PRINT November 2018


GEORGE SEGAL’S Gay Liberation, 1980, is a public sculpture in Greenwich Village that commemorates the site of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, an event many consider to have been the beginning of the modern LGBTQ-rights movement in the United States. Segal’s work shows two same-sex couples—male and female, in bronze and painted white—being gently affectionate with one another. Over the years, I’ve heard the monument referred to as ugly, racist, banal, and stupid, frequently by other gays. (“Why are they white people?” “Why was this made by a heterosexual?”) It is far from perfect. But it’s quietly profound for the way it depicts queers going about their lives in an everyday setting, doing everyday things, and looking like everyday people. It also emphasizes that a queer person, like anyone else, is entitled to a life full of ordinary moments—free of shame, persecution, or violence.   

Kyle Vu-Dunn’s paintings are anything but ordinary. His exquisite works revel in a liquid gay eroticism and an earnest attachment to the history of figurative painting. His lush, numinous objects reveal many aesthetic forebears: Paula Rego (Vu-Dunn is especially fond of the artist’s formally complex and psychologicallycharged domestic scenes); Philip Pearlstein (the artist owes a debt to Pearlstein’s odd perspectives and contorted bodies); George Tooker; David Hockney; beefcake-cowboy illustrator George Quaintance; and even the aggro man’s man and quintessential American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, evoked in Vu-Dunn’s fluid treatment of the human form. Vu-Dunn crafts relief surfaces for his works, which are made from plaster-reinforced foam, fiberglass, and resin. When the artist paints his figures and tableaux onto them in acrylics, they become subtly three-dimensional, like ancient Greek friezes, so that the lissome musculature of a young man’s arm, for instance—or the heavenly curvature of a voluptuously modeled ass—pops within your field of vision.   

But his men aren’t “straight-acting” Sean Cody models, juiced-up hardbodies, or, as Vu-Dunn puts it, “Instagram thots.” They’re sensuous, but they don’t scream SEX! in the relentless way pictures of men in mainstream gay-male culture often do. Take Hot Fear (all works cited, 2018), which depicts a spotlit go-go boy in black briefs, shod in a pair of silvery Super Fly platforms, squatting on a tiny stage. His face, partially obscured by the brim of a baseball cap, conveys a desire for privacy more than a titillating air of mystery. Though the scene should be seedy, the picture is sweet—the artist’s rendering of the man in buttery yellows and warm greens is tender, not tawdry. He looks like a friend, less objectified than embraced.   

The beach lovers in High Tide, shadowy under a twilight sky, are suffused by a chiaroscuro that could’ve been pulled from a George Platt Lynes photograph.They sit beneath a makeshift wooden canopy, delicately illuminated by a lantern in the foreground. Their bodies are sleek, serpentine—as if they were creatures meant only for the sea. The image is tremendously seductive, and also out of time: It could have appeared on the cover of a 1950s gay pulp novel of the sort you’d find in a dirty bookstore, or it could be based on something an acquaintance snapped with his phone on vacation just a few weeks ago. The taboo sexuality of yesterday is transformed into a familiar image of today, one that is commonplace, natural. Like Segal’s Gay Liberation, Vu-Dunn’s unequivocally queer work is slyly revolutionary—a raised fist that doesn’t shy away from the power of a gentle caress. 

Alex Jovanovich