On ViewKohn Gallery
June 1 – July 14, 2018
Jonathan Lyndon Chase envisions sex with a novel mixture of the carnal and tender. 4 number 8’s on a rainy day (2017) is a drawing portraying a dreamlike orgy with human figure eight forms in a vaguely defined room, their faces expressing various stages of pleasure. A larger man, presumably the lone top, sits with his hands in his lap, eyes closed in contemplation. Chase’s number eight is an inventive condensation of the human form into two attached circles: a head and an ass, offering both mouth and anus, an exceptionally fine sexualization of the male body. An obvious, if non-sexual, parallel is Philip Guston’s abbreviation of the body into a boulder or bean-like head in profile, with a single large eye and an ear. Guston’s reduction is cerebral, emphasizing seeing and thinking. Chase’s vision is more sensual: the number eight an icon of receptivity, the quintessential bottom offering his internal embrace.
In his new exhibition of 40 works, Chase’s black male Venuses are bathed in warm yellows, tropical indigo and ultramarine, and rich purples. The men are romantic but not romanticized. The little clothing they wear includes flip-flops, baseball caps, shorts, sneakers, jewelry, and dresses. Their skin consists of washes or thicker, opaque applications of color, ranging from dark chocolate to browns inflected with red and orange, or at times, pale yellows and deep blues. His approach to the body is unfussy, the figures first established by general areas of hue, then loosely defined by lines drawn with marker to indicate the contours of legs, arms, chest, and ass. Chase’s characters are beyond gender—equal parts masculine and feminine, with long lashes, rouged lips, and at times, voluptuous breasts or high heels and fishnets. They manifest an open vulnerability that makes the heart sing out. The men are almost always indoors, and the sparseness of identifying interior details lets the outside world fall away, leaving the men deep in a private realm of their own making. It is as though the universe has contracted itself to just these men, their love and lust, and through the intensity of this contraction, a new world emerges.
In 3 halos Three crosses on Bed (2018), men materialize out of dusky sunset tints and burnt oranges, reds, and violets, interspersed with verdant greens that Chase applies with the sensitivity of a Color Field painter. Assholes are red circles with only notional anatomic specificity; the two men being fucked are a tangle of limbs, almost a single body, while the one penetrating them is little more than a disembodied head, a slim gestural line indicating his shoulders, and his hand touching one man’s face. Each wears a necklace with a crucifix, the titular halos and crosses. Some people go to church when they need a religious experience; others stay home and have sex.
Although pleasure takes center stage, there is pain as well. 1 head three mask (2018) is the first painting Chase made after the death of his grandmother. A man faces us frontally, with three heads around him, presumably masks. Two of these masks stand on the floor, but one is just off the man’s shoulder and weeping. 12-3-6-9 (2017) is one of the least overtly sexy paintings on exhibit, showing a haircut in progress, the numbers of the title turning the painting into a clock face. Chase twists the image by portraying only the man’s head and neck, held aloft by a disembodied hand in an echo of Judith and Holofernes. Dimonds all over my body (2018) portrays a blue man wearing a blue dress, who looks unhappy despite the sparkly rhinestones affixed to his surface. His face rings with anger and hurt.
Chase is one of several contemporary painters chronicling gay male sexuality, but there is little overlap among them. Louis Fratino is among his closest of kin, making similarly erotic, if more graphic, images. Beyond the obvious difference that Fratino portrays white gay scenes, Fratino owes stylistic debts to Nicole Eisenman that are more pronounced than any of Chase’s own influences. Carroll Dunham’s homoerotic wrestlers make him Chase’s peer for the attention given to asses and buttholes, but Dunham’s men are equal parts Eros and Ares, whereas combat has no place in Chase’s work. Dunham further pictures only white men, rendering them as archetypes indistinguishable from one another, in contrast to Chase, who paints specific individuals.
Stronger parallels can be found in the erotic woodblock prints of Ukiyo-e. Although their raw depictions of sex makes Chase’s compositions look comparatively discreet, they contain a similar blend of libido and sweetness, power and submission, bodily pleasure and visual beauty. Some of the Ukiyo-e prints even depict sex between men. This is not to suggest that Chase draws on this tradition for his own work, but rather, that something of their spirit has flowered again in his highly personal and contemporary floating world.
DANIEL GERWIN is an artist and critic living in Los Angeles.