4 min

Beautiful politics

Portrait of a gay artist

Credit: Guntar Kravis

Paul P is a gay painter. In a time when we are supposed to be post-gay, when an artist’s sexuality doesn’t necessarily relate to the work they make, and when political art is definitely out of vogue, here I am sitting in the sunny Queen Street apartment of a gay painter. Actually, gay polymath is probably more apt – gay zine writer, gay art collective member, gay go-go dancer, gay gallerist – and at 24 years old, Paul P is about to open his second show at Toronto’s Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

“I love the act of painting as much as I’m attracted to the subject matter,” he says. “If I had nothing to paint from, and had to paint abstractly, I would still be happy as a painter. But those two words come together nicely for me.”

The new paintings are spare, delicate portraits of boys rendered almost entirely in pink, or as Paul P thinks of it, all the shades of red. The settings are indeterminate. In some of the paintings, the boys cast a shadow on what might be an interior wall, or curtains. In others, they peer through reeds. The boys’ faces are borrowed from porn magazines from the 1970s and ’80s. Their expressions range from sullen to tentative to goofy.

Many are painted wearing white masks that reveal only the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. “Within those regions, I’ve really tried to infuse as much eroticism as I can,” says Paul P. “I suggest the rest, and don’t rely on painting the obviously erotic.”

These days, Paul P’s favourite painter is James Whistler, an American who lived in London in the mid-1800s, and is particularly known for his portraits. The ornamental details in Paul P’s paintings – the reeds, textural brushwork – are borrowed from Whistler, who has been described as an “apostle of Art for Art’s sake.” The details often contradict the narrative tendencies of the subject matter. They bring us back to the painted surface and keep us in the moment of perception, a potent moment of possibilities.

Paul Petro, who represents Paul P, told me why he likes the work so much: “I was drawn to the representation of male youth culture in the work – gay culture expressed in terms that were not exclusive to the standard gay lexicon.

“Although I can appreciate the origin of the source material, and the attraction of the artist to a time uncomplicated by the threat, and the havoc, played out by the AIDS epidemic, the work also taps into that stage of life where you find your identity – social, sexual, spiritual – coming into coherence. It explores the territory of masculinity in a way I hadn’t seen before. And with a humour and a sexual frankness that was, again, not exclusive to the gay experience. The work occupies the playing field of identity politics without wearing its stripes on its sleeve, and in that way, makes the subject matter more broadly available without prejudice.”

Paul P first showed with Paul Petro in an impromptu exhibition last summer. He shared the gallery space with his favourite gay artist, Stephen Andrews. “To be contextualized along with Stephen made me feel great,” says Paul P. “I love his work. It is very beautiful but it’s very rich with content and feeling as well.”

Art history, gay history, gay art history, Paul P manages to pack all of it into the small oil paintings, watercolours and drawings he makes on a daily basis. “I get up and I want to paint,” he says. “It’s where I find my fun and my challenges. It’s how I account for my time, justify my day. I just want to be making work.”

When I ask Paul P why calling himself a gay painter is important, he says, “There are different angles that people can come from when they look at my art. One of them is from the aspect of just simply painting. They can look at how the paint is handled, trace my art historical references, or my interest in the lineage of portraiture.

“The gay thing comes from wanting to be a part of another lineage, of gay artists doing work that reflects the concerns of that history. And, I mean gay art that’s not just erotic art, but a bit more pithy. So when the two things converge, gay and painting, I don’t feel that it’s exactly niched. You don’t really have to dig too deep to find out whether David Hockney is gay. It’s not really something that needs to be pointed out but it’s there and you understand it as being part of the work.”

Clearly Paul P has a reverence for history; it is his looking glass and his wellspring and yet he made a definite break with his past when he decided to keep only the first letter of his last name ‘P.’

Paul P grew up in Mississauga in a Christian household. Suburbia is usually described as an alienating place to grow up, particularly for those who don’t fit. And, while Paul P left at the first opportunity, to attend York University, suburbia forced him to carve out his own community, to pursue activities that would feed his creativity. Early on, he found a co-conspirator, Joel Gibb, currently the singer/songwriter in the local band The Hidden Cameras. Together they created zines, started bands, made things. The isolation pushed them to their creativity.

And it seems that Paul P creates these worlds wherever he goes. As a fine arts student at York, another isolated environment, he created the Trash Collective with fellow artists Ingrid Z and Karen Azoulay. Once the trio graduated in May 2000 they moved downtown, where they knew very few people. Within a month, they had opened West Wing Art Space as a way to pay the rent on the large space that doubled as their studio. It also meant that in order to find work to hang on the walls, they met a lot of other artists.

A year and a half later, after a successful run of group shows like Dead Teenagers, Status/Anti-Status and Minimum Wage Kinky – they described the curatorial mandate at West Wing as tending to the glamourous, the horrific and the critical – the West Wingers closed up shop, saying the project had run its course.

The artist’s statement for Paul P’s new show states: “All of these sources are thoughtfully combined in an effort to re-invigorate the place of aesthetic concerns in the recent history of gay painting in order to consider the more delicate and horrific potentials of young men in general and to engage the tradition of portrait painting within a contemporary context.”

It’s a big job, but if anyone’s up for it, it’s Paul P.

“I think you always have to change the way in which you’re being political in order to remain political, right? And so, I don’t think that something that’s pretty necessarily needs to be dismissed. It’s just a question of what the beauty is, and I think it’s the job of the artist to trouble that.”

Paul P.

Sat, Apr 13-May 11.

Paul Petro.

980 Queen St W.

(416) 979-7874.