New York

Paul P., Untitled, 2019, oil on linen, 10 5⁄8 × 8 3⁄4".

Paul P., Untitled, 2019, oil on linen, 10 5⁄8 × 8 3⁄4".

Paul P.

Paul P.’s “Slim Volume” at Queer Thoughts was finely tailored, with an insistence upon grace. The show’s oil paintings, illustrations, two collages, and lone sculpture did not overwhelm the tiny exhibition space, thanks to the careful curatorial consideration of emptiness
and selectivity.

Histories are retold by Paul P. via slow processes and deliberate finesse. The Canadian artist has been working steadily with portraiture for at least ten years, repurposing images of men sourced from the archives of gay magazines. The artist photocopies decades-old photographs and reconstructs them as oil paintings that tenderly merge elusiveness and seduction. The strong mauve shadow under a man’s jawline in Untitled, 2016, pushed upward to the creamy gleam of his cheekbone, and he appeared to toss his head back with swagger. Another subject’s purple and teal complexion in Untitled, 2019, was offset by a deep-orange scarf knotted around his neck, his facial expression both shrewd and diffident, his mouth slack. Each portrait was distinct, complex, and eerily familiar. They were accompanied by abstract color studies that evoke kinetic light. The hot-yellow monochrome Untitled, 2018, imparts radiant sunlight as it might look if it were flooding a window, while three polychromatic abstractions eventuate movement as quick blurs—auras, gone in a blink like the camera’s shutter.

Here was the impermanent collection of precarious lives and untold flings, friends, failures—an erotic atelier. Who keeps the records, and why? Perhaps the people are gone, but they will never expire; they shine through shadows and erasure. The face of a young black man with a keen gaze (Untitled, 2019) was affectingly aglow, a study in directness that tangentially brought to mind the self-assured sitter in John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892. Paul P.’s brushstrokes are consummate and enlivening, performing a kind of ocular choreography.

The sculpture Rex Prisms, 2016, was an ash-wood armature of a trifold screen backdrop and a low stool, suggestive of the sitting area for an artist’s model but with none of the softness or active properties. It is a dormant relic without corporeal presence, and intimates what isn’t there—a spiritless ghosting. A suite of three ink drawings of the lusty goat god Pan were sketched from the 1867 Emmanuel Frémiet sculpture Pan et oursons (Pan and the Bear Cubs) at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The illustrations depict only Pan’s face and hand and have a breathy air about them, awash in aloof reverie.

Paul P.’s work is perhaps too clever, so laden with erudition that it preempts critique at almost every turn, but the artist insists (by example) upon a prolific dream life. A rent boy becomes a debutante, a whore a virginal waif, and the wastes of ruination become the sweetest songs of heaven and earth. Some might say it’s precious, but we need a museum of glass flowers every now and then as an exercise in immortality, and the artist-archivist knows this. Paul P. upholds and reworks lore; mythology is the sacrosanct provenance of the queer aesthete, affirming because it exists outside the bounds of law, time, and plague. The duty of the living is to honor the deceased and keep the flame going.

Or, as in Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 poem “The Death Bed”:

 Light many lamps and gather round his bed.
Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live.

Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet.

Queer visibility is simultaneously crucial and meaningless nowadays: We are steeped in exposure, getting closer to burnout with each dip into oversaturation. Paul P.’s consistently human portraits refuse obliteration and stasis—risen from the past, they shimmy beyond the present and get as close to us as we let them. They promise longevity. The incentive to believe is up to the viewer, but at least one cannot doubt this artist’s faith in his craft.