PRINT January 2022


Drake Carr, Took a Long Time to Learn to Feel Free, 2018, acrylic and airbrush on bedsheet, 75 × 54".

IF DRAKE CARR wants to see something sexy, he’ll make it himself. It began in the first grade with tracing superheroes in full regalia, but soon the clothes came off. “When my drawings started to look like something I could recognize,” he says, “my whole body would shake with fear and ecstasy.” Each nude sketch met the same end, ripped up and flushed down the toilet. A prayer followed its descent.

At Happyfun Hideaway, the Bushwick bar Carr has tended for the past five years, he has a show on view that also features works by friend and fellow bartender Rose Mori. “Manifestations” displays Carr’s acrylic paintings on wood panels along the walls of the space, like a mural set in motion. Crowds jostle in front of the works late at night, and when the evenings get going, the distinction between the people in the space and those on the walls begins to erode. “I love to see people interacting with the work without knowing it,” Carr tells me—a drunk couple making out against a painting of a reclining dancer; a single person waiting for a drink alongside a rendering of a hunky voyeur. One night, I went to Happyfun to DJ and was met with a surprise. To my right was Untitled (DJ Girl), 2021, turning toward me, shocked to see that I had a bleached bob like she did and that my white tube top, under the purple light, matched her pink one. “That’s the thing about manifesting,” Carr says. “It’s both true and false.”

Drake Carr, Gay Bar Bathroom Painting, 2021, acrylic on wood panel. Installation view, Happyfun Hideaway, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Sam Richardson.

If self-awareness is the internalization of social awareness, Carr’s characters exist somewhere in between the two. Gay Bar Bathroom Painting, 2021, features a shirtless man biting his lip, tugging at his shorts to expose his happy trail. For the first months of vaccine summer he was stationed next to the toilet watching people piss. This past fall, he was on view at the Anat Ebgi gallery in Los Angeles, with visible signs of dirt and wear. I’m sure he still carries the smell.

The inhabitants of Carr’s world want us to see their look, maybe their ass, but nothing else. They’re private in a public way.

Carr started to paint upon his arrival in New York from Michigan in 2015, when he bought his first airbrush machine. Before that, his focus was drawing. When he was a child, his parents would punish him by not allowing him to draw. “I would be on edge, waiting to get my fingers moving. Drawing has always been compulsory for me.” Being called to do something comes from somewhere beyond, an urgent task that must be seen through. The difficulty of articulating that call’s origin makes it seductive. But “a drawing doesn’t feel final. I liked how paintings have an end.” In Took a Long Time to Learn to Feel Free, 2018, four dancing bodies are airbrushed into a square. Pink smears behind them suggest a crowd; each person is alone in their moment. It’s fleeting. We are kept out of the inner dialogue playing out behind their eyes—except for the woman in the center. She’s aware of us. Like the denizens of the city we live in, the inhabitants of Carr’s world want us to see their look, maybe their ass, but nothing else. They’re private in a public way.

View of “Drake Carr: Seeing Someone,” 2019, 0-0 LA, Los Angeles. From left: Hanger (Chloe), 2019; Hanger (Luís), 2019; Hanger (Ryan), 2019. Photo: Mariah Wynn.

His eye becomes a camera, offering panoramic views of each persona’s construction. Sometimes he sees his paintings as photographs, and the clothes his subjects wear (and take off) as items he’s pulled off the rack. He’s the son of an interior designer; window treatments and pillows flowed out of his pencil onto the page when he was a child. His mother gave these drawings to her seamstress and upholsterer to fabricate for her clients. For his 2019 show “Seeing Someone” at 0-0 LA, Carr created wire-hanger-shaped busts of his friends with hooks coming out of the tops of their heads. The idea was a prototype for an invention, a way to see how your outfit looks before putting it on. In Stoner Girls 4 Way Call, 2017, airbrushed and painted onto a shirt, the stoner girls are presumably discussing what to wear in four movie squares. Whether worn, leaned on, or jerked off to, the work wants to be touched.

Drake Carr, Stoner Girls 4 Way Call, 2017, acrylic on shirt, 30 1⁄2 × 25".

In his 2021 novella Big Joe, Samuel R. Delany describes orgasms as “a sneeze or a cramp or a spasm of the belly where you upchuck, it releases and, as you come down from it, it becomes harder and harder to remember. Satisfied? Well, yes, but you know you’ll want it again.” The story tracks a group of trailer-park gays, lodged in their own corner of the lot, brought together by circumstance and wanting to fuck. Carr illustrates the story, each image its own screenshot, suspended in horny states of tension and release, drinking piss and making friends. Big Joe himself can shoot twenty loads a day, and he shares with everybody. The characters know the others’ bodies better than their own. The end and the beginning of each encounter become inseparable. When Lacan said one “desires the desire of the Other,” was he talking about group sex?

Drake Carr, Neneng and Silver, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 44 × 56 5⁄8".

Raised in a Christian household, Carr has never forgotten how to pray. When he came out as gay at eighteen years old, his family stopped going to church in support. “I don’t hold any anger toward the church,” he tells me. “It served a purpose in my life.” For a gay teenager, a belief in heaven begets a real fear of hell. Clasping your hands to seek forgiveness from an invisible presence is not unlike closing your eyes on a dance floor in communion with something that can’t be seen, only felt. “Even though I don’t practice, I never closed myself off. I can still go there if I want.” If there is no God to witness what happens to us, who is keeping track? Wanting to keep a record is, perhaps, what guides Carr’s hand.

Sitting in his studio, I get to see Carr’s paintings in daylight for the first time. Layers of acrylic paint create uneven textures. There’s a fight in there. Under a skylight I get up close to a work in progress, a dance scene with attenuated dimensions. Each person’s story plays out individually, but there’s a sense of simultaneous narratives, like a film montage. A jealous person stares at a pair of lovers having a moment. The blue in a man’s eye suggests tears building; the pink shining through another’s ear indicates a source of light. The person largest in scale is a woman looking over her shoulder midsentence, a smile on her lips. A silk ribbon glides off her shoulder, creating a streak of gold at the center of the work, the peaks of its folds absorbing the dance-floor strobes. When I point it out to Carr, he groans. He looks pleased. “I originally wanted it to be smooth and flat; I can see the scratches left behind from toiling away with it for hours. I left it that way because it probably means something.”

Devan Díaz is a writer from Jackson Heights, Queens.