Los Angeles

Patrick Lee

Western Project

Albrecht Dürer would have seen a reason for drawing, meticulously, the subjects of Patrick Lee’s “Deadly Friends.” The men in Lee’s pictures look like they understand, firsthand, that looks can kill, or at least inflict a serious bruising. Drifters, outlaws, parolees, gangbangers; guys with thick necks, shaved heads, and broad chests, parts emblazoned with tattoos (“Fuck All Haters”; “Trust No Bitches”; “Bad Influences”), the warnings and braggadocio of member status, make up this forbidding posse. Although Lee has photographed hundreds of men, met on the streets of Los Angeles, over the course of a decade, a frieze of ten of these portraits, Deadly Friends 2006, demonstrates not only the actual elements of masculine style and physicality that trigger Lee’s attention but also the difference between the artist’s uses of the photographic—its indexicality as well as its constructedness (clear SoCal sunlight, rugged chin-up posture)—and the drawn.

Despite all his virtuosic technique, which finds the artist deploying effects associated with realism, super- and/or photographic (exacting shadows; delineation of individual hairs, skin pores, and bloody contusions), Lee’s graphite works on paper, composites culled from his photos, impress because of the verismo of fantasy. Their focus is not so much the thug antics of Prison Break, 2005, or the fronting of rap or reggaeton; rather, what Lee draws are the unruly, wayward, even criminal aspects of desire as it operates in the guise of masculinity.

What’s interesting is how often these masculine attributes are negotiated through the metaphor or allegory of the eye—emphasizing vision, visuality, looks, looking as well as being looked at—to broach the conflicted nature of seeing and appearances. The eye is wounded: In Deadly Friends (Head #10), 2005, mustachioed trouble tilts his head back, a Band-Aid already crossing most of the forehead; his right eye is swollen shut. Deadly Friends (Head #3), 2004, depicts a hunk after he’s been in some kind of athletic match or testosterone brawl; little butterfly bandages suture his right eyebrow. In other pieces, the eye socket is bleeding or stitched up.

Lee has mentioned graphic artist Boris Vallejo (think Conan the Barbarian riding a giant panther with a buxom princess in distress) and Tom of Finland as influences. Finland, in addition to flaunting scenarios of, say, huge police cocks plowing fresh convict ass, concentrated on the cruising gaze between men on the make. But Lee pictures men who, unlike most of Finland’s studs, are removed from stabilized narratives of definitive sexuality. Because of his rendering, the tolls of a tough life, instead of operating as plot lines in which the erotic dramatizes itself, refuse to remain mere aphrodisiacs. Burdened with and burnished by many of the signs and consequences of aggressivity, results of economic and existential hardship, Lee’s models may be looked at as having been drafted into situations not entirely of their own making. Resigned or stoic, they don’t seemed fazed in the slightest.

Two of the most recent drawings, Deadly Friends (Snitch) and Deadly Friends (Comb), both 2006, zero in on the mouth. Snitch shows tight lips, a scarred cheek; Comb catches its exemplar in right profile, a comb midway through his thick, impeccable doorknocker. The allegorical potential of such grooming—wild as it is Wildean—accrues, tensions already palpable.

Bruce Hainley