New York

Joey Terrill, Tom Gutierrez, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 36 × 48".

Joey Terrill, Tom Gutierrez, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 36 × 48".

Joey Terrill

Joey Terrill’s Remembrance, 1989, a seminaturalistic stylized acrylic, appeared in “Once Upon a Time: Paintings, 1981–2015,” a modest but powerful survey of the artist’s work at Ortuzar Projects. In this canvas, Terrill and a former boyfriend are depicted within a lush tropical forest, foraging for birds-of-paradise while surrounded by towers of agave whose spiny tendrils cast black shadows that give the background a striking sense of depth. The painting was made the same year Terrill discovered he was HIV-positive, at a time when the diagnosis was considered a death sentence. In that somber context, the brilliant flowers, with their blue-and-tangerine blooms, take on a multiplicity of meanings. Although the plants symbolize Los Angeles, they are in fact native to South Africa and, like Terrill’s gay and Chicano identities, are both loved and loathed in the city for their omnipresence, foreignness, and beauty.

Like the Pop artists who inspired him—he studied at LA’s Immaculate Heart College, where Sister Corita Kent taught and was a major influence on the student body—Terrill in his earlier works used mass-market aesthetics to celebrate and critique popular culture, while elevating the sundry aspects of his racial and sexual identities. In 1978, he put out the first issue of Homeboy Beautiful, a zine that parodied tabloids with its fake scandals and even faker ads. The headline for one issue reads h.b. exposé: homo-homeboys! In its pages, Terrill’s muckraking journalist persona describes being pulled into an orgy pit full of mustachioed men as Judy Garland songs fill the air. What the artist borrows from print publishing in his earlier paintings is the way it cleverly marries image to text—after all, so many of Terrill’s works feel as though they were lifted from comic books. The tripartite suite Chicanos Invade New York, 1981, follows Terrill and a group of Angelenos visiting Manhattan in the winter. One of the panels has the separate title Making Tortillas in SoHo, which is also written in the canvas’s lower-left-hand corner. Looming over the otherwise calm domestic scene is a poster for Bent, a 1979 play by Martin Sherman that starred Richard Gere as a gay man in a Nazi concentration camp. In another panel, the central figure wears sunglasses on an overcast snowy day (he’s too cool and too cold) as he poses before the icy facade of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

The exhibition’s largest piece, Breaking Up/Breaking Down, 1984–85, was made up of ten canvases and documented Terrill’s path to recovery after the bitter end of a relationship, during which a lot of blood (and some semen) had been spilled. Two self-portraits that function as “before” and “after” pictures flank eight scenes that feature the artist variously packing, masturbating, drugging, and eating (this last activity, portrayed in the panel titled Crying, shows Terrill digging into what might be a pint of ice cream; behind him is a poster for the 1967 neo-noir film In Cold Blood). All kinds of cultural and personal symbols infiltrated the artist’s works in this show: The birds-of-paradise, for instance, appeared once more behind two men in Not All Our Lovemaking Had to Smell of Poppers, 1982.

After Remembrance, Terrill began capturing his subjects through photographs, and the works he made during the 1990s and early 2000s in this presentation seemed uncanny in their supersaturated realism, especially when hung beside his flatter, more graphic creations. That was due in part to their settings, several of which featured rooms elaborately decked out for the Halloween parties the artist threw at his home between 1989 and 1991. Many of his characters appeared in flamboyant costumes; in Tom Gutierrez, 2001, the titular subject is dressed as Pierrot, his brilliant red pout punctuating his voluminous all-white ensemble. This type of execution felt most poignant in My Last Day in New York, Fire Island—1981, 2015, a self-portrait of the artist reclining on the gay beach’s pristine white sands. Terrill’s paintings are everywhere marked by the fragility of life and give the viewer a generous amount of space in which to pause, reflect, and rejoice.