At Upper Kirby’s West Ave complex, the walls of the George Rodrigue temporary Houston gallery tell a story.
Here, at Rodrigue: Houston, over 75 works of art, from archives and from private collectors, take you through the late artist’s 45-year career. In the 1960s he began painting dark Louisiana landscapes and Cajun genre scenes. But it’s his iconic Blue Dog paintings that people remember most.
"You see a Blue Dog and you don’t forget it,"Rodrigue’s son told CultureMap.
"You see a Blue Dog and you don’t forget it," Rodrigue’s son, Jacques Rodrigue told CultureMap.
The 34-year-old attorney, who serves both as house counsel for Rodrigue Studio and as executive director of the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, was recently in Houston to tout the exhibit, which runs through July 19. CultureMap sat down with him to chat about his famous father's legacy.
CultureMap: You and your family are based in Louisiana with galleries in New Orleans, Lafayette and Carmel, California. Why did you choose Houston for this exhibit?
Jacques Rodrigue: Houston was a natural choice. We have so many collectors here and Dad loved this city. He started coming here in the '70s. He would drive in with a trunk full of paintings to sale. That’s how he made his living.
And Dad received treatment, here, at Methodist Hospital for lung cancer. After he passed away, the idea (for the exhibit) came into my head. I knew Houston was the right place.
CM: How are you able to perpetuate your dad’s legacy?
JR: We’re putting together other shows and will do exhibits in other cities. I feel it’s important to share dad’s work. You can go to our galleries in Carmel and in New Orleans, but I want to get the work out to the people.
For the Houston exhibit, we published Rodrigue: The Sanders Collection. Houston businessman Don Sanders (founder and chairman of Sanders Morris Harris investment bank) was a good friend of dad and so was Nolan Ryan. Don is the largest collector in the world and the book features his collection of around 100 pieces, with a forward written by Ryan.
"At a show at a gallery in Los Angeles, he heard people discussing the 'blue dog.' He’d never heard that term before and didn’t even realize people were talking about his art."
And our foundation, The George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, has a lot of programs in Louisiana to keep the arts in schools. Through these exhibits, we can engage with the local communities; we’ve had a few fundraisers in Houston with all the money going back to the Houston area including $1,000 in art supplies to 25 schools. We’ve provided buses and docents for school groups to come see the exhibit. Research shows how important the arts are in the development of our youth, but they’re often times the first thing cut.
CM: The Rodrigue:Houston exhibit is a micro view of the broad evolution of your father’s 45-year career. Can you give us an idea of what we can expect to see?
JR: The first part of the exhibit shows how dad started painting. He’s originally from New Iberia, Louisiana, and he moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s to attend the Art Center College of Design. He went through the pop art explosion while he was in LA and was there when Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can came out. It was the principal of pop art that got him to start painting.
When he returned to Louisiana, he saw how much the culture was changing. He wanted to capture it by documenting the Louisiana landscape and its oak trees.
As he evolved, he wanted to paint the people of Louisiana, the Cajuns, and visually interpret their history on canvas. The story of the Cajuns is that they’re originally French and settled in Nova Scotia. In 1755, the British kicked out the Cajuns and many settled in south Louisiana. What you see in dad’s paintings is symbolic of that story.
CM: How did the Blue Dog come about?
JR: In 1984, he was commissioned to do the artwork for a book of 40 Cajun ghost stories. One of those stories was about a loup-garou, a werewolf boogieman. He thought, “How should I paint it?” Then, as he always did, he started the process by using an old photograph. He found a picture of his old dog, Tiffany, and used her as the model.
"As he always did, he started the process by using an old photograph. He found a picture of his old dog, Tiffany, and used her as the model."
For about six years he painted these loup-garou paintings, along with Louisiana legends. At a show at a gallery in Los Angeles, he heard people discussing the “blue dog.” He’d never heard that term before and didn’t even realize people were talking about his art.
CM: When did he turn attention to those iconic paintings?
JR: When he returned home, he decided to paint several Blue Dogs in time for the Super Bowl, held in New Orleans that year. He painted them in the Louisiana landscape. We’d just opened our gallery in the French Quarter (where they were displayed) and people went crazy for them. In 1990, he went full on with the Blue Dog series, officially calling it the “Blue Dog.” For two years the paintings were all set in the Louisiana landscape.
What Andy Warhol and other pop artists had done was to take images from popular culture, repeat them over and over again, and throw it back at you as fine art. (Inspired,) he painted his first work of the Blue Dog alone, without an oak tree, in 1991.
In his mind, the Blue Dog was now a strong enough image to break up the canvas. He didn’t need the oak tree anymore. The Blue Dog was now his Campbell's Soup Can.
What dad felt was unique about him is that he created his own popular pop art image that no one had seen before. The challenge was to replicate it throughout an entire body of work while keeping it interesting and fun. And that’s what he did for 25 years.
CM: Why do you think the Blue Dog resonates with so many people?
JR: It’s an every man. It doesn’t provide any answers and that’s what art should do. It should ask questions.
The Rodrigue: Houston exhibit at West Avenue at River Oaks, 2nd Floor, runs through July 19. It’s free and open to the public Tuesday through Saturday (10 a.m.-6 p.m.) and Sunday (12-5 p.m.). Extended hours from 6 p.m.- 9 p.m on July 16. On July 18, there will be a Family Day & Booking Signing. On July 19, Jacques Rodrigue will give a lecture at 1 p.m.