New York

Paul Thek, Untitled (Meat Piece with Chair), 1966, wax, bronze, Formica, Plexiglas, 16 1⁄2 × 21 1⁄2 × 9 1⁄2". From the series “Technological Reliquaries,” 1964–67.

Paul Thek, Untitled (Meat Piece with Chair), 1966, wax, bronze, Formica, Plexiglas, 16 1⁄2 × 21 1⁄2 × 9 1⁄2". From the series “Technological Reliquaries,” 1964–67.

Paul Thek

A moldering loin of carrion glistened within a Plexiglas case like a precious geode in “Relativity Clock,” a small Paul Thek survey at Alexander and Bonin. Butchered to reveal an interior cavity of incarnadine entrails and pearlescent fat, Untitled (Meat Piece with Chair), 1966, is from the artist’s well-known 1964–67 series “Technological Reliquaries”—waxworks of severed body parts and chunks of flesh enclosed in sleek vitrines. This piece in particular had a unique feature: a top compartment that housed a miniature bronze chair—a premonition, perhaps, of Thek’s 1968 series of “Chair” sculptures, or a dig at the bone-dry tautology of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, 1965. Indeed, Thek intended the “Reliquaries,” with their juxtaposition of Finish Fetish facture and haunted-house presentation of human viscera, as a polemic against the aloof refinement and bloodless sophistication of the Minimalist and systems-based aesthetics dominant during the mid-1960s. This body of work was famously inspired by Thek’s 1963 visit, with his partner Peter Hujar, to the Capuchin Catacombs near Palermo, Italy. “I hope the work has the innocence of those Baroque crypts in Sicily . . . ” Thek said in a 1966 interview:

There are 8,000 corpses—not skeletons, corpses, decorating the walls, and the corridors are filled with windowed coffins. I opened one and picked up what I thought was a piece of paper; it was a piece of dried thigh. . . . It delighted me that bodies can be used to decorate a room, like flowers. We accept our thing-ness intellectually, but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.

If the “Technological Reliquaries” endeavored to return the viewer to an ancestral, nondiscursive Real, and to the macabre assurances of memento mori and the Catholic union of spirit and flesh, they did so through a contradictory fusion of artifice, kitsch, and a creeping sense of doubt and spiritual torment that perturbed the deeply religious artist. “I was by then, unwittingly, a kind of mystic showman and, of course, a fraud,” Thek once said in reference to his mid-1970s art. But the tensile push-pull of innocence and fraudulence, sincerity and bathos, transcendent belief and deflationary humor, was felt across the works in this show: from the millenarian enigma of MM (Roman 2000), 1980, a stele-like canvas inscribed with Roman numerals and cuneiform bird feet, to the Sunday-painter gimcrackery of Untitled (rooftop/water towers), ca. 1987, an acrylic cityscape in keeping with the then-current East Village vogue for “bad painting”; from the archaic serenity of Untitled (Diver), 1969, one of Thek’s “eternal” Mediterranean bather scenes painted on newspapers, to the festering, rainbow-hued particulates of the lurid gouache abstraction Untitled, 1983; from the Yeatsian gyre pictured in the etching Untitled (Tower of Babel), 1975/1992, to the steaming spud rendered in the same medium in Untitled (Potato Flag), 1975/1992, its stoner goofiness puncturing the authority of the Stars and Stripes (as well as Jasper Johns’s venerated rendition).

Hung at a child’s-eye level, Pink Cross and Green Buds, 1975–80, an oil painting of a candy-colored crucifix laid to rest amid Lilliputian sprouts, startled in its soft-spoken poignancy—its symbolism of death and rebirth shot through with a tender, unresolved sadness. It’s hard to resist reading Thek’s biography—his dying from aids in 1988 at the age of fifty-four; his unfulfilled wish to become a Carthusian monk; his sense of being, in his words, “sapped at the root by [an] awareness of serving two masters, with its traditional result: alienation from everything”—back into this piece of queer personal iconography, as problematic as that interpretation may be. Thek’s “two masters” were art and God, but even a nonbeliever can feel an ache of recognition in his longing for a chimerical wholeness that remains perpetually out of reach, as if behind glass.