PRINT Summer 2019


Philip Van Aver, Still Life with a Rose, 2013, gouache and ink on paper, 6 7⁄8 × 8 1⁄8".

OSCAR WILDE famously lamented that the fabulousness of his blue china was difficult “to live up to.” Looking at Philip Van Aver’s exquisite gouache-and-ink paintings—tiny paper masterpieces no bigger than a valentine, yet filled with more love hours than can ever be repaid—I understand this failure of spirit in the presence of beauty. His bucolic scenes of shapely boys and Dionysian he-creatures frolicking, fighting, or posing in realms of Pre-Raphaelite splendor would have likely made Wilde swoon (and John Ruskin a bit squeamish).

I am loath to call Van Aver’s paintings and drawings miniatures. The word brings to mind dollhouse furniture, puppy sweaters, or tiny cheeseburgers on the menu of a twee Brooklyn bar—cutesified versions of human-scale things meant to satisfy the public’s predilections for the mawkish. His sweetly scaled-down tableaux integrate the aesthetics of the late Baroque (think Jean-Antoine Watteau) and assorted Victorians (like William Powell Frith), transfused with a hefty soupçon of carnal desire: Many of the beefcakes in Van Aver’s pictures are taken from HX, a now-defunct publication that once circulated throughout Manhattan gay bars. And his works’ modest proportions belie the endless, complex fathoms of life embedded into each one. Get a load of the scandalous satyr in Sacred Grove, 1994, on whose lap sits a nude young lad trying to learn the pan flute. It’s a comically erotic image that’s also a touch ominous, as the pair are situated on a rock in a patch of abundant plants and grasses that seem to be slowly devouring them (the ephebe’s right leg appears to be afflicted with some gangrenous strain of moss). The scene is imprisoned by a richly ornamented frame encrusted with all manner of brightly colored bijoux. Such a casing is at once splendid and suffocating.

Unfortunately, meticulously crafted objects that are precious, nostalgic, and unabashedly fey have historically received short shrift in the art world, which may explain Van Aver’s relative obscurity. (The first time I heard about him was through superfan Jack Pierson, just weeks before writing this introduction—even though the artist has been making his work for more than fifty years.) In the February 1963 issue of Artforum, the critic Henry T. Hopkins—in one of only three short texts, all dating from the early to mid-1960s, ever devoted by this magazine to the artist until now—described a Van Aver tondo from a group exhibition at the Sabersky Gallery in Los Angeles: “It exposes the kind of skill necessary to inscribe the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin.” Though the mention of his work is positive overall, the comment is unwittingly trivializing: Hopkins seems to suggest that Van Aver’s art is accomplished kitsch, a better fit for Guinness World Records than for the Guggenheim. Obviously, he’s wrong.

This year’s summer issue, which coincides with the half-century anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, is a deep celebration and rigorous dissection of queer (or, as proposed in this issue’s letter from the editor, “fancy”). I can’t tell you how happy I am to have been introduced to the sensuous and psychedelic universe of Philip Van Aver. In his art, I find a gay sanctuary, a lot of myself, and so much more.

Alex Jovanovich

Philip Van Aver, Night in the Lily Garden, 2014, gouache and ink on paper, 6 1⁄2 × 7 1⁄2".

Philip Van Aver, Night Landscape with Fighting Men, 1985, gouache and ink on paper, 3 7⁄8 × 5 1⁄2".

Philip Van Aver, Labors of Hercules with Snapping Turtle, 2016, gouache and ink on paper, 5 1⁄8 × 7".

Philip Van Aver, Sacred Grove, 1994, gouache and ink on paper, 8 1⁄2 × 6 1⁄2".

Philip Van Aver, Beautiful Bather, 2017, gouache and ink on paper, 5 1⁄8 × 3 3⁄8".

Philip Van Aver, Love in the Ruins, 2015, gouache and ink on paper, 4 1⁄8 × 5 3⁄4".

Philip Van Aver, Desert Scene, 1994, gouache and ink on paper, 6 3⁄4 × 8 1⁄4".