George Rodrigue (b. 1944) was born and raised in New Iberia, Louisiana, the heart of Cajun country. For more than forty years, his work has remained rooted in the familiar milieu of home.
During the mid-1960s Rodrigue attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles where the graduate school’s curriculum provided him a nuts-and-bolts foundation in drawing and painting. Outside of art school, L.A. was full of Pop and Abstract influences, and it was an exciting time for a young artist in America. However, much like today, critical success depended on one’s New York visibility. Nevertheless, Rodrigue returned to Louisiana. He would use its symbols not only to capture the essence of his personal world, but also to express his spiritual and cultural ideas as they pertained to Louisiana, to the South, and to America. Rodrigue decided that he would not be a Louisiana artist in New York City; instead he would return home with his new knowledge and give meaning to a new phrase: Cajun Artist.
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Using the oak tree as his main subject in hundreds of paintings in the early 1970s, Rodrigue eventually expanded his subjects to include the Cajun people and traditions, as well as his interpretations of myths such as Jolie Blonde and Evangeline. He painted the Cajuns in white with little or no shadow, a light shining from within these transplanted people, giving them hope. They floated almost like ghosts and appeared locked in the landscape, often framed by the trunk of a tree or the outline of a bush. The roads and rivers became one dark path leading to the small light underneath the oaks.
THE BLUE DOG
It was one of these myths, the loup-garou, which inspired Rodrigue’s most famous series, the Blue Dog. Painted for a book of Cajun ghost stories (Bayou, Inkwell, 1984), this werewolf-type dog was an already familiar legend for Rodrigue, who heard the story often as a boy. With no image for the loupgarou, the artist searched his files for a suitable shape. He found it in photos of his studio dog Tiffany who had died several years before. Rodrigue used her stance and manipulated her shape to meet his needs for the painting. Under a blue night sky he painted the image a pale grey-blue and gave it red eyes. He liked what he saw and added this image to his pictorial list of favorite Cajun legends, painting it in cemetery and bayou scenes intermittently over the next five or six years.
Over time, Rodrigue changed the dog's eyes to yellow, creating a friendlier image, soon realizing that the Blue Dog could take him anywhere on the canvas --- even out of Cajun country. He explored his earlier Pop and Abstract interests in a more obvious way, breaking his canvas into strong shapes just as he always had with the oak trees and Cajuns, with the addition of bold blocks of color and a new signature-type shape in the mix. Gradually the dog became bluer and the paintings more abstract, yet the canvases remained rooted in Rodrigue’s Louisiana heritage and traditional training.
In 2000, Rodrigue broke from representation when he exploded into the eerily prophetic works Hurricanes. His art swirled into an abstract series of Louisiana storms, a hint of an oak tree or a pair of yellow eyes occasionally caught amidst the mass of color and brushstroke.
In April 2005 Rodrigue premiered Bodies, reacting to the intense explosion of the Hurricanes with a sudden return to classical nudes, cemeteries, and oak trees. Using the computer, he re-masters the original painting (strictly flesh-toned, with black and white backgrounds) with color and repetitive imagery, using archival inkjet technology and in some cases mounting the finished five-foot prints on steel. As with each series over the past forty years, Rodrigue developed a new mode of expression in a contemporary way, using Louisiana and its timeless symbols as a basis.
Museums continue to acknowledge Rodrigue's accomplishments, particularly following the release of the monograph The Art of George Rodrigue (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2003). The New Orleans Museum of Art opens George Rodrigue’s Louisiana: Forty Years of Cajuns, Blue Dogs, and Beyond Katrina from March 1st to May 25th 2008, an exhibition curated by the Dixon Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, where it premiered the previous summer. The NOMA show coincides with the nationwide release of the book George Rodrigue Prints: A Catalogue Raisonne 1970-2007 (Harry N. Abrams, New York, March 2008).
In 1989 Rodrigue opened his gallery on Royal Street in New Orleans' French Quarter, and in 1991 he followed with a gallery in Carmel, California. After Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, he opened in Aspen, Colorado and relocated his New Orleans gallery temporarily to Lafayette, Louisiana --- ironically just down the street from his very first gallery, opened in 1970. Enjoying this return to his roots, Rodrigue opened a permanent location in the Lafayette Oil Center in October 2006, while simultaneously re-opening his French Quarter gallery and returning with his wife Wendy to New Orleans full-time to live and paint in their home in the Faubourg Marigny.