12/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
THE DOGS HAVE THE STUNNED LOOK OF Wile E. Coyote in that bleak moment of apprehension just before he is pancaked by an 18-wheeler. Sometimes the dogs are on chairs, sometimes they appear with a naked woman. Often there are brooding oaks or tombstones. Always, though, the eyes are wide, yellow and preter-naturally blank, as if these were animals from some dog pound of the damned. And dog after dog is blue—cobalt blue.
These strange dogs stare out of the paintings of George Rodrigue, a Cajun artist from just outside Lafayette, La., and they have become the hottest fad in popular art since Walter Keane's big-eyed waifs in the 1960s (now thought to have been painted by his wife, Margaret). Heck, they may even be nipping at LeRoy Neiman's heels. These dogs don't hunt, as they say in the South, but they do sell. Canvases as big as 10 feet by 6 feet go for $150,000; smaller ones for $5,000. All told, says their creator, some $4 million worth of blue-dog paintings, lithographs, prints and posters were sold this year, through Rodrigue's two galleries, one in Carmel, Calif., the other in New Orleans.
Rodrigue, 48, was a regional artist, well known in Louisiana for his swamp landscapes populated by eerie, wraithlike Cajuns, when he was asked to illustrate Bayou, a book of local ghost stories, in 1984. Looking for a model for a mythical, wolf-like loup-garou, he used a photograph of Tiffany, his black-and-white spaniel-terrier mix, who had died five years earlier. To convey the spirit of the ghostly loup-garou, Rodrigue painted Tiffany blue. Although he didn't know it at the time, he had stumbled on a gold mine. In 1988 one of his blue-dog paintings was exhibited in a gallery on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and, as he puts it, "nearly flew off the wall" for $2,500.
After his breakthrough in L.A., Rodrigue opened his own gallery in the French Quarter of New Orleans. "For 20 years," he says, "I couldn't get into a New Orleans gallery. They didn't like me because I was from the provinces. So I finally just opened my own." His wife, Veronica, 47—with whom he has reared two sons, 17 and 11—manages the gallery.
Rodrigue has been drawing since he was a boy in New Iberia, La., in the heart of Cajun country. The only son of a building contractor and a housewife, he contracted polio when he was 8 and had to spend a year in bed. To help him pass the time, his mother bought him paint-by-number kits, crayons and drawing material. After attending the University of Southwestern Louisiana, he headed to Los Angeles and three years of graphic design studies at the Art Center College of Design (now in Pasadena).
He abandoned his original plans to become a graphic artist. "I decided to just stay in Lafayette and paint what I wanted to paint.
Rodrigue started out painting the oak trees that he felt typified his native region, but when they sold for just $150 apiece, he discovered another talent: marketing. In those days he would just load his car with paintings and seek out Cajun restaurants, where he would persuade the owners to hang his work. Now he cultivates the rich and powerful, such as Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Brokaw and Delta Burke, all blue-dog owners.
As the blue-dog phenomenon continues to build—the beast was even featured in an Absolut vodka campaign in September—so does the bewilderment of the rest of the art world. "I find his early work very interesting, his abstract work," says William Fagaly, assistant director of the New Orleans Museum of Art. "But I am completely baffled by the blue dogs. I don't care for it, and I don't see how he can sustain it."
Rodrigue is sure he can sustain it; he just can't explain it. "You take an ordinary, everyday thing like a dog," he says, "and you change the color of its eyes, and you change the color of its fur—and it changes into something spiritual, magical, mysterious." Or something a bit more earthly—like money.
MICHAEL J. NEILL
ANNE MAIER in Lafayette