Illumined by light filtered through large squares of paper pasted to the windows (in homage to Syrie Maugham, the British designer famous for pioneering the all-white room), on walls painted alternately wan yellow, pale pink and leaden grey, a score of small paintings in Manhattan’s Daniel Reich Gallerybore a selection of particular, if gauzily dreamy, scenes: a seascape, palm trees silhouetted in haze, the Spanish Steps by silvery moonlight. A sunset view of shadowed buildings along the bank of a river (almost certainly the Florentine Arno), crossed by a bridge in the middle distance, smoulders infernally; the broad vermilion strokes that suggestively define both the fiery sky and its reflection on the water seem worthy of Claude Monet. On another canvas, sooty buildings form a canyon that surrounds a narrow Venetian canal; they part like theatre curtains or mourning veils to admit a flood of glowing mist, a nearly tangible effulgence that eats away at the solidity of a footbridge’s arc.
And then there were the boys. Interspersed among the evocative landscapes and city scenes, a few portraits depicted beautiful young men. One youth in a collarless white chemise turns away from the viewer, gold light bouncing off his glossy chestnut hair. In another, closely cropped image, an ephebe looks downward; swathes of white painted over violet articulate his cheek and his bare chest, giving him the eerie pallor of a corpse. A third, shaggy-haired teen broods, his face half-hidden by shadow, the grey and yellow of the background leaching into his sallow complexion.
As these descriptions might indicate, Paul P.’s most recent New York exhibition—held in the fall of 2010—felt a bit like walking into the past. But the artist’s masterfully tonalist paintings, hung in a space subtly orchestrated to recall storied interiors, conjured up a bygone age that never really was, one in which an exquisitely refined vision of the Grand Tour met an open homoerotic yearning. While darkling and moody, P.’s show also projected a certain optimism in its frank expressions of desire, however wistful—equal parts Death in Venice and Merchant Ivory. The confectionary nature of the artist’s retrospective glance also revealed itself in the wanton collaging of time periods: the aesthetics of Gilded Age painters like Monet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler; affinities with the Edwardian literature of writers such as Thomas Mann and E.M. Forster; the decorative schemes of Maugham in the interwar moment of the Bright Young Things. And indeed, P. brought these references up to his own era; for all their resemblance to classically minded 19th-century academic painting and the turn-of-the-century photographs that emulated it (by the likes of Wilhem von Gloeden and Fred Holland Day), P.’s portraits are modelled on photos of boys found in gay porn magazines from the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Born in 1977, P. grew up in Mississauga, a conservative suburb not especially congenial to a gay kid with artistic inclinations. At eight years old, however, he did meet one friend in the neighbourhood who shared his interests: Joel Gibb, who would grow up to front the Hidden Cameras, an acclaimed indie band that plays what Gibb once called “gay church folk music.” P. escaped his suburban adolescence when he left to study art at York University. It was there that he dropped his last name in favour of the alias-like “P.” (Pseudonyms such as AA Bronson, Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones were practically de rigueur on the cutting edge of Toronto’s queer cultural milieu.) As an undergraduate, P. took notice of the resurgence of skilled figure painters in Europe and New York, particularly Elizabeth Peyton and her bravura, glamorously feminizing portraits of Kurt Cobain and other male rock stars. It was also during his college years that P. started drawing the men he found in the vintage pornography he unearthed in the backs of adult bookstores. Looking back, he sees these drawings as a “subconscious movement toward content”; more immediately, though, they were a simple way to practice drawing, an endless trove of models and faces.
After graduating in 2000, P. continued painting portraits of young men, often on bright-pink backgrounds, though he masked their heads with white brushstrokes that left only their eyes, mouths and noses showing. He also painted pink canvases of flying bats—Gothic landscapes inspired by Francisco Goya and Robert de Montesquiou, the legendary French aesthete and dandy of the Belle Époque, who adopted the bat as one of his emblems. P. fell in with a lively Toronto art and music scene centred around artist and impresario Will Munro’s monthly party Vazaleen; the Hidden Cameras played some of their first gigs there, and P. sometimes appeared as a masked go-go dancer, as if he were performing one of his own images. Around this time, he met his partner—the artist Scott Treleaven, who had already gained some notoriety for his queer goth-punk zine This Is the Salivation Army—and began working as a studio assistant for Stephen Andrews. As a student, P. had admired the portraits Andrews produced based on photographs from obituaries of men and women felled by complications relating to AIDS, as well as Andrews’ 1999 work the Apostles, even:12 drawings of youths from gay erotica, reproduced as stained glass.
In Toronto in 2001, P. began exhibiting his work—not only the pink paintings of bats and hooded figures, but coloured-pencil likenesses of the faces of boys from vintage porn. Drawn with impressive facility, these works render their subjects with fine, incisive lines. The boys’ hair, in particular, appears as if the artist has reproduced every tousled strand; he used the unforgiving pencil crayons to limn rosy lips, pale or sun-kissed skin and sparkling, guarded, or doe eyes with persuasive aplomb. Some of these drawings maintain a veneer of straightforward realism; others veer off slightly toward exaggeration and caricature. But P. has managed to imbue each of his subjects with a distinct personality, re-endowing them with a seductive sexiness despite the translation through several media and the distance in time from the moment when the camera captured the young men posing for the delectation and fantasies of others.
Yet even the freshest-faced of these images of fresh-faced boys, coded as available objects of desire, possesses a faint whiff of melancholy, an undercurrent of decay. The images picture an irretrievable past—not just youth, but a moment of easy, unfettered sexuality, flush with the successes of the Gay Liberation movement. They picture a moment before the AIDS epidemic decimated gay men, ending the idea of sex as something carefree and nonlethal. And they picture a moment that P. never knew. For a gay man coming of age in the 1990s, sex was always intertwined with death, and P. uses the portraits to meditate on a history that predated his awareness. “What did it feel like?” he wondered. “What might we see in someone’s face? Is foreshadowing apparent? What does it mean [for me] to be after the fact?” Despite the nonchalant innocence of their subjects, the portraits summon something of the “anterior future of which death is the stake” that Roland Barthes contemplates in Camera Lucida (1980), analyzing a 19th-century photograph of a young assassin about to be executed. “He is dead and he is going to die.…”
As P.’s reputation waxed international, with his first solo shows in New York, London and Paris (where he and Treleaven would relocate in 2006), an older history crept into his work, at first as patterned or flowered backgrounds for the portraits, which he copied from works by Whistler, Édouard Manet and John Singer Sargent. By 2005, he had started to paint landscapes and Venetian scenes derived from art history, with the idea that these could provide settings for the figures in his portraits. In exhibitions, images of naked boys standing in doorways and on gondolas would hang alongside images of actual gondoliers and languid ladies in diaphanous gowns, directly copied from works by Whistler and Sargent. At the same time, his style grew looser and his technique more assured as he translated his virtuoso hand into the retardataire mediums of watercolour, pastel and dry-point etching. While P.’s sources and subjects do not necessarily read as overtly gay, an overall sensibility of extreme aestheticism, nostalgic yearning and swooning romanticism—a stylishly fey sensitivity—always animates his work. P.’s art channels the dandy, as his 2006 collaboration in the fashion world with the designer Hedi Slimane on a Dior Homme campaign would suggest.
In “Venice, Venice,” an exhibition at Marc Selwyn Fine Artin Los Angeles in 2008, the artist paired paintings, drawings and prints of the fabled Italian city with those of the Southern California beach district. Views of canals, palazzi and bridges mingled with scenes of palms, shirtless surfers and the distant Santa Monica Pier; the allusively delicate sketchiness of many of the images made it difficult to tell which locale they depicted. That confusion makes sense, though, in the context of P.’s art. If Venice, Italy, connotes the location of the rarefied, often covertly homosexual idylls of Sargent, Mann, Marcel Proust and Henry James, we must remember that Venice, California, figures prominently in the gay porn industry, both as a setting for films and as a place where “talent” is discovered. Both cities, the artist says, represent “places where imagination anticipates sexual availability.” In fact, P. wants his landscapes to intimate the sense of looking at a terrain with an eye toward possible assignations; he finds they share with his portraits “something of the same desire and sensuality, something special and rare in these places.”
In the end, sexual politics—however forthright—may not even be the most radical aspect of P.’s art. Given modernism’s progressive de-skilling of art over the last century and a half, his unabashedly skilled practice rubs against the grain, as do the uniformly small scale of his works and the way his exhibitions elevate the “minor” media of drawing and printmaking to an equal footing with painting. P.’s profound engagement with the masters of the past has led to his own mastery, which he deploys without ostentation and with undeniable effect. We can, in fact, see skill as part of the meaning of his work, mastery as content—but P. puts mastery in the service of his pursuit of an ideal of beauty, itself a consideration deeply out of sync with current conceptions of art. His project articulates undervalued qualities such as feyness, modesty, mastery, longing and beauty. These qualities, not commonly ascribed to contemporary art, carry with them the perfume of the past, along with a resistance to the present. In anachronism lies Paul P.’s quiet rebellion.
View more paintings by Paul P. at canadianart.ca/paulp.