Curatorial Text
Jimmy DeSana & Paul P.
Ruins of Rooms
6. July – 20. October 2024

 

At times, I stare at myself in the mirror until I reach the point where I become estranged from my own image. Where I move away from the identity I was born with and that I am judged by. I analyze my bone structure, my eyes, my hair and my posture. I objectify myself to such a degree that life disappears, and death comes to the surface. Throughout my life, I have stared at death on several occasions, and when I told my mother I was gay she replied ‘Please, don’t get sick.’ The French author and photographer Hervé Guibert once wrote “My body, due to the effects of lust or pain, has entered a state of theatricality, of climax, that I would like to reproduce in any matter possible: by photo, by video, by audio recording. It’s a laboratory that I offer up as a performance…”. He wrote this knowing his life was coming to an end due to HIV/AIDS. Guibert wrote about photography, particularly about the photographs that are not taken. He was interested in the psychology beyond the frame of an image.

 

<p>Jimmy DeSana, <em>Portrait with Dog</em>, k.A., C-Print. Courtesy Jimmy DeSana Trust and P.P.O.W, New York, Meyer Riegger, Berlin/Karlsruhe/Basel and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London © Jimmy DeSana Trust.</p>

Jimmy DeSana, Portrait with Dog, k.A., C-Print. Courtesy Jimmy DeSana Trust and P.P.O.W, New York, Meyer Riegger, Berlin/Karlsruhe/Basel and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London © Jimmy DeSana Trust.

 

“Jimmy was the ultimate voyeur. He lived through his camera,” former boyfriend and gallerist Robert Stefanotti once said about Jimmy DeSana. Growing up in suburban Atlanta in a supposedly picture-perfect postwar family household, DeSana could not help but wonder what really went on behind those closed curtains. This interest increased when his parents got divorced after his father had cheated with the neighbor, which inspired 101 Nudes, a series of photographs set amid the suburban landscape. DeSana had cast himself and friends in a series of black and white nude photographs that were, in his words, “without eroticism.” “I think of the body almost as an object.”, DeSana said to artist, collaborator and close friend Laurie Simmons. “I attempted to use the body but without the eroticism that some photographers use frequently. I think I de-eroticized a lot of it. Particularly in that period, but that is the way the suburbs are in a sense.”

The body continued to be his primary subject and a space to stage and explore new possibilities when moving to New York City the following year. 101 Nudes was quickly taken up by the thriving, eccentric, and queer local scene, particularly the mail art network led by Ray Johnson and his New York Correspondance School. Canada had a mail-art movement of its own with Image Bank in Vancouver and General Idea in Toronto, the latter of which published a gossipy magazine called File. The cover of a 1974 spin-off called Vile was graced by a self-portrait of DeSana, hanging by a noose from a door frame—with a hard-on. This made DeSana an instant File icon after which he started to frequently collaborate with the magazine.

 

<p>Jimmy DeSana, <em>Cardboard</em>, 1985, cibachrome print. Courtesy Jimmy DeSana Trust and P.P.O.W, New York, Meyer Riegger, Berlin/Karlsruhe/Basel and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London © Jimmy DeSana Trust.</p>

Jimmy DeSana, Cardboard, 1985, cibachrome print. Courtesy Jimmy DeSana Trust and P.P.O.W, New York, Meyer Riegger, Berlin/Karlsruhe/Basel and Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London © Jimmy DeSana Trust.

 

DeSana became a fixture in New York’s punk and no-wave scene and the queer fetish subculture in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He established himself as a music photographer, taking early portraits of musicians like Yoko Ono, David Byrne, and Debbie Harry—like him, members of the city’s avant-garde scene. His commercial work for venues like East Village Eye, File, New York Rocker, SoHo Weekly News, and the Village Voice exhibited the same formal rigor and imagination as his art photography, which he showed at Stefanotti Gallery and Pat Hearn Gallery. Contracting HIV in the mid 1980s precipitated a radical change in his artistry: a shift towards abstract and otherworldly imagery that also reflected a shift away from the body as a subject, both as a result of the changes in his own body and the polarizing political climate of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

 

<p>Paul P., <em>Untitled</em>, 2016, oil on linen. Courtesy the artist and collection of Joe Friday and Grant Jameson, Ottawa © the artist.</p>

Paul P., Untitled, 2016, oil on linen. Courtesy the artist and collection of Joe Friday and Grant Jameson, Ottawa © the artist.

 

“Having been born in 1977, my self-awareness developed in relative lockstep with the awareness of an AIDS crisis. As with so many of my generation, I was left with an ingrained link between sex and death. Any acted-upon desire seemed a tacit agreement with fate. Daniel Reich (1973–2012), my New York art dealer, wrote on the occasion of our final exhibition together: ‘Very sadly, AIDS made for excellent television, as a cultish, sexual world exploded across dinettes and T.V. trays. … It was not illogical for viewers to conclude that to be gay was to be death-bound, and, in the view of one vociferous faction, to bear the distinction of the damned’.” These were the words found by artist Paul P. in the illuminating essay published for his exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.

In his work, Paul P. surrounds himself with strangers, which he mostly represents in the form of portraits of young men whose identities and fates are unknown. The paintings and drawings ooze decadence, meticulously executed in 19th-century aesthetic modes. It’s like staring at an exquisite corpse—quite literally. Paul P. takes inspiration from the LGBTQ2+ archive in Toronto, the city where he is based. The many anonymous figures found in this archive come from gay erotic magazines, specifically, those produced between the beginning of gay liberation in the late 1960s and the advent of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, a period of provisional freedom. “I am interested in homosexuality as it existed in eras of criminalization and its stratagems. In my work, I pair the energy of the semi-outlaw gay pornographic industry of the mid-1970s with the defiant attitude of the dandy of the late 19th to early 20th centuries. By imposing the secretive visual language of the latter upon the overt sexual material of the former, my art brings together the implicit and the explicit—the irreconcilable and diverging aims of two historical methodologies—in representing homosexual desire in art”, he writes. Paul P. explores the tension between beauty and tragedy and between anonymity and acknowledgement. By refusing to reveal more than the first letter of his last name, Paul P. himself highlights and participates in the interchangeability and anonymity of identity. Through their aesthetic of seduction, his paintings compel us to look, so as not to overlook that these images are memorials of a time overshadowed by cultural tragedy, frozen in time.

 

<p>Paul P., <em>Untitled</em>, 2021, oil on linen. Courtesy the artist and Jonathan W Anderson © the artist.</p>

Paul P., Untitled, 2021, oil on linen. Courtesy the artist and Jonathan W Anderson © the artist.

 

In different ways, Paul and I are both emotionally and politically committed to creating visibility of the forgotten, the outlawed, and the queers that have suffered under political oppression and disregard. We met on a trip to New York, where I went to see Jimmy DeSana’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, which I was negotiating to bring to KW. Paul was invited by P.P.O.W., the gallery that also represents the estates of David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, and Jimmy DeSana, among others, to research Wong’s drawings in relation to his own work. As I had just organized a Wong retrospective, I was curious to know more about Paul’s research and methodology, especially as he drew inspiration from the same generation of artists as I do. Through this encounter, I became increasingly fascinated by the idea of looking and being looked at and therefore invited Paul to collaborate with me on selecting work from Jimmy DeSana’s oeuvre in relationship to his own work. The resulting exhibition functions like a matryoshka doll, expanding our understanding of portraiture through an overlapping conversation between different generations. Ruins of Rooms is an ode to a lost generation and the conclusion of my program at KW, through which I sought to advocate for the marginalized, the overlooked and the radical.

 

Sincerely yours,

 

Krist Gruijthuijsen

 

 

The exhibition is generously supported by KW Freunde.

 

 

 

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