unsurprisingly, as George grows older the critics take notice of his early works, the same pieces they denounced not only as he painted them, but for thirty years following. (Consider Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, reviled in its day, and now considered his masterpiece; consider George’s first review, “Artist Paints Dreary, Monotonous Oaks” (from the Baton Rouge Advocate), the same works that today many in this region’s academic art world claim are his best). (pictured, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d' Avignon from 1907; Rodrigue's Louisiana: The State We Live In from 1972)

Again, I’m comparing the two artist’s situations, not their actual artwork. Also, keep in mind that one coveted the world’s approval, while the other hoped for the approval of his artistic peers in his home state.

And yet again and again I hear from teachers and students that George is the only living artist on their syllabus. They study his Blue Dog paintings alongside Monet’s Water Lilies, Van Gogh’s Self-portraits, and even Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Just as my teachers found Picasso more accessible to young students than the abstract expressionists, today’s teachers may choose Rodrigue over conceptual, installation, and ‘intellectual’ artists for the same reason.

Like Picasso, George Rodrigue reinvents himself. Most artists hope for one unique series of work discernible as their own. And yet both Picasso and Rodrigue accomplished this multiple times. They both recognized the importance of a unique idea.

This is the only real comparison I dare to make between Picasso and Rodrigue --- and it in no way links their actual artwork. To go further would be overly presumptuous on my part and would invite criticism the likes of which I am unable (and unwilling) to combat. (George too would be mortified by my gall in doing so). I am only drawing the connection between Picasso’s unwitting participation in my discovery of art as a child and what I know for a fact to be George’s similar role in classrooms today.

George, although extremely confident in his art, is uncomfortable with his artistic legacy (and particularly any link to the masters). He’s still working towards it and, more than anything, hoping for it. (pictured, Mars Candy Bar, 2009, oil on canvas, 48x36 inches)

"It took me a whole lifetime to learn how to draw like a child again." - Pablo Picasso

Wendy

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