A Kentucky Painter’s Travels in Queer Time

Sandro Botticelli’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” owned by the National Gallery in London, is a quietly revolutionary portray. It reveals a wonderful youth, with brown hair falling in waves from his crimson cap to a brown doublet tied on the neck. He turns his entire face towards the viewer, a pose reserved till this level, in Italian Renaissance portray, for devotional pictures of Christ. His cheeks are crimson, his full lips set in a barely asymmetrical expression, directly eloquent and enigmatic. His eyes, massive and brown, suffused with gentle falling from the left, gaze immediately at us.

Standing earlier than this painting in 2006, newly relocated to London for his accomplice’s profession, a twenty-seven-year-old from Kentucky named John Brooks had a curious expertise of time. He had lengthy been in artwork, having drawn avidly as a toddler and brought portray lessons in highschool and faculty. But, in Frankfort, the small state capital the place he grew up, his entry to artwork was restricted; definitely, he didn’t know of any skilled artists. Life as a painter “wasn’t even remotely possible,” he advised me not too long ago. When he first stood in entrance of the Botticelli, which he visited typically in the course of the subsequent 4 years, he was transfixed by the presence that he felt in the portray; he had a revelation of artwork as a method to journey by time. “I could feel what he was feeling, and what he was feeling was something I had felt before,” Brooks stated. “I think it was myself that I recognized in what I was feeling.” The expertise clarified a way of vocation: from this second, he would dedicate himself to portray.

“Queer time” is a well-liked notion amongst a sure cohort of aestheticians and philosophers. Used loosely, the time period can appear to counsel that any deviation from linearity is by some means queer—a doubtful declare, provided that philosophers have at all times distinguished between clock time and the vagaries of subjective temporality. But, for queer individuals, the historic unavailability of the traditional mile markers of maturation—marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood—has typically led to extra improvisatory and experimental shapes for a life. And the distinctive isolation of queer childhood—provided that the overwhelming majority of queer youngsters are born into non-queer households, and that, till not too long ago, these households had been nearly sure to be hostile to queerness—signifies that queer individuals typically hunt down companions in the noncontemporary: in literature, artwork, historical past. An insufferable current can ship queer individuals on a journey by time, searching for assets in the previous to think about a extra livable future. This double motion, wanting backward and forward directly, appears to me a trademark of queer type.

To stroll into Moremen Gallery, in Louisville, and consider the exhibition of John Brooks’s new work is to have a visceral expertise of queer time. The twenty-one oil work, most of them massive format—roughly 4 and a half by 4 ft, or bigger—use modern pop-culture references, allusions to artwork historical past and literature, and pictures of Brooks’s associates and social-media acquaintances to create a form of trans-historical group.

At the doorway to the exhibition, which I visited a number of instances in July and August, two massive canvases function the singer and actor Nick Jonas, an avatar, for Brooks, of a up to date masculinity that he characterizes as “open” and “flexible.” In the primary, Jonas stands in a big, V-neck purple sweater and shorts, towards a background borrowed from the German artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Behind Jonas, on the left, two collared golden poodles, one expressionless and the opposite yawning or yapping, stand unimpressed. The portray known as “We All Come and Go Unknown,” a line from Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira” that additionally serves because the title of the exhibition. Like a lot of the canvases in the present, the portray is made up nearly completely of discovered pictures, however Brooks makes use of discovered materials the way in which that novelists use autobiography: the whole lot is processed or reworked. Often, for Brooks, this includes doubling and radical, non-naturalistic coloration: right here, Rottluff’s black-and-white woodcut “Russian Forest” is reimagined in inexperienced and a pastel shade of violet. As in lots of the work, the human face is richly contradictory, sensuous in the luxurious pink of the lips but in addition obscured, as if partly smudged or scratched out. The figures are nonetheless, however there’s a way of vibration in the opposite movement of the brushwork, from the purple, white, and black strains of Jonas’s sweater to the quick, feathery strokes that make up the grass in the portray’s decrease third.

Painting “We All Come and Go Unknown,” which might level the way in which for lots of the different work, Brooks felt the thrill of unprecedented associations. “I was integrating things in a different way than I had before, things that were really disparate,” he advised me. “And they felt new, because I felt, like, a guarantee that Nick Jonas and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff had never been put together.”

In the second Jonas portray, “Help Me to Name It,” the singer, now dressed solely in athletic shorts, tennis sneakers, and socks, with a watch distinguished on one wrist, stands to the left of Picasso’s “Standing Nude,” a sculpture from 1960 or 1961. Jonas’s face is extra out there right here, his expression theatrical, sultry or pained. The coloration of his pores and skin matches the floor of Picasso’s sculpture. In a set of notes that Brooks wrote for the gallery, figuring out his varied sources, he explains that he started to see this portray as a play on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” pondering of the monster who longs, in the novel’s phrase, for a feminine companion “with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being.” Brooks’s juxtapositions set up resonances, not meanings. It’s tempting to discern, in the portray, a commentary on magnificence, superstar, commodification. But agitating towards any programmatic argument is the work’s sexiness, and its humor. The first time I noticed it, and appeared from Jonas’s self-conscious expression to the sculpture’s affectless face, I laughed out loud.

In the second Nick Jonas portray, “Help Me to Name It,” the singer, dressed solely in athletic shorts, tennis sneakers, and socks, stands subsequent to Picasso’s “Standing Nude.”

At forty-three, Brooks is tall and skinny, with shoulder-length brown hair. He tends to decorate casually, not less than in the Louisville summer time—a T-shirt and shorts or denims—and he speaks softly, his feedback on the influences and intentions of his work often interrupted by self-deprecation. For all his travels, he retains a discernible Kentucky accent. He characterizes his household life as loving and secure, however remembers his childhood as a “desperately lonely” time. His father was the director of Parks and Recreation in Frankfort for thirty-eight years, and he inspired his son to take part in group sports activities. Brooks hated all of them—not least due to the relentless bullying inflicted on him by teammates on account of his effeminacy and sensitivity. He felt extra snug with tennis and, particularly, golf, his aptitude for which made him one thing of a neighborhood superstar in his adolescence, and supplied a level of safety towards the abuse of his friends. But he felt alienated by the game’s conservative, heterosexual milieu, and stopped taking part in for 2 years in faculty. After some desultory work at golf golf equipment, and some years taking part in novice tournaments, he gave up the game for good as soon as he moved to London.

Brooks traces his fascination with Europe to the sense of isolation he felt as a queer child—“I always had an eye on the horizon,” he advised me—and in addition to his grandfather’s tales of combating in the Second World War. He was captivated by his grandfather’s life, which arced from small-town Shelbyville, Kentucky, to intersect with the “harrowing but grand” sweep of world historical past. Brooks’s accomplice, whom he met in 2002, had lived in Germany, and he launched Brooks to German expressionism, the affect of which is clear in each the type and the content material of the present work. Brooks grew to become fascinated by Berlin as a metropolis swept up by all of the currents of the 20th century, by the horrors of fascism but in addition creative and sexual liberation.

In his new work, Brooks attracts particularly on artists who, like Rottluff, had been branded by the Nazis as degenerate for his or her sexual or aesthetic deviance. In Brooks’s “Degenerates,” Marlene Dietrich and the painter Max Beckmann flank Gabriel Pessoto, a younger queer Brazilian artist whom Brooks is aware of by way of Instagram; the background is a a lot altered picture from one other “degenerate” artist, Vasily Kandinsky. Dietrich, in tuxedo and prime hat, additionally seems in “Mind Over Matter Is Magic,” this time alongside an acquaintance and fellow-Louisvillian, Kris White, and a picture by August Sander; they stand towards a background taken (additionally enormously altered) from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. With a title from a Frank Ocean lyric, the portray brings collectively artists from throughout the 20th and twenty-first centuries; the precept drawing them collectively appears much less argument-driven than libidinal.

In “Mind Over Matter Is Magic,” Marlene Dietrich seems alongside a Brooks acquaintance and fellow-Louisvillian, Kris White, and a picture by August Sander.

Nearly all of Brooks’s work, although they principally lack the standard signifiers of emotion, pulse with want. This is very true of “Cloudbusting,” which options Brooks’s most transferring citation: two laughing males, on both facet of the portray, drawn from a photograph by Herbert List, a queer artist of Jewish descent who fled the Nazis and made lyrical, homoerotic pictures of younger males in Mediterranean landscapes. Between the pair, one other queer artist whom Brooks is aware of from Instagram, Carlos Garza, sits in athletic shorts, his hoodie drawn up over his abdomen, scrolling on his cellphone in a posture directly insouciant, aggressive, and exhibitionist. In this portray, as in a number of others, the collage composition suggests however doesn’t present a story. It’s straightforward to think about a locker-room scene, List’s innocently laughing males reworked into one thing mocking or predatory, nearly leering. The portray is disturbing, barely sinister, and very horny, producing drama by its mise en scène but in addition by coloration: the three males are painted in shades of yellow that sharply distinction with the shock of luxurious blue on the portray’s base. The crimson lettering on a cloud of plastic tape on the portray’s prime is echoed by a single stripe alongside the underside of the central determine’s sneakers.

Brooks’s historic borrowings are all haunted by the current. His invocations of the aesthetic and erotic freedom of the twenties in Berlin are shadowed by our information of the many years that adopted, and by our consciousness of the fragility of progress. The exhibit’s most annoying portray, “The Threat,” encompasses a background borrowed from the American filmmaker Bob Mizer, whose homoerotic pictures of athletes and troopers helped outline the homosexual male erotic imaginary in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Four armed and shirtless males, fascistic in their helmets and boots, sq. off with pistols and rifles. Brooks connects the barrels of the rifles, directly heightening the eroticism of the picture and suggesting the self-destructive high quality of white male violence. In the foreground, the Black American mannequin Alton Mason, dressed in what appears to be a skirt, with jewellery at his neck and wrists (the picture is taken from Mason’s Instagram), poses regal and assured, completely unconcerned with the pageantry of aggression at his again. Brooks conceived of the portray after listening to an interview with the historian Carol Anderson, whose ebook “The Second” particulars the racist origins of the Second Amendment. “Simply being Black has been perceived as a threat,” Brooks recollects Anderson saying. Just blocks from the gallery, boarded-up storefronts are a reminder of the protests that erupted in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The risk of the portray’s title shouldn’t be posed by the determine at its middle; though the image is unsettling, there’s something hopeful, even utopian, about his nonchalance.

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