Nora Kovacs dives into the traditions of Cajun Mardi Gras through a current show of Herb Roe’s paintings at Brand New Orleans Art Gallery.
Wrestling bodies slosh around in the mud, while their costumes and hats haphazardly fall to the side; masked figures stand on horses’ backs with cheap beer in hand; and blue-jeaned men sit out on a porch playing violin and accordion with a bottle of whiskey by their feet. Originating from the Catholic tradition of feasting before Lent, the Courir de Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday Run,” is like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, but with a rural twist, and Herb Roe’s “All That I Wanted” at Brand New Orleans Art Gallery offers hypnotic insight into the unique Prairie Cajun revelry that transpires each year throughout Southwest Louisiana.
At first glance, Roe’s paintings present a quintessential vision of the Gulf South, from copious amounts of alcohol and crawfish to sprawling oak trees and alligators lurking in the swamp. As one digs deeper into Courir de Mardi Gras, however, a unique, dreamlike mélange of traditions unfolds—Catholic feasting and Medieval pre-Lenten flogging combined with political commentary; costuming inspired by Native American, French, and Spanish cultures; and all sorts of other escapist debaucheries. Courir de Mardi Gras draws many of its customs from the fête de la quémande, or “feast of begging,” which took place across medieval France and is reminiscent of what we consider trick-or-treating today. The old is thereby laced with the new in Roe’s work, where French-style capuchons (cone-shaped ceremonial hats) and animal costumes meet cut-off shorts and boxed wine, depicting a tradition that is at once festive and unsettling.
Like Courir de Mardi Gras itself, Roe’s paintings are anachronistic by nature, blending realist painting with contemporary techniques of abstraction. Hailing from Ohio, Roe attends the Courir as somewhat of an outsider, captures photos of the festivities, makes slight alterations or manipulations using Photoshop, and then paints the images in a hyperrealist fashion with oil on canvas. Once an apprentice for Louisiana native Robert Dafford—who painted the prominent giant clarinet on the side of the Holiday Inn in New Orleans’ Central Business District—Roe has been hugely influenced by the muralist’s practice and has continued to incorporate similar styles into his painting. In works like Terre d’oiseaux, 2018, for example, Roe combines elements of multiple photos into one cohesive scene and brightens or darkens certain colors for emphasis and to create starker contrast.
As a result of these exaggerated colors, Roe’s paintings give off an illusion of movement, as if they are stills from a film. The works thus reflect the overwhelming and surreal ambiance of Courir de Mardi Gras. In Tout s'écroule, Sous le poids du monde, 2018, which translates from French to “Everything falls apart, Under the weight of the world,” three figures topple over each other in the mud, their faces obstructed from view. In Ils viennent pour moi, 2018, meaning “They’re coming for me,” a man looks straight ahead in a bright yellow and blue costume, his spooky see-through mask suggesting two distinct personalities. Beyond the whimsical subject matter of Roe’s work, the titles of his paintings motion toward a more philosophical reading. The artworks carry a sense of foreboding, while alluding to existential questions surrounding the self, memory, dreams, and the weight of the world.
Above all else, Courir de Mardi Gras is a suspension of daily routine and the disciplined regularity of life. It is an opportunity to be temporarily free of inhibitions and to revel in the shared experience of the community. It is raucousness and fellow feeling in their most primal forms, existing somewhere between merriment and horror. By participating in this niche act of catharsis, yet maintaining an outsider’s perspective and digitally manipulating his documentation of the event, Roe compels us to imagine what it might be like to indulge in Courir de Mardi Gras, while blurring the line between what is real and what is not.
Herb Roe’s “All That I Wanted” is on view through July 7, 2018, at Brand New Orleans Art Gallery (646 Tchoupitoulas Street).