Paul P, Vespertilians

28 October 2022 By

Maureen Paley: Studio M, Shoreditch

16 September – 30 October 2022 ENDS SOON

Paul P’s fourth exhibition with Maureen Paley, this time at her space in the Rochelle School brings his now familiar combination of portrait and landscape paintings. The press release confirms that the portraits are again composed from cropped photographs of gay porn and erotica from the 1960s to the 1980s: dates that roughly bracket the period from the gay liberation movement to the advent of the AIDS crisis. Showing both oils and watercolours, the palette is rich, the mood dreamy. Each portrait subject a young man lost in thought or a moment of repose; the sense is of intrusion into a moment of quiet intimacy.

Let’s think about male beauty. Classical statuary dwelt with great precision on the smoothness of cheek, on softly rounded muscles and tumbling curls, hymning them to the point of femininity. Only in craggy or chiseled old age were men depicted without this sensuality by Greek and Roman sculptors. Paul P lingers on the curving nape of a neck, a delicate clavicle above a hairless chest. These slender young men with heavy fringes and full lips have their defences down. If they are aware of us looking, they do not show it. Theirs is the insouciant beauty of youth and Paul P communicates the otherworldliness of this: the juncture of sexual maturity and the arrogance of inexperience.

The Vespertilians of the exhibition title are the bats that have recurred in Paul P’s work since the early 2000s:

“Between bird and animal, appearing at dusk and through the night, existing upside down/inverted, vilified and feared, the bat continues to hold as a metaphor for dexterity, elegance, otherness, and unshakable stigma” Paul P

The group of watercolours here evokes the moment when the sun has dipped behind the horizon and the sky holds the vestiges of its pink and gold while the bruised colours of night encroach from above. Into this vaporous display come the bats, emissaries from the supernatural world. In interviews, the artist has often cited the influence of James McNeil Whistler whose impressionistic nocturne paintings have a similarly diaphanous feel. Like Whistler, Paul P has made paintings of light effects in Venice.

Born in Canada in 1977, Paul P came of age in a world in which sex and death were fatally connected through the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The beauteous young men of his delicate portraits, therefore, may never have grown beyond the magical, transitional space between childhood and adulthood. There is an elegiac quality, then, to the portraits, that might put one in mind of First World War poetry. These paintings memorialise those cut down in their prime, not by machine gun fire or mustard gas, but by the ignorance and stigma that placed a moral judgement on a virus.

The very specific period from which Paul P draws his photographic sources (in The ArQuives, formerly the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto) draws a parallel between the idyllic, pre-lapsarian period before 1914 and the moment of freedom experienced in the queer community following the de-criminalisation of homosexuality in the mid 60s and before the sudden awareness of the AIDS crisis twenty years later. His emphasis, however, is less on hedonism than on fragility, less on excess than on impermanence.

This concise exhibition is disproportionately thoughtful and engrossing; a moment of real humanity amid these turbulent times.

Caroline Douglas

Rochelle School, Friars Mount House 7 Playground Gardens, London E2 7FA
Opening Times: Wednesday – Sunday, 11 – 6pm
Exhibition open until 30 October 2022 ENDS SOON