Louisiana's Van Gogh: The Illuminating Works of James Michalopoulos
November 26, 2019 - Cayman Clevenger, Bayou Brief
Last month, Cayman Clevenger, our Arts & Culture Editor, traveled up to Shreveport to cover the opening of James Michalopoulos’ solo exhibition “Heart of the Matter: The Celebration of the Essential in Everyday Life,” at the beautiful R.W. Norton Museum on Creswell Ave in the heart of Shreveport. This exhibition, which is free and open to the public, runs through Dec. 15, with an Ask the Artist scheduled for Dec. 1, 2019.
George Rodrigue is often referred to as Louisiana’s Henri Rousseau. If that is the case, James Michalopoulos must be Louisiana’s Vincent van Gogh, not just because his technique is similar. Michalopoulos’ work conjures emotion, movement, and the ethereal in the quotidian: Vibrant flowers, homes and buildings that waltz across the canvas, and vignettes of everyday life that are transformed into something profound.
To say he is having a moment would be to misapprehend what he has been doing for nearly four decades: Sanctifying what most of us in Louisiana take for granted.
James Michalopoulos was born in Pennsylvania in 1951. His father was an architect whose modernist buildings now define downtown Pittsburg. His uncle, William Baziotes, was a renowned surrealist painter whose works now hang on the walls of the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute in Chicago.
In 1981, Michalopoulos was drawn to New Orleans, enchanted by, in his words, “the duality of beauty and decay.” The architecture of the city became his muse, he often says.
On the night of his solo opening at the R.W. Norton Museum of Art in Shreveport, Michalopoulos wore a blue and black tuxedo and a blue checkered shirt. Usually when he walks into a room, you know he must be an artist. He’s typically dressed in bright poppy colors that look like they came directly from his color palate.
As he entered the R.W. Norton, the museum was filled with people admiring the largest exhibition of the artist’s paintings to ever be displayed in the ArkLaTex. Some patrons gasped- literally- when first encountering his work. Others patiently waited to tell him how his art had touched their lives. A couple who had purchased one of Michalopolous’ very first works on a weekend trip to the French Quarter nearly forty years ago told him how much they continue to cherish it. He remembered the painting; it was of a former girlfriend, he said.
Perhaps the most well-known of his works are the six (and counting) posters he has painted over the years for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: Dr. John, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, and Aaron Neville. No one else has had the honor of painting as many of the works selected as the artistic centerpiece of Jazz Fest.
But there aren’t any paintings of well-known musicians on display in Shreveport.
The exhibition, titled “Heart of the Matter: The Celebration of the Essential in Everyday Life,” features works that span Michalopoulos’ career and includes works from the artist’s personal collection, works currently available through the Michalopoulos Gallery, and works from private collections. It’s an excellent representation of the artist’s catalogue— with portraits, landscapes, architecturals, animals, sunflowers, and cityscapes.
Color abounds, both in Michalopoulos’ work, and in the wall color chosen for the exhibition: a deep purple that contrasts well with the artist’s palate. The entrance to the exhibit is a hallway lined with his works, with an incredibly large painting at the end of the hallway that draws you in. Two large rooms jut off the hallway and give way to work after perfectly lit work, displayed to highlight the artist’s clever use of light and movement in his subjects.
Some works require you to look closely, inviting you so close to the piece that you can smell the pungent perfume of oil paint. Other scenes become more clear from across the room.
Michalopoulos’ thick impasto (layering of paint) creates a truly three-dimensional quality to his work, something even more apparent when looking at the variety and sheer quantity of his oeuvre.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Michalopoulos has the unique ability and perspective to capture the way New Orleans feels in his paintings. His iconic crooked houses and buildings- and the way he applies movement to inanimate objects- is the very movement you can often feel as the ground moves below you when a large truck rumbles down the street. Or maybe it is a vision of the city many folks see when they partake in the libations that have made New Orleans famous.
The focus of most of the critical acclaim of Michalopoulos’ work is his architectural subjects and their movement, how they “seem to dance and sway, the upper floors appearing to head in one direction and the ground floors in another,” writes Wayne Curtis in Garden & Gun. ”The inanimate seems animate, and it’s all at once enchanting and haunting.”
His use of light and color to capture, in particular, the Louisiana skies over the Crescent City, are perhaps the most overlooked, but critically important elements of his work. The shared experience of a New Orleans sky is what transfixes locals and tourists alike.
New Orleans may be Michalopoulos’ most prolific muse, but he also paints the French Countryside (where he lives half of the year), landscapes, sunflowers, and, this year, even donkeys.
He has had galleries in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Boston and has had exhibits in Geneva, London, and Berlin. Today, he has a beautiful gallery on Bienville in the French Quarter and another opened seasonally in Culny, France.
He also owns a sprawling, partially open air studio, complete with a metal workshop, on Elysian Fields in the Marigny. Before he bought the place, it had been a funeral home. Next to a massive collection of works, spanning his entire career, you’ll occasionally find a casket.
The private studio and workspace of Michalopoulos on Elysian Fields in New Orleans.
It is entirely appropriate that Michalopoulos paints the majority of his works in a former funeral home: what better reminder that life is to be cherished and celebrated, the central theme of Michalopoulos’s work and this exhibit.
The choice of the R.W. Norton as the venue for this show was an obvious one for Michalopoulos.
“I had wandered around the grounds here for several hours and was blown away by how beautiful it was,” he explained. ”Then I found the art museum, which was free to the public, and I thought, ‘What an incredible place.’”
The R.W. Norton is equally thrilled by the opportunity.
“Having an artist of Mr. Michalopoulos’s caliber at the museum is always a thrill for us, but it is especially exciting to introduce him to north Louisiana,” Emily Feazel, designer of exhibits and special events, told me. ”While we love showcasing artists from around the world, those from our own backyard and who can make as much of a splash as Mr. Michalopoulos does, are truly special. His heavy impasto and bold color combined with his portrayal of authentic Louisiana architecture, street corners, and musicians will have you humming a Dr. John song in no time.”
This is hardly Michalopoulos’ first solo exhibition. His works have been exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the Venice Biennale Art Festival, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Mississippi, the Amouse Bouche Winery in Napa, California, and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, among others.
Do yourself a favor: Take a trip to Shreveport before Dec. 15th and soak in this remarkable exhibition. If you want to meet Michalopoulos and hear him discuss his work- an experience I highly recommend- clear your calendar on Dec. 1st from 2PM to 3:30PM.
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