New York

Paul P.

Daniel Reich Gallery

Paul P. depicts youth with a longing that suggests nostalgia, although he is himself quite young. His early works feature the faces of young men taken from pornographic photographs shot between the 1960s and the 1980s, portraits that, by denying full-body views, run counter to the imagery’s initial uses and introduce the complexities of the subjects’ emotional life, of the parallel truths of boyishness and sensuality. Lounging, posing, staring languidly into the distance, P.’s most recent subjects appear to be taken from high-fashion and beefcake photographs, though the artist has given them more room, situating them in Venice, in the sitting rooms of old-world Europe, and in less identifiable landscapes: One painting appears to contain a figure standing in the contrapposto of Donatello’s David, but it is hard to be sure—he is encased in a darkness redolent of a Whistler nocturne in its near-impenetrability, and if the viewer moves even slightly he all but disappears. There are figures framed in doorways, reclining on sofas, and perched as statues triumphantly crowning a pedestal of older, uglier heads.

As in his earlier works, the subjects are young and beautiful; most are male (although the few that may be female are too ambiguously rendered to know) and most are nude (although occasionally one is draped). They strike contemporary poses yet are confined to a palette of art-historical styles—a dense, velvety drypoint; nineteenth-century atmospherics; impressionistic watercolors. Numerous critics have suggested the various iconic gay references in P.’s recent work (beautiful young men plus Venice plus longing must at least add up to Tadzio), but it is not necessary to identify them to sense what P. is doing. The situating of such contemporary objects of desire in the frames of art history makes evident something that has been hidden. This possibility is echoed in the exhibition’s title, “Inclinations,” which is borrowed from a Ronald Firbank novel, but is also a rather polite word that hides other, cruder words, and is echoed even in the artist’s anonymous-seeming name: a mixture of the upfront and the hidden, the visible and the mysterious. There is a cat-and-mouse feeling about the sensuality here: defiant, clearly drawn from pornography’s all-out aesthetic, but laconic, muted, inexplicit.

The works shown in “Inclinations” are small, and afford the pleasures of intimacy, slow movement, seeing the refinement of an idea from one work to the next. P. appears to posit these styles and methods from the past as a passionate strike, a decadent rebellion of beauty and form and inclination against the drily conceptual and visually thin, and to an extent it works, giving us beauty compounded by beauty. On the other hand, the art-historical palette imbues the pictures with their own feeling of distance, one of sexual observation and longing. That P.’s studio, according to the press release, “in its cleanliness and orderly classification most closely recalls a laboratory” suggests that this duality between intimacy and objectivity is present from the start; in fact P. seems to revel in such fruitful tensions, as evidenced in the young artist’s employing of old-master techniques. In this perhaps he is more Gus Van Sant than Gustav von Aschenbach.

Emily Hall