New York

Mel Odom, Them, ca. 1980, graphite on vellum, 14 × 11".

Mel Odom, Them, ca. 1980, graphite on vellum, 14 × 11".

Mel Odom

“An addict of beauty” is what the novelist Edmund White dubbed Mel Odom during a public conversation only days after the artist’s solo exhibition, aptly titled “Gorgeous,” opened. White would know, because he’s an expert on the subject. And so is Odom, a maker of ethereal images that depict splendidly chiseled men and glamorous women who appear as though they’ve been tenderly reinforced with light. Thirty-five of his modestly sized drawings (the largest of which are only fourteen inches high), produced between 1975 and 2018, made up this show.

Odom came to fame in the 1970s as a commercial illustrator and retired from the business in 1996. His stunning portraits—many of them rendered in a combination of gouache, pencil, and Peerless-brand dyes—have graced the book covers of mystery writer Ruth Rendell, vampire queen Anne Rice, and White himself. They’ve also materialized in an array of magazines, such as the gay beefcake rag Blueboy, the sci-fi periodical Omni, Playboy, and Rolling Stone. He later went on to create a best-selling collectors’ doll named Gene Marshall, an old Hollywood–type bombshell—far more sophisticated than Barbie—who looks like she just stepped out of a George Hurrell photograph. (She even has a fictitious biography, published in 2000 and titled—say it breathlessly—Gene Marshall: Girl Star.) Although Odom avoided calling himself an artist for years—and was likely discouraged from doing so by an art world that undoubtedly looked askance at his career as a brush-for-hire and doll designer—he is unequivocally an artist, and a mighty fine one at that.

If you were a child of the 1970s and ’80s, seeing the show brought on a certain déjà vu. With their sateen complexions, high-contrast blushes, full lips, Pre-Raphaelite contours, and Masaccio coloring, Odom’s people seemed very familiar, putting the viewer in mind of Boy George’s commedia dell’arte makeup; the music video for Visage’s 1980 synth-pop hit, “Fade to Grey”; Serge Lutens’s mescaline-tinged ads for Shiseido cosmetics; or Joan Collins as Alexis Colby, Dynasty’s heavily shoulder-padded and mascaraed villainess.

Viva Couple, 1976—featuring a lantern-jawed man and a sphinxlike woman shrouded in discotheque darkness—is a striking example of the nascent Odom look. He’s a bare-chested stud who wears a yellow hard hat and silvery wraparound sunglasses; she, a dead ringer for Anjelica Huston, has a metallic bob and heart-shaped lunettes, à la Lolita, propped just above her empty, fathomless gaze. They could have been denizens of New York’s Studio 54, Xenon—or, judging by the red tubing loosely draped around them, the filthy gay party boîte Crisco Disco. Two Women, 1987, a jewel of a drawing that’s three inches square, gives us a pair of ghostly white harlequin masks bound by a length of ribbon that snakes through their hollow sockets. The duo hovers above a background that appears to be engulfed by flames.

Alas, where there’s sex, there’s death, and Odom’s sleek pictures contain more than a trace of the funereal. The majority of these works were made in the midst of the AIDS crisis, during which the artist saw too many of his friends and loved ones vanish. The surfaces of his exquisite portraits are marmoreal, possessing the quiet sheen of a headstone, or a face washed by tears. Crown of Wings, 1988, is a moving depiction of a Christlike figure, bathed in dour greens and haloed by phantom butterflies that flit perilously close to a strand of thorns. Hard Kiss, ca. 1980, features a couple of handsome men engaged in the titular act. One of them, however, has a flayed neck, revealing a disturbing arrangement of scrupulously drawn sinews and muscles. Perhaps the saddest piece in the show—and, by extension, the most infuriating—was a graphite sketch, ca. 1980, of two men enmeshed in a sensuous kiss. The word THEM! is emblazoned in jagged letters across the top of the image, as if the drawing were a rough layout of a poster for a 1950s creature feature. But the real monstrosity of the thing lies in the conditions of its making: a time of unrepentant ignorance and rabid homophobia.