Art Review Archives:
Blue Dog Man
By George Rodrigue
Stewart, Tabori & Chang, publishers
Imagine you are sitting in an wayside cafe. Somewhere in Louisiana, perhaps. The man next to you, an interesting man, tells you he paints. You have time and soon he's telling you about his life, his painting, his travels -- his life story. He's loquacious, and it's all fascinating. A good tale, and a thoroughly unexpected and enjoyable afternoon in Acadiana -- 'Cajun country.' And then you discover that he had studied at the University of Southwest Louisiana and attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. And, to your surprise, you really like his paintings. They're a world new to you and yet one everywhere familiar to anyone who has come from somewhere particular (As opposed to a generic 'anywhere'). Then you have probably met George Rodrigue. Or read his new book, Blue Dog Man.
In a first encounter with a stranger one is usually sceptical, if not downright cautious. Blue Dog Man is a sumptuously produced art book of over 148 pages. A cautious, first impression is 'Outsider Art' -- 'Insider Promotion' -- a Cajun artist who has melded the memory of his lost terrier/spaniel, Tiffany, with the werewolf legend of the Loup-Garou has been 'discovered.' But here, as the saying goes, "First impressions are deceiving." Both, the artist and his art are forthright, expansive and winning. Rodrigue loves to talk about what he is doing and why. The Art World ought to take notice. In the book's acknowledgements, Rodrigue credits a new friend, David McAninch, with helping to "put my thought processes down on paper, so that readers can understand them," but those thoughts are so intimately bound with the art that a reader accepts them as authentic. The art, first and foremost, and then the text which collaborates, reveal an artist born from "the hopes and longings of the uprooted Cajun people."
The text of Blue Dog Man opens up the interests and intents of the artist, although his techniques and aesthetic concerns are given their due. Rodrigue is certainly aware of Monet, Manet, Degas; Pollock, Rothko, Warhol; commercial art -- what he sees as "historical breakthroughs." His course, however, remained with what he terms "personal breakthroughs--in both my life and my way of painting." At times, one senses Rodrigue has been helped along, prompted, so to speak -- an interview rendered into text. But this may well be the Blue Dog Man himself. Painters such as Eugene Delacroix (The Diaries), or Vincent van Gogh in his numerous letters displayed a keen awareness of what they were doing in their art; and expressed it with style and intelligence as well. Blue Dog Man is a book: Inevitably, the text is a prominent feature, and it is an engaging story -- a 'good read.' But, Blue Dog Man is a book about an artist and his art. And the art is paramount.
The art of Blue Dog Man raises two general observations. One is how consequentially Rodrigue's art has emerged from the artist's Acadiana -- his bonds and affections as one of that people, and his ever-present awareness of it in his life and art. Rodrigue began as a Cajun genre painter, and, as he says, Blue Dog originally "took the form of a painted channel through which I could convey my own feelings of loss--both for my lost companion [his terrier] and for the elusive, and fast-fading culture of Acadiana..." The artist notes that only afterwards: "Blue Dog has come to represent countless ideas and feelings, many of them humorous and whimsical." A second reflection may well be subtly related. George Rodrigue gave painting priority over being a 'career painter.' Irrespective of art trends, marketabilities, 'isms,' Rodrigue has pursued his art. And with the Blue Dog focus, Rodrigue notes: "Over the past decade, I've discovered that I simply cannot not paint Blue Dog," adding: "Painting her has become as natural to me as eating and sleeping." Since 1964 and the Art Center College of Design/Los Angeles --thirty-five years-- Rodrigue has lived Acadian, and lived painting until, as he notes: "Blue Dog...has become the story of my life." This may account for the appeal, and at times even power of his art.
Blue Dog Man traces the genesis of Rodrigue's decade-long Blue Dog images, but it also includes a welcome sampling of his earlier pieces. Rodrigue's earlier Cajun paintings here are genre scenes of the community whose life he lived. Their moss-covered oaks, verdant lawns and foliage show a darker palette, although, as the artist notes, the somber colors and lighting are often as unnatural as the bright hues of his later Blue Dog images. Rodrigue himself points out that in many of the Cajun paintings: "The people are impossibly incandescent--in fact, they generate their own light. The light comes from within." His bold, expressionistic brushstrokes add a spontaneous air to the execution of these works and one painting, Oak Tree in the Morning [pp.60-61], approaches abstract expressionism, as Rodrigue himself notes. In Oak Tree in the Morning, the thick paint layers recall the art of Albert Pinckham Ryder: and the visionary, brooding landscape of the Cajun pieces reinforce that impression.
The Blue Dog paintings were to extend several such tendencies. In them, the brushwork is strong, overt and free. In Angel on my Shoulder [pp.90-91], Blue Dog, and her "bad" counterpart in red, acquire a graphic 'Pop' quality -- strong contours and a brighter, raw palette characterize this, and many of the Blue Dog paintings. Surrounding colorfields or 'backgrounds' are variegated and expressionistic. In Angel on my Shoulder, the surrounding ground hovers near abstraction -- a sun, seemingly burning into the tree, is discernable.
Rodrigue notes in his narrative that: "Blue Dog was more earthy at first; she came out of the earth, out of the Spanish moss of the trees." The artist subsequently declares that the Blue Dog, ofttimes an alter-ego of the painter, became more removed from her surroundings -- traveled. Edges became more defined, colors brighter and more stark; and the fields around her also altered in tandem. Rodrigue -- "As Blue Dog became more removed from her surroundings, her environment followed suit, becoming less natural-looking and more abstract..."
I walk the Line [p.126] is very representative of current Blue Dog: an example of concise, semiotic composition and wry, stoical whimsy. At first glance, the white band echoes a highway 'white centerline' -- and immediately resolves into a ribbon enwrapping Blue Dog. Laughter and wit have never excluded serious overtones and the Blue Dog images often play with both. Rodrigue notes at the onset that through her image: "...I have been able to free myself from the dark Cajun landscapes where Blue Dog was born," and further explains: "Through Blue Dog I can process the world about me--with all its complexity, color, noise, and absurdity. The paintings in this book reflect this new path." Much of this creative tension of image explains what might at first seem puzzling, for Blue Dog serves the artist in several functions: alter-ego, surrogate, fellow traveler. Rodrigue at once declares: "I have become Blue Dog Man because I can never separate myself from her," but elsewhere concludes: "One thing I know: If I ever get tired of painting Blue Dog, I'll stop." And there is no contradiction in that.
In the paintings a collective logic unfolds. Blue Dog is indeed, as the artist says, "a shape that I could use to describe my world," and therefore "capable of adopting an infinite variety of characters." Rodrigue early on talks about the Cajun ballad of Evangeline who awaits her Grabriel, and recalls it served as inspiration for the 1930s Acadian waltz which a Port Arthur prisoner wrote -- "La Jolie Blonde." In Acadia, present life intermingles with lives past. It is in part the way things (like Blue Dog) "move forward." The artist's own Cajun period produced the painting, Morning Glory Blonde, which remembers "La Jolie Blonde," which itself recalls Evangeline. Blue Dog was absent. But Rodrigue's Wendy and Me -- a puzzling Blue Dog in black tie with blonde bride -- in March of 1997 served as the artist's wedding invitation. Both as alter-ego, and as a "shape" for self-revelation and discovery, Blue Dog does display a persistent vitality.
As an independent image, Blue Dog does sometimes skim the boundaries of 'Pop Art.' In Move Over Old Dog Cause a New Dog's Movin' In, Blue Dog vies with country singer, Hank Williams. Blue Dog has appeared with the Lone Ranger, Elvis and, in this book's Stars, Stripes and Me, with the American flag. And in Jazz Club of New Orleans, a 24 by six inch acrylic on linen, now in a private collection, Blue Dog makes an honored, if some what perplexing central appearance. But 'Pop Art' depends upon a consistent context of popular, well-identified image. In the Blue Dog paintings, such images are occasional inclusions along the way. Rodrigue himself has thought about the traditional categorizations of art theorizers for some while. only to abandon that fruitless exercise. Rodrigue paints. And his painting has won a widespread following.
There is the predictable question as what to call George Rodrigue's art, and particularly his Blue Dog paintings. He had been stereotyped as a painter of genre scenes -- folk art -- or as a portrait painter. (He was commissioned by the Republican National Committee to execute portraits of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.) He did open his own gallery in the New Orleans French Quarter, and since 1989, when he first exhibited a Blue Dog painting there, Blue Dog has caught on, publicly and with collectors. Rodrigue notes, at first: "I simply didn't care whether my work was 'high' or 'low' art; my main concern was simply to keep Blue Dog vital and expressive and necessary to me." He may protest too much, but after thirty-five years of art, ten of them devoted to the Blue Dog paintings, much attests to his creative drive. And the question remains -- of what art is Blue Dog?
In some of the Blue Dog paintings, 'Pop' images do appear. But they are an inescapable part of Rodrigue's experience and not exploited for their mass public context: Blue Dog forms the focus. Rodrigue may have begun his career with Acadian genre scenes, but he is trained and well aware of art history and movements; and for over a decade he has gone with Blue Dog into a very personal and complex body of work. The same was true of previously 'Outsider,' and now acclaimed artists such as Henri Rousseau and Vincent van Gogh. Rodrigue has more in common with these, and artists such as the Frenchwoman, Seraphine, Louis Vivin, Camille Bombois, than with naives such as Grandma Moses.
Art historian, Robert Donnelly, spoke at a forum, "'Nobody's Outside Anymore': The Demarginalization of Outsider Art...," held this August at Intuit Performance Space as part of Absolut Vision 4/Chicago. Donnelly made two excellent points: 'Outside' is a catch-all word -- it covers everything from anonymous art to MFAs who don't fit the art market's pigeonholes; and ultimately, what counts in art is a creative tension, a "spark." George Rodrigue is aesthetically self-conscious and his paintings surely demonstrate creative tension. But, with Blue Dog an advertising icon for Absolut Vodka in an upcoming multi-million dollar campaign, the artist is hardly an 'Outsider' any longer.
Rodrigue chose to live his life and to paint over a career in the art world, and in doing so achieved both. For readers who have come from a community, with aunts and uncles and faces long-familiar from childhood, Blue Dog Man will rekindle kindred memories. And, if indeed there are any 'generic' Americans, the Blue Dog will lead them with Rodrigue through his life and beyond those borders. There are many processed MFAs who avidly course the art market, follow the 'ins and outs and moves,' and ultimately deposit products. Such is the Profession. And there are some who are artists for the same reasons they live -- because that is their life. Rodrigue is alive -- he paints.
George Rodrigue has an undeniable following. Blue Dog paintings are collected by celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tom Brokaw, who wrote the introduction for Blue Dog Man. Blue Dog Man was preceded by Rodrigue's first book, Blue Dog (Viking Studio/Penguin: 1994); and in 1996, Penguin Studio published George Rodrigue: A Cajun Artist. Ultimately, Blue Dog Man's commendation is his art. It strikes, and stays in mind. The Blue Dog Man narrative adds much to the enjoyment. The art and the tale alone make the book worth the fifty-dollar price. Blue Dog Man prompts a reader to look into the previous books, and the paintings. It is a book one will return to reread with enjoyment from time to time. That is a book's best value.
Blue Dog Man, is a lavish book production, designed by Alexander Isley Inc.. The volume itself, 8.5 by 12.5 inches, spares no expense and is a panoply of special effects; a fact which makes its performance uneven. The title, split across three consecutive pages, has a visually cinematographic effect; an effect repeated for the preliminaries. In general, the layout of the narrative and the 70 accompanying paintings is lively and showcases both to advantage. The front outside cover sports a Blue Dog in felt, printed yellow eyes and muzzle showing through the cutouts. Some of the specialties included in the book are fun features: between pages 48-49, a leaf of four Blue Dog postcards is bound-in; and between pages 80-81 the volume offers a punch-out -- "See the world through Blue Dog's eyes--your own Blue Dog mask." These big budget novelties point the reader's expectations toward 'Camp,' but, well... as one who loves playful out-of-norms, they are fun fidgetries. But, the hinged paste-in -- a pull-out quote on page 81; the fore-edge die-cut Blue Dog flap between pages 144-145 -- are overkill and irrelevant. The over-designed 'doodlemawatchits' as often distract and undercut the Blue Dog Man -- narrative and art -- as they contribute to that content. Special pages are unnumbered -- not a serious judgement call; but, other than a title-list of the paintings on page 147, the interested reader is given no details on their dimensions, dates or media. (The leaf of four perforated Blue Dog postcards is the exception: four reproductions, four titles, dimensions of all four, no dates.)
If you're sitting in a cafe and open to someone who will tell you about his life, his painting, his travels -- his life story; or you come from a community, with aunts and uncles and faces long-familiar from childhood; or are just intrigued by the idea of spending a thoroughly unexpected and enjoyable afternoon with a Blue Dog in Acadiana and the world beyond -- your bookstore can join you up with Blue Dog Man. He'll tell of Cajun healers/traiteurs, the Indian woman Evergreen Lake, and the story of Broussard's Barbershop: Tales told within a small gallery of 148 frames.
--G. Jurek Polanski