Saturday, May 29, 2010

Blue Dog Speaks

With his Cajun works, George Rodrigue’s titles describe a scene in its simplest terms. The paintings themselves hold narratives, and their titles merely state the obvious.

Louisiana Hayride (1972)

Looking for Summer Shade (1973)

The Aioli Dinner (1971, for a complete history of this, Rodrigue’s most famous Cajun painting, visit here)

However, the Blue Dog is engulfed in mystery. From the time the loup-garou began its morph into the Blue Dog, George used his imaginary subject to make statements about real life.

The titles quickly became an important part of the intrigue, not only shedding light on George’s intent in the work, but also forcing us to look at the art in a different way. The Blue Dog, this staring, questioning presence, guarantees the mystery regardless of the title, asking “Why am I here?,’’ “Where did I come from?,” “Where am I going?,” the universal questions that keep life itself mysterious and interesting.

George enjoys the titles almost as much as the paintings, and he chooses the words himself, rejecting any outside input.

There are hundreds of cleverly titled Blue Dog paintings. Rather than fill this post with past examples, I direct you to the posts Rabbits and Chickens; Flowers (Eyes, Swirls, and Hearts); Red Dog; and any of the posts listed under BLUE DOG to the right of this text.

In this post, I thought it might be fun to share new paintings, Blue Dog works from the past year, none of which are published yet in books.

All images are one-of-a-kind, acrylic on canvas.

I Fell Into a Burning Ring of Fire (2010, 48x36, finished just this week, and an obvious reference not only to the electric red and orange behind the dog, but also to Johnny Cash, who happened to be singing June Carter’s song over the radio as George applied the last stroke).

What a Picture! (2010, 24x18, I walked in on George in the studio and overheard him say to himself, “Man, now that’s a painting-“)

The Blue Room (2009, 36x28, a tribute to the famous and recently restored New Orleans supper club at the Roosevelt Hotel)

My Tea is Ready (2010, 20x16, George was disappointed that no one, including me, picked up on this play-on-words: “My Tea is….” refers to “Matisse…” and a tribute to the French master.

I’ve Had Some Ol’ Flames (2010, 20x24, enough said…)

I Live Between Problems (2010, 20x24, pokes fun at the constant permit problems plaguing the new gallery)

And many paintings make reference to George's fascination with the cosmos, the mystery of the universe, such as Voodoo Sky Ride and Her Love Sent Me to Mars, both from 2010.

Some of the silkscreen titles also hold personal references. For example,

Sand Dollar Beach (2009) refers to a park in Moss Landing, California, where George and I collected sand dollars on our first date.

Are You Lonesome Tonight? and The Magnificent Seven (both 2009) suggest George’s love of music and movie references, particularly with regards to Elvis and Country Western. The Magnificent Seven also features our newest/oldest piece of furniture, a sofa George purchased with this print in mind, discovered one Sunday afternoon in our favorite Bywater junk shop.

Dolores Pepper and Flower Anne (2009) recalls the aliases my cousin Kelly and I used during one wild college summer in New Orleans (I was Dolores Pepper).

And Mignon’s Flowers (2008) is a tribute so special that it deserves its own post.

An artist friend once told me that she couldn’t understand why any artist would title their work:

“It changes the meaning,” she said. “It makes people see something different, something that if it’s that important should be inherent in the visual work.”

On the flip side, perhaps she worried that a title destroys the mystery, that very quality of a piece that makes someone ponder it forever, sort of like if Da Vinci had titled his masterpiece, Mona Lisa Gets a Puppy, thereby explaining her smile.

I’ve thought about this for years, and I’ve watched my friend’s expanding portfolio of untitled works, sometimes asking her questions with hopes of better understanding the art, sometimes letting the image speak for itself, and most often satisfied to remain confused and curious.

In the end, I believe that it’s all in the artist’s intent. Sure a title might explain away a mystery, but it’s just as likely to inspire one. In the early Blue Dog days, George’s titles were nearly always funny, and I remember people laughing their way through the gallery. Today, although the fun remains in some cases, more often George’s titles reveal something a bit more profound, sometimes accidentally funny, and something reflective of his life more than a specific explanation or meaning. In other words, the title is an added element, like a shape or a color.

An artist’s intent is interesting, no question; however, in the end it is secondary to the viewer’s response. What you the viewer see in the work is far more important than George’s reasons for creating it. The art outlasts the artist, and it is the changing perceptions, the conflicting interpretations, and the mystery of “Why?” that empowers a painting indefinitely.

Wendy

(pictured above: I Live in Two Worlds, 2010 24x18, acrylic on canvas board)

For a collection of more than three hundred Blue Dog paintings and a focus on their titles, see the book Blue Dog Speaks (2008, Sterling Press, New York), available at your favorite bookstore or on-line seller.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Painting in the Closet

It's a common misconception that George Rodrigue intends all of his art for sale, or at least for public display. If he manufactured tennis shoes, this might make sense, and indeed because George makes a living with his art, it is true that most works do end up with a price tag.

However, this commercialism is by no means all-inclusive. I’ve tried throughout this blog to emphasize George’s love of painting, of actually applying paint to canvas, as well as pursuing his creative impulses regardless of public opinion. Had he listened to the public or even to his friends and family, there would be no dark landscapes, no Cajuns, and certainly no blue dog.

Although George’s paintings for the most part are accessible, there are countless other projects that remain in the closet, so to speak. He jumps out of the shower periodically and says,

“Quick Wendy, write this down. I just wrote a movie.”

Or he spends an entire night with pencil and tracing paper, designing every detail of some imaginary car.

Yet he’s not in touch with TriStar Pictures or Ford Motor Company. Instead these projects, the most important thing in the world to him for a few hours or even a few days, end up buried at the bottom of the pile on his desk or tacked to the wall in his studio or rolled up with a rubber band in my keepsake box, all destined for the archives at some organized point down the road.

Paintings end up in the closet for various reasons.

Recently in the post The Nude Figure I shared with you a few of the rejected originals from Bodies.

But just because a painting never hangs on the gallery’s wall does not mean that it’s a failure. To the contrary, some of George’s most poignant works are those that he never intended for sale or public viewing.

For example, he painted No More Dukes in 1996 following former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke’s announcement of his campaign for the U.S. Senate. After it sat twelve years in the closet, George loaned the painting for public display for the first time in 2008, during the exhibition Rodrigue’s Louisiana at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Following a frustrating look at contemporary art during Art Basel and the Venice Biennale in 2005, he drew Where is the Art World?, a sketch (48x36, pictured below) he kept for himself and a design he reluctantly offered for sale in a print form, after relentless pleading on my part.

Most recently, he created a series of images related to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He stayed up nights adjusting these designs for no one but himself, knowing that this was a cause beyond his reach.

(I know it’s hard for some of you to understand George’s reluctance to raise money with these works, particularly in the face of not only an environmental tragedy, but even more so the loss of eleven lives, the suffering of eleven families. In the past month, the shrimp industry, a coastal parish government, environmental organizations, and even the oil industry approached him for a print benefiting their cause. This is a political monster he cannot address, and his efforts regarding non-profits are fully committed these days to another cause close to his heart and within his control, integrating the arts into all areas of childhood education through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.)

Most pieces, without question, remain NFS because they’re personal:

A gift for me

A perfect (planned) fit over our fireplace

A Vargas tribute (a gift for his son Jacques, pictured; Rodrigue’s Indians, Cajuns, and Cowboys from 1987 hangs on the wall, and his wine label for Heidi Barrett’s Amuse Bouche Wine is on the bar)

And countless photographs, pieces that to George’s mind are some of his best works but which, I suspect, he doesn’t display partly because he hasn’t the energy (yet) for the questions and skepticism that might accompany such an exhibition. (Wendy and Hunt at Albania Plantation, photographed by George Rodrigue)

Fortunately this blog is a great venue for just such an exhibit, and I look forward to sharing some of George’s favorite images from the closet in a series of photography posts this summer.

Wendy

Coming this Saturday: "Blue Dog Speaks"

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Louisiana Roots (The Louis Prima of the Art World)

George Rodrigue is unique in the art world. I can think of very few contemporary visual artists of his renown that define themselves by their culture. From the time he first returned to Louisiana from Los Angeles and art school in the late 1960s, he called himself a Cajun artist. Even today he describes every aspect of his art with the words,

“It grew out of the Cajun culture.”

These are roots far deeper than a Catholic upbringing in New Iberia, Louisiana in the 1950s. It’s an inherent understanding each time he picks up his paint brush, speaks about his art, jokes with his friends, or eats cracklins on the back porch, that he comes from a unique place, southwest Louisiana, by way of another unique place, Nova Scotia, by way of yet another one, France. (pictured, Looking Back at My Family Tree 2010, 60x40)

George is inseparable from his ancestors, and when I study his unusual, yet extraordinary visage I see Marie (b. 1905) and George, Sr (b. 1900) and their parents before them, even as I struggle to see this connection in George’s sons, in the young, homogenized purely American generation (the same ambiguity I see in my own face).

(pictured, George's grandparents Jean and Marie Courregé)

George remembers the horse and buggy in New Iberia. He remembers white-washing tombs on All-Saints Day. He tells stories of clicking rosary beads on the front porch with Tant’ Magitte as he mimicked her French. He repeats, as his mother often did, Marie’s story of the 1927 flood:

“I was sitting in church and I heard this whoosh and a rumbling. I went outside and saw the water rolling (here her eyes opened wide and she twirled her hands in a little disco move), and I turned and ran, shouting, because the water was coming.”

(For the rest of her life George’s mother Marie, who died in 2008 at age 103, sand bagged her house for every rain.)

George speaks often of a documentarian that explained to him years ago that before a culture dies, it erupts, becoming famous, even trendy, no longer able to grow within its historical confines because of stereotypes, because of what the outside world expects to see from a tour bus.

According to George, he’s watched this happen with his own culture, and it was the early stages of this shift that compelled him to paint southwest Louisiana, to graphically interpret the Cajun culture.

George defines himself by his roots and, more important, others define him this way as well. He is Cajun every minute of every day, especially when he paints. Although I can think of a few exceptions such as R.C. Gorman, Anselm Kiefer, and Fernando Botero (none of whom are Cajun), it is highly unusual for an artist with his success to embrace their culture as an intrinsic aspect of their art.

George takes this even further not just by painting his culture, but also by reinventing himself while remaining within these roots. Whether Landscapes, Cajuns, Blue Dogs, Portraits, Hurricanes, or Bodies, the concept begins with Louisiana. It’s the reason that he chose the oak tree as his ‘Pop’ symbol, his Campbell’s Soup Can; it’s the reason that most of his portraits, no matter whom the subject, lie in Louisiana settings; it’s the reason that despite several months each year in California, he continues to paint Louisiana; and it’s the reason that the Blue Dog, originally the loup-garou, exists at all. (pictured, Man's Best Friend, 1988, 30x24)

A choice of subject is inherent within a defining style. Monet is famous for his repeated paintings of haystacks, but this combines with his studies of light, of the impressions, to create something unique to Monet.

Warhol is famous for his Soup Cans, yet this combines with his hard edge, repetitive silkscreen technique to create a Pop Art style all his own, different from Lichtenstein’s cartoons or Indiana’s words and numbers. Again, the subject is a crucial part of the artist’s defining style.

However, it’s not the only part. For George, unlike the artists mentioned above, his background is inseparable from his art. This is why, no matter what the subject, it is impossible for him to paint anything that doesn’t look like 'a Rodrigue.' In addition, unlike haystacks, the word 'love,' and soup cans, George invented his subject, the Blue Dog, an image that grew out of the Cajun culture but did not already exist in art or otherwise. (pictured, Happy Garden, 2010, 16x12)

So why, I asked George, are you so unique in this cultural immersion? I mean, what happened to your contemporaries from art school?

George explained to me that with very few exceptions they all headed to New York, and if they pursued a career in the fine arts (as opposed to advertising, for example), they attempted to fit in to the trends of the time, to Abstract and to Pop. They tried dripping paint and taping off straight lines on their canvases. They did not try going home, in every sense of the word. (pictured, House and Buggy, 1968, 14x18)

I started thinking about this after watching a documentary on Louis Prima, another Louisiana artist. As a trumpet player with his own style, Prima was rejected early on by ‘serious musicians’ and by orchestras. He did vow to show them, and that’s exactly what he did, not just by embracing his own style, but also by exaggerating it, shouting it from the rooftops. In this way not only did he stand out among musicians, but also he gained wide and popular support from the public.

Did his popularity make him less of an artist, of a visionary? Is it a sell-out to understand the pulse of the people? To the contrary, his famous contemporaries, such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, attended his shows not only for entertainment, but also, according to Sinatra, to learn something about how to please an audience.

Both Prima and Rodrigue pleased the public within the context of their own unique, rogue styles, and it was this that made them famous: one in Las Vegas in the face of Rock-n-Roll, and the other with the Blue Dog in the face of Contemporary Art. (pictured, My New Friend Brings Me Sunshine, 2010, 24x30)

I’m reminded of George’s favorite piece of advice from art school. A professor explained that art is like a yardstick, with the Mona Lisa on one end and black paint on a black canvas on the other:

“You have to find your place somewhere along that stick and go up.”

Both Louis Prima and George Rodrigue went their own way with their own style while others, most notably their musical and artistic peers, marveled in surprise at their success.

In addition, just like George and his Cajun roots, Prima embraced his Italian heritage in all things, especially his Italian-New Orleans heritage. His friend Joe Segreto describes a typical day following a performance as,

“A great deal of opera goes well with the pasta and wine.”

And yet, it was years before anyone would record his music. He had to create his own place in the music world and produce his own hits, booking himself in small venues across the country.

Similarly, even as George painted his Louisiana heritage, he was dismissed by galleries and ignored by the ‘serious art world.’ Undeterred, he vowed to make it on his own, not so much to show them (the dealers and academics), but more so because he believes in and is inseparable from his unique vision. (See the post A Gallery of His Own). (pictured, Colors in My Life, 2010, 24x18)

Both men reinvented themselves several times, all while embracing their Louisiana roots, Prima by way of Italy and Rodrigue by way of French Canada. And yet neither one found their success at home. In both cases they found greater acceptance outside Louisiana until on one strange and unexpected day late in their careers, the people that mean the most, the people that share their roots, sat up and noticed.*

Wendy

*This week the people of New Orleans voted George Rodrigue "Favorite Local Artist" in the Times-Picayune's Reader's Choice Awards.

All images in this post are original paintings by George Rodrigue


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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Indiscretion (A ‘Nude’ Addendum)

This entry is a postscript to last week’s detailed trace of the development of the nude figure in Rodrigue’s paintings.

“All good art is an indiscretion.”*

As a kid it was my mom who explained the artistic nude to me, as perfected by Peter Paul Rubens. She owned a huge tome of his paintings, and together we flipped through the pages of rosy-cheeked, fleshy women and talked about the notion of beauty.

“You see, Wendy, I’m a Rubenesque nude. I was born at the wrong time, that’s all,” my mother said.

(pictured, Das Pelzchen, 1638, a portrait of his young bride by Peter Paul Rubens)

The nude ideal today, unless your name is Botero, is anything but fleshy, in a society so inundated with the skeletal female form that to post an example here would be redundant. (pictured, Eve by Fernando Botero, 1989)

However, since the beginning of art history, the ample woman sent artists running to their easels (or chisels, as the case may be), recalling the Venus of Willendorf (22,000 B.C., pictured below), the ancient subject of the first day of my first college art history class and, since her discovery in 1908, a source of endless debate:

She’s a symbol of motherhood! Fertility personified! A typical female beauty! A child’s toy! Grotesque! A goddess!

It was another fleshy female, as portrayed by Gustav Klimt in his unfinished painting Adam and Eve, that lured me dozens of times over eight months in 1988 to the museum at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, Austria. I saw something in this near life-size work that transported me to another time, or rather, another person, connecting me to something beyond paint on canvas, including a female ideal that transcended the latest issue of Vogue, along with a connection between artist and model, a zone so comfortable even then, that I wondered if it just might be my destiny. (pictured, Adam and Eve, 1916, by Gustav Klimt)

And then I met George Rodrigue, a modern artist clinging to classical ideals of beauty. Early in our relationship the hopeful muse inside of me swooned (and blushed) when he observed,

“You remind me of a Valadié painting.”

(pictured, L’ile aux Femmes (Island Women), 1971 by Jean-Baptiste Valadié, a painting from our collection)

George’s ideal is somewhere in between the skeletal and the fleshy. He’s never been a fan of bones, preferring not quite the Rubenesque curves, but nonetheless the opportunity for longer, rounded strokes and broad areas of shape. (pictured, a five-foot Rodrigue sketch on canvas using red acrylic paint, from 2001)

Finally, I share with you another work from our collection, a lithograph from 1936 by the Surrealist artist Rene Magritte of his friend, poet Paul Eluard (who was first married, incidentally, to Salvador Dali’s famous model and wife, Gala). Along with a photograph of Tennessee Williams and a postcard of Klimt’s Adam and Eve, this indiscreet image featuring the French word écrire (write), hangs in my office for inspiration.

Wendy

*”All art is an indiscretion.” -Tennessee Williams, from his memoirs

For related posts, see "Nature Girl (The Art of Modeling)" and "The Muse"

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Nude Figure

As a student, it was important to George Rodrigue to learn the fundamentals of art. He grew frustrated early on with his college education, a 1960s academic art world rooted in the abstract, as opposed to classical notions of compositional design, chiaroscuro (play of light and dark), and an accurate study of the human figure.

He longed to understand the effectiveness of a Da Vinci, specifically what elements of its design, color, and shadow make his paintings such obvious masterpieces, not just to the 16th century eye, but also to every eye since.

(pictured, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, 1510; notice how Mary’s arm is an extension from Anne’s shoulder and how the multiple figures create one strong triangular shape)

At the University of Southwest Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), George’s education was wholly abstract, and the closest he came to traditional art studies was through his own efforts, such as this nude figure from 1963 (one of my favorites, which hangs today over the fireplace in our home).

It wasn’t until he reached a graduate school, The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California (which he attended as an undergraduate; for the story see Art School: Lafayette and Los Angeles, 1962-1967), that he was exposed to a more classic art education. Don’t get me wrong: Art Center was cutting edge, far from a conservative school. However, they mixed a focus on hard-edge painting and the abstract with the fundamentals, and George relished this formal training.

It was not easy for him. George has always said that his forte is the idea. He was never the best painter in class, and he struggled in particular with drawing. During a two-semester life drawing class, he entered the Christmas break with the lowest grades he’d known, not for lack of trying, but because he simply could not transfer the three-dimensional nude model to his two-dimensional sketchbook. (pictured, artist Lorser Feitelson teaching a class on figure drawing at Art Center)

I’ve told many stories in this blog of George’s excellence in a crisis. He finds a solution to nearly everything, and this struggle with life drawing was no exception. He spent that holiday break with a library book of Michelangelo’s drawings, and over a three-week period he learned from the best.

Rather than return to Louisiana that December, he spent his days copying these Renaissance drawings until he understood the proportions, movement, and shape as rendered by Michelangelo. (pictured, Michelangelo drawings, 16th century)

At his first class that January, George merely glanced at the model, noted the pose, and then drew a magnificent sketch, ala Michelangelo.

His professor stopped at George’s drawing table and marveled,

“What happened to you? You’re like a different artist!”

(pictured, Rodrigue drawings, 1965-6)

The professor used George’s drawings that semester as the example for the class. He emerged not only with an “A,” but more importantly he left school that year no longer intimidated by working with the human figure.

This does not mean that George set out to be Michelangelo. However, a better understanding of the Renaissance master contributed to his confidence in his own ability to experiment and find something all his own, a ‘Rodrigue figure.’ (pictured, mid 1970s, collection University Art Museum, Lafayette, Louisiana)

George painted nudes intermittently throughout the 1970s and 1980s within his Cajun series. Usually these referenced Evangeline or Jolie Blonde and were rather unpopular with his conservative audience, particularly the local crowd in southwest Louisiana. (pictured, Secret Hideaway, 1981, 30x40)

In a few cases, in fact, collectors returned paintings with a request that George ‘cover her up,’ after repeated complaints at home. Twice he gave into this because he needed the money, but in most cases he accepted the return of the painting.

George remained (and remains) undeterred, however, and pursued his figure studies well into the Blue Dog Series and the early 1990s, when his battle with chemical hepatitis forced him to abandon turpentine and oil paints in favor of the fast-drying acrylic paint, a medium not conducive to the blending necessary for painting female flesh. (For more on this see the post Oil Paint or Acrylic?)

(pictured, Sweet Dreams, 1990, 36x48)

Considering the trouble George had with the public regarding his nudes early on, it’s ironic that among his most popular Blue Dog paintings are his recreations of famous classical figurative works. The painting Right Place, Wrong Time (1991, 48x36) is based on The Turkish Bath by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1862.

The painting Wrong Century (1991, 24x36) is based on Edouard Manet’s Olympia from 1863.

With a handful of exceptions (including The Finish Line, 2001, 36x72, pictured below) these were the last of George’s nudes for many years. He painted a few figures in acrylic paint but in most cases was unhappy with the results.

He did experiment once with a silkscreen of a nude, Love Among the Ruins in 1994, referencing a Roman statue and placing it among the Louisiana oaks.

Frustrated with the fast-drying acrylic paints, George abandoned the nude figure for nearly a decade until discovering a water-based oil paint in 2002. With minimal fumes, the paint is safer with regards to his illness, especially when he works from his studio in Carmel, California, where the windows remain open and the paintings dry on the outside deck.

Excited by this new medium, he sketched once again as he re-examined his interest in the classical nude and prepared to paint in oil.

Over a three-year period beginning in 2002, George developed a series called Bodies. To my astonishment, this included more than a dozen paintings relegated to the closet. For the first time since I’d known him, I watched George pursue his vision of excellence by both rejecting and learning from his own work.

This was different from the overlapping series, a collection of abstract and expressionistic works called Hurricanes, painted during 2002 and 2003, when there were no mistakes.

These nudes remind me that George is still a student when he approaches his canvas. Each painting is a puzzle to be solved and with Bodies, at least in the beginning, there were more failures than successes.

(pictured, George Rodrigue in his Carmel studio, 2003; the two paintings on the counter are ones he rejected; the ones on the easel and floor eventually become part of Bodies and are shown here unfinished)

Rather than paint over the rejected works, George studied them. This process goes all the way back to his early landscape paintings thirty years before, when he realized that underneath each painting existed about a dozen rejects. At one point he forced himself to leave a painting as is, even if he was unhappy with it, so that he could look back and see what he’d done, learning from his mistakes and moving forward in his art.

After more than a year devoted to this project, George completed his first (to his mind) successful Bodies painting (Untitled, 2003, 40x30).

Once he found this direction, the others followed over many months.

He then scanned the images into his computer and played with their color and design, creating ‘remastered digital prints.’ He describes these works on paper, as opposed to the original paintings, as the completed Bodies artwork.

In addition, George does refer sometimes to Bodies as an extension of his on-going series, Jolie Blonde, which began with his rendition of an imaginary female figure in 1974. (For more on this see the post Jolie Blonde to Bodies).

It’s interesting to note that it was Bodies that consumed George when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. In fact, we were in Houston for a premiere exhibition of these works when the storm hit the Gulf Coast. Immediately, George abandoned not only Bodies, but also painting of any kind, devoting his time and energy to Blue Dog Relief once he returned to his easel.

This year for the first time since Katrina, George will spend several uninterrupted months painting in his Carmel studio. He’s quite taken with the water-based oils and used them to paint a series of landscapes just last year, so I would not be surprised to see these paints factor into his work.

He has mentioned Bodies several times, and so it’s possible that we’ll see further development in this series or some other exploration of the human figure. However, I am ever mindful of George’s favorite expression,

“I refuse to predict what I’m going to paint next.”

Wendy

Postscript: Indiscretion (A Nude Addendum)

For a related post, visit "Nature Girl (The Art of Modeling)"

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