From Sara Pooley on her curation of “Classical Mechanics” at the Averill and Bernard Leviton Gallery:
“All of us grapple with our histories, both personal and cultural, in an effort to develop an identity and sense of purpose. For the exhibition Classical Mechanics, each featured artist has been asked to critically analyze the external forces that have influenced the trajectory of their lives. What circumstances lead to these interjections and what shape does the redirection of energy take? In an effort to achieve a deeper understanding of each other, our environments, and our selves, we search for clues from what came before.”
Months ago I had met up with Sara at a kitschy bar I worked in out in the Chicago neighborhood of Andersonville. I was tired, and it wasn’t because I had been working both in painting all day and working at the bar at night, but I was tired because the ghost of him was remerging in my dreams.
It had been four years since he had passed, and in those 4 years I rarely had him come back into my dreams. Nearing his anniversary however, the manifestation of him began to insidiously grow inside my head, even to the point where it grew into my waking days. I was plagued with seeing the face of my dead lover in other people. For weeks I noticed similar facial similarities of him in the random men I’d run into on the train, in a club, or just out walking on the street. I would see him as he was when we first met in the younger men, and I would see him as if he never passed away in the older men. This was the first time that this had happened since his passing, and the consistent returning to the event where he passed, kept on replaying in my head.
I had, for four years, procrastinated on painting his portrait. Mainly because I wasn’t sure how I would mentally handle it having to see his face over and over again every time I would return to the canvas. Secondly I had painted him before when he was alive and I did such an awful job because I’m terrible at painting men. The more that I procrastinated on not just painting him, but really mentally processing him and his death, the more that I began to see him manifest in my dreams and waking life.
Sara turned to me and told me what “Classical Mechanics” was about, and I felt this massive pressure building up from my chest and into my eyes. A cryball emerged in my throat as I tried to tell her how this subject correlates to what I was currently experiencing, and I felt so ridiculous and egocentric in paralleling my needs to do this with her project. But with those insecure and self deprecating feelings about my project aside, I knew what had to be done.
I would have to paint TJ.
I spent 15 years madly in love with this man. While it sounds cliche, this is evident to tell you that the moment I first laid eyes on him that one night in the 24/7 diner I worked at in Savannah, GA in 1996, I was head over heels for him. For 15 years I followed him all over the US, from Atlanta, to Chicago, and finally Los Angeles. While we had a certain unconventional relationship, he was my best friend first, and my physical lover second.
We also shared a similar consistent demon in our lives called ‘addiction’. For nearly a decade I was an opiate addict, heroin user, and alcoholic. TJ suffered from the same addictions. I’d disappear for months into my downward narcotic spiral, often living in my car or some unused garage in various cities, only to emerge slightly unscathed into the normal world of functional citizens. When I’d emerge, he’d disappear into the same path, and return in the same fashion. As the years went on, we sought sobriety, and he introduced me into the program that helped rehabilitate myself on a more solid path in my life.
We lived together in an apartment complex near Hollywood and Highland in LA. It rested on the 5th floor, and had the most breathtaking views of the Hollywood Hills. He worked the graveyard shift at Los Angeles General in Boyle Heights as an ER tech and I worked in the daytime as an artist for Disney Fine Art. We saw each other twice a day, once in the morning when I was getting up and he was coming home, and then again when I was coming home and he was leaving for work. Both times we would make coffee for each other and sit on the porch that overlooked the hills and talked about our day.
On his birthday he was suffering from a lot of chaos at work. The previous morning he was crying, which was something I had rarely ever seen, so on his birthday I had gotten him a card which told him to keep his head up. I left for work, and when I came home he was still sleeping, so I spent the whole afternoon painting and listening to music, and getting ready for my photo shoot with one of the drag queens for my portrait show “Drag, Debutantes, and Deities”.
What I didn’t know, was that while I was painting, TJ was in the bathroom dying from an overdose of heroin. I didn’t find out until my model arrived for their shoot. I desperately was calling TJ because he wasn’t in his room, and it wasn’t until I heard the cellphone ring from inside the locked bathroom, that I knew … the awful circumstances that I was about to witness.
I broke down the door, and there I found him, dead on the floor amongst a pile of his belongings, one of them being my card that I gave him earlier that morning. My world flipped upside down and I completely went crazy for the next few months.
For years I had been a pop optical painter. My work was filled with clean geometric lines, and my subjects often were immersed in controlled circles and squares. I used this format for my work, mainly because I relied on these shapes to carry the formulaic codes of color (like a color by numbers book) so that when I painted, I could remember what colors I used. Because I am colorblind, I used this method to accurately paint to a color seeing world. I was always trying to prove myself to others, that I was just as good as a color seeing normal painter, and most of my work was more about evidence and competing against these handicaps.
Upon TJ’s death, my aesthetic slowly changed. My lines became less straight, my geometric shapes began to lose form, and my color combinations began to become less complementary. The sterile geometric world that I had become so rigidly attached to, began to become more organic and raw. Instead of colors, I began to focus on word usage. Words by the thousands began to infiltrate my paintings. .. where as before, nothing but a landscape of shapes occupied it.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t care whether I was communicating that I could paint what you could see. I didn’t want to hide behind this persona that everything was ok, and that I could triumph over this handicap that I had. I suddenly emerged from this cardboard cut out of my smiling self, as an emotionally raw, mentally exuberant artist that had something to say and wanted to communicate it.
So painting TJ in this fashion was coming full circle. His death was the changing force to the platform of my work, and painting him in this fashion created this ‘snake eating its tail’ moment in my life and work. I immediately went home after seeing Sara and slapped some white gesso over a painting I had made of one of the drag queens for that show out in Hollywood. For five days I painted straight. I didn’t sleep nor did I really eat during that time in Chicago.
This piece, entitled “Falling South” is the result of this transformation, and TJ, my old love, is the catalyst and therefore effigy of this work. The painting is made up of every memory we have had together, which transpires into the totality of his form. In relation to “Classical Mechanics”, death is the external force that influenced the trajectory of my life in art. Death and trauma physically alters our brain, and this alteration changes the pathways in which we communicate our aesthetics. In some ways when we experience death, we come to the realization of our own mortality, and therefore the structures of rules, limitations, and guidelines that inhibit us to create real and raw work deteriorate.