Of all the artists that this city has produced, there are probably none more representative of its iconic mix of flamboyant elegance and earthy eccentricity than George Dureau. Now 82, the legendary painter and photographer was a French Quarter fixture for decades until his recent move to an assisted living facility. Despite his deftly dexterous brushwork, most of his international reputation is based on a photographic oeuvre in which all aspects of formal technique are harnessed to his genius for conveying a striking humanistic presence. In this, he profoundly influenced one of his early studio assistants, a young man by the name of Robert Mapplethorpe, bottom, who went on to become a celebrated New York art star, yet who could never, when all was said and done, match his mentor's depth, as even that city's art critics have noted in recent years. The work seen here is a classic Dureau sampler, and while it is easy to understand the popularity of his flamboyant paintings and drawings, it is his photographs that, while not for the feint of heart, will ensure his place in art history.
Perhaps ironically, Dureau was an established New Orleans painter when he began photographing his mostly male and often African-American models, a heterogeneous assortment street people and outsiders that included muscle boys and midgets, amputees and occasional bohemian women. In his paintings they turn up as fabled creatures ranging from angels to centaurs in scenes rendered like bawdy baroque interpretations of classical mythology where Dureau himself often turns up as a satyr. But in his photographs, for instance his portrait of B. J. Robinson, top, they appear as they really are yet as most of us would never see them, relaxed yet vulnerable, comfortable in the presence of someone who saw and appreciated their unique beauty and authenticity. It was Dureau's singular genius to be able to meld Charles Baudelaire's poetic otherworldliness with Walt Whitman's utopian American egalitarianism in singularly striking images that reflect something of the soul of his city. ~D. Eric Bookhardt
Paintings, Drawings and Photographs: Mixed Media by George Dureau, Through July 13, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999; Left: Robert Mapplethorpe by George Dureau, circa 1978.
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