James Michalopoulos paints a barely restrained New Orleans Perspectives: Nare Tarry
James Michalopoulos paints a barely restrained New Orleans
BY JAMES FOX-SMITH
MARCH 23, 2017
PAINTING BY JAMES MICHALOPOULOS
"Nare Tarry," 2014, oil on canvas, 31.5” x 23.5”
Whether James Michalopoulos is better known for his portraits of New Orleans’ iconic artists or paintings of its architecture is a matter for debate. Animate or otherwise, every Michalopoulos subject vibrates with motion barely restrained, his expressionistic oils distorting perception and memory in ways that seem to have a direct conduit to the city’s essential rhythm. Rendered in thick applications of color piled and sculpted with brush and palette knife, the people and places of Michalopoulos’ New Orleans emerge not as they are, exactly, but rather as they appear in memory: larger-than-life, canting off the vertical, swelling and teetering in the superheated air as if incapable of resisting the rhythm hard-coded in the city’s DNA. “We are an intensely musical culture,” explained Michalopoulos, who got his start as a street artist, roaming the city on a scooter with a portable easel and a radio tuned to WWOZ, looking for buildings that seemed to have something to say. “Music is a vehicle for us to find our bearings, our spirituality. It’s the backdrop to everything: to our cooking, to our neighborhood life,” he said. “When I look at a building I allow it to speak to me in that way.”
And when his subject is flesh and blood rather than brick and wood? Still, it’s all about the music. “When I take on a portrait of an artist the most important thing is to immerse myself in their work,” Michalopoulos explained, noting the challenge of capturing not just a likeness and a personality but also a musical influence. When a musician represents a certain kind of sub-genre, a portrait is a chance to say something about that culture. “Then it becomes not just a portrait of a musician, but a portrait of a genre of musicians, and the way they speak to their cultural milieu.”
Named the Official Artist of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival no fewer than six times, Michalopoulos has painted icons including Aaron Neville, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint; and Fats Domino, his portrait of whom appears on the cover of this issue. Currently, his work is the subject of Waltzing the Muse: The Paintings of James Michalopoulos, a thirty-year retrospective at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which features portraits of New Orleanians famous and otherwise, alongside urban and rural landscapes captured both locally and further afield. It remains through July 16. The Michalopoulos Gallery is open seven days at 617 Bienville Street in the French Quarter. Michalopoulos.com.
This month the art of James Michalopoulos will be profiled on LPB’s Art Rocks, the weekly showcase of Louisiana’s visual and performing arts hosted by Country Roads publisher James Fox-Smith. Tune in on Friday, April 28 at 8:30 pm, repeating on Saturday, April 29 at 5:30 pm, across the Louisiana Public Broadcasting network. lpb.org/artrocks.