For Richard Proulx, spiritual experiences and orgasms go hand in hand.
“When I look into the eyes of someone when they are having a religious experience and when I look at someone having an orgasm I look at them as an identical adventure,” he says. “To me they are one and the same.”
Proulx is a Victoria artist exploring the link between sexuality and the sacred through a series of homoerotic paintings in his exhibit Public Spaces, Private Viewing, which runs from Jul 31 until Aug 7 at five West End retail locations.
He feels the spiritual side of sexuality is often hidden away with shame. “Spirituality is so vital to our experience, but society keeps hiding it, projecting it as something dirty,” he says. “I try to make it beautiful… My paintings show that we are sexual beings with a spiritual nature. Any time we show the intimate moments of sexuality it talks about beauty.”
Proulx has divided his exhibit into three categories: subtle, exposed and explicit.
The subtle paintings are very suggestive and poetic but contain no frontal nudity, such as the painting Tender Moment that depicts a hand gently caressing a foot. The exposed paintings may have frontal nudity but are soft in context. Proulx describes this as the level that society normally stops at.
The third category is explicit, which includes highly aroused erotic states and sexual moments, such as Black Light, which depicts four men giving each other head under black light, and Creating The Stars, which shows a hand-held penis ejaculating a line of semen into space.
“Shooting up into the dark sky, which is shooting up in dark flames, this purposely carries the moment of creation,” explains Proulx. “The instant juxtaposition with sexuality and creation, and this sperm we carry, carries all the information of the history of the universe. It’s very old but it creates eternal youth because it creates life that’s new again.”
He uses the example of orgasmic cries to illustrate the connection between sexuality and the divine.
“Someone who’s just experienced an orgasm, they’ll say, ‘oh God, I’m coming.’ There’s a presence of God when someone is experiencing an orgasm; it’s there 95 percent of the time,” he claims.
Proulx believes we should be more open about sexuality, and views art as the perfect vehicle for that expression.
“What I want to show is whatever is private and sacred can also be sacred and public. Art allows one to show what’s secret and present it publicly. [Art] is the perfect medium that legally and lawfully allows content to be exposed.”
Curator Paul Thompson was immediately drawn to the work unfolding in Proulx’s studio. “When I first saw the images Richard was creating the attraction was the power and suggestive behaviour of what could come next,” he explains.
He did, however, have some initial reservations about the idea of a public exhibit.
“When I first came up with the idea [of public spaces, private viewing], I thought ‘That’s way too wild.’ But I’m an out-of-the-box thinker,” he says. “I encourage my clients to think out of the box, even if it pushes their own buttons and comfort zones.”
Proulx required little convincing. He was thrilled with Thompson’s idea of public spaces and private viewing.
“I didn’t want to go through formal galleries and be dependent on one gallery,” he says. “I want to bring this out to the public as much as they can deal with it.”
Although they are willing to push their own comfort zones, Proulx and Thompson say they’re not out to shock or offend anyone. The explicit images, for example, will not be on display in the more mainstream businesses.
“We are mindful that Topdrawers, for example, has a lot of senior citizens going through,” says Thompson. “We don’t want to offend them, but we want the art there. “
The more explicit images will be on display at Priape and the Pumpjack Pub.
This exhibit marks Proulx’s return to the arts after 15 years in the military, followed by 16 years as a masseur. He estimates he’s given more than 12,000 massages to men, all trying to unite the physical and spiritual elements of human touch.
As a young man, Proulx relied on arts and meditation to maintain balance and stability in a dysfunctional family. During college he studied music, practicing 10 hours a day, every day for two years.
However, he felt he had started his artistic career too late to turn professional and instead focused on a spiritual path, travelling to India at age 21 where, he says, he discovered a deeper sense of self.
“I returned from India with a strong spiritual foundation and, out of all odds, suddenly, chose to join the Air Force and became a military tactical transport helicopter pilot, serving the country for 15 years, knowing that it represented a real spiritual challenge.”
During this time he got married and had a son but then discovered his “second sexuality.” He viewed the divorce as his first failure.
“I believed that marriage was sacred,” he says. “Devastated, I woke up to my illusions and realized that marriage was a contract that could be broken by the law.”
After leaving the military he became a clinical hypnotherapist. A return trip to India, however, convinced him to abandon that career path in favour of holistic massage.
“A dying guru advised me to discontinue hypnosis as it altered the individual’s soul with negative karmic consequences,” he says. “Trusting his wisdom, I followed the advice and on my return to Canada, learned to combine transpersonal psychology with several bodywork modalities, intuitively connecting my hands to my heart.”
He now pours this intensely personal energy into his art. Thompson hopes to share it with the world.
Next year Thompson hopes to bring Proulx’s art to other cities, including Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and San Francisco.