2 min

Celebrating Sholem Krishtalka

Toronto artist captures the drama of local gays

YOURS TRULY. Sholem Krishtalka's huge portrait of John Caffery as Robert Rauschenberg. Bobby (Stud Series), 2006, oil on canvas, 4' x 6'. Credit: Courtesy of Sholem Krishtalka

Three years ago Sholem Krishtalka invited me over to his house to photograph me. I was told to wear something kinda butch and so that morning I put on my favourite plaid flannel shirt that I had bought at a Value Village in Hamilton back in the 1990s. I wore my most flattering pair of Wrangler jeans and my brown and gold Adidas high tops. I always have a pair of high tops in my closet because they make me think of the roots of hip-hop and artists like Run DMC and Keith Haring (who was wearing them when he met Queen Elizabeth).

Sholem photographed one roll of film with no elaborate lighting set up. It all seemed quite ordinary. However, Sholem then worked with these simple photographs to create extraordinary paintings of myself and several other Toronto artists.

The paintings are based on some art-world rumours from the 1960s regarding Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, three pop-art painters who were establishing their astonishing work internationally and becoming stars. As the story goes, Johns and Rauschenberg lived one floor apart from each other and developed a love that they kept secret. In fact, they were attempting to keep their homosexuality a secret as well. Andy Warhol wanted to befriend the two gay men. But because he was notoriously affiliated with queers they shunned him in order to stay in the closet fearing that association with Warhol would out them and ruin their newfound success as artists.

This drama intrigued Sholem and he was inspired to create a series of paintings that would explode a piece of gossip nearly 40 years old. Over the course of three years, Sholem painted 19 massive works that averaged about a metre square, but some that would be as large as two metres by a metre and a half (that’s bigger than me). The paintings portray various moments Sholem imagined would have happened within the NYC art world to fuel the gossip.

As part of the project, Sholem also cast artists from Toronto for a series of paintings he refers to as Opera for Drella. He does this in an effort to add a whole other dimension to the work and examine the intersection of his personal history and the public’s histories. Sholem enjoys blurring the realms of his micro and macro existence.

“As a self-identified queer, I avow the use of camp as a means to this hyperbolic end,” he explains. “I believe that camp provides a theoretical bridge between these two worlds, provides a means of assimilating the grandiose and iconic into one’s personal sphere, as well as projecting one’s persona into larger public cosmologies.”

Sholem Krishtalka is a young man who you may recognize because a few years back he worked at the oldest surviving gay bookstore in North America, Glad Day. He has also written for Xtra in the past and you can find his articles on his website. However it is Sholem’s massive works of art that has led many of us to start paying him close attention. In 2002 he began exhibiting in Toronto. The paintings were spectacular achievements in capturing local queers on canvas, including Will Munro and Robin Isaacs. The context he placed these artists in added a surreal element to our local history.

Opera for Drella, Sholem’s collection of grandiose portraits of Toronto artists as NYC art stars opens at Jack the Pelican Presents gallery in Brooklyn, NY on April 17. It is Sholem’s first exhibit outside of Canada. Many of the Toronto artists that are the subjects of the paintings will be there to stare in awe. Get a sneak preview at