First Flowers

The Artist of the Month for July 2011 is Paul P.

Curator Simon Watson selected Paul, who produced a pair of archival pigment prints, Untitled, 2003-2011. Here, he discusses the body of work he is building in Florence.

Paul P. "Untitled," 2003-2011

MB: You are in Florence, from what I hear. Can you tell us, first, what took you there and what you’re working on?

PP: I’m in Florence because there is a statue of Bacchus in the Boboli Gardens that I wanted to draw during the wintertime. There is a deep chill here now so the effects are different then when I last made drawings of the statue in the summer. Also there is quite an interesting Ganymede here too, actually several – more than you would think. John Singer Sargent made some dazzling watercolours of Boboli.

MB: How did you decide upon Bacchus over Ganymede? When Zeus kidnapped Ganymede, the most beautiful youth he had seen, he made Ganymede immortal. That immortality seems to live on in so much of your work, which meditates on irresistibly beautiful young men. Do you feel connected with this mythology, especially as a torchbearer? And how do you connect with Bacchus?

PP: I haven’t really chosen Bacchus over Ganymede – I’ve drawn both, many times. In Boboli there is one Ganymede, which is extraordinary. In the sculpture the youth seems to have all of the control over the hapless bird, which yields to his roughhousing. The Bacchus in question (not the obese one astride a tortoise, which is more famous) has perfect, casual contrapposto, locks just longer than shoulder length and a cup dangling out of his hand, obviously empty. It’s situated so it catches the light in a remarkable way. It is as if it, or he, flickers. My broad interest is in transient moments and I think there is something of that here, hewn in stone, and in the atmosphere around it. There are certain statues in different cities that I devote my attention to; a few in Paris, one in Rome, these two in Florence and a few others. Each selected because there is something special about them and where they exist, and then through repeat observation, over time, in different seasons I start to accumulate an almost ‘archival’ kind of knowledge about them. It brings them back to the present.

I don’t feel especially connected to mythology, but I do like their use as analogies. Mortality, rather than immortality would be more my theme and the complexity of a present moment, one which imagines both the future and the past.

MB: Your print, in two parts, embodies two traditions of drawing and painting: the portrait and the still life. Do these images have a personal history to you? Or are they less specific, and more iconic, as representatives of the portrait and still life legacies?


PP: Both of the images for the edition come from a book work which I made and exhibited in 2003. In it, a series of portraits sourced from 1970’s pornographic magazines (the period after gay-liberation and before the AIDS crisis) alternate with floral still lives reprised from the ‘Last Flowers’ of Manet – a series of humble wild-flower bouquets painted on his death-bed in middle-age. They are a testament to the persistence of the aesthetic impulse, and an art-historical precedent for a life cut short.


MB: For me, there’s an air of innocence in those pornography-sourced portraits. But liberation doesn’t beget innocence. Could this aspect of the 1970s, pornography and sexual freedom, be more like a rebirth? If so, then the pairing of the portrait with the still life becomes even more so a pairing of birth and death. As rebirth and early death, the bookends are pushed closer together. Does that interpretation feel close to your ideas?

PP: I don’t know if I see innocence in the portraits. It is more of a collision of emotions and experiences. I like the Elizabeth Bowen quote: “The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet – when they do meet, their victims lie strewn around”. With regards to birth and death, I see what you mean, but the death-bed flowers are also glorious acts of creation, and the portraits can be seen to foreshadow the potential of death. Perhaps ‘rebirth’ and ‘early death’ as you suggested, are better qualifiers, only I feel that they are interchangeable then.

Peter Hujar, "Candy Darling on her Deathbed," 1974

MB: Fairly or not, HIV haunts the legacy of gay artists: Wojnarowicz, Thek, Hujar, and so many more. But now that HIV-affected people can live for decades, with the right treatment, does the “life cut short” begin to subside as a threat? Is it even a threat?

PP: I wonder if I could consider here the use of AIDS and classical mythology as metaphors for the description of something else? AIDS looms so large still, but yet as you say it is has not the same threat…at least to those with access to life-saving drugs. So at this particular moment its reference doesn’t really describe itself, but a condition, just as we see mythology as a story-telling device, or the way I see Manet’s flowers. Realities are changing, but what does it mean, or how can one describe the exigencies of life, and sex, coming up against (a possibly swift) mortality. It’s an old story. But I was born in 1977 and came out in 1993, so I think from my perspective, at the period of time when I came of age, there was a unique position of being very much in the middle of something – not before or after. For the generation before mine I think AIDS appeared and ensnared. Now, it is a disease one can live with. But for that moment in between the realization of sex and longing was part and parcel with considering one’s own death. I find that because of this I am able to look at the pre-AIDS pornographic material that I use in a distinct way. I love the three artists that you mentioned, and yes AIDS haunts their work, but didn’t they all have an uncanny acuity for the mortal even before the epidemic? Did that haunting begin long before, in crypts of Palermo?

AA Bronson, "Felix, June 5, 1994," 1994-99

MB: Do you ever select a “hero” from these lonesome, anonymous individuals? Spotlighting a mythological god is different than focusing on a historical, biographical figure. Is there an artist, writer, poet, or other giant to whom you would pay homage? Rimbaud? Genet? Caravaggio? Harvey Milk?

PP: Each of the figures I draw or paint are specially selected from the almost inexhaustible output from that period and to a point they almost become equal. Joining a rank but not ranked. A short list of heroes to whom I’m currently indebted would be, from major to minor: James McNeill Whistler, Tennessee Williams and Nancy Mitford.