wild wild Wild West / Haunting of the Seahorse
Artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase depicts queer domestic intimacy in broad messy paint strokes, bold colors, collaged photographs, and pen and ink drawings. While the works illustrate twisted bodies, puckered lips, exposed butts, and flailing tongues, they are far from overly sexualized scenes—although many of these figures are indeed sexy. Instead, what we glimpse is loving desire, private moments of coupling rendered with compassionate lines and brush strokes often not afforded to scenes of queer male love. “lunch paper bag skin teases me brown saucer eyes angrily tearing at me I kiss the thought of / you goodbye the only kiss I’ll ever give because you’ll never give us a try” Chase writes in lines of poetry from their first book, Quiet Storm (2018). This confessional narrative of tender Black queer love continues in their new two-part book wild wild Wild West/Haunting of the Seahorse, a visual verbal mediation on grief, domestic love, family, and the body.
The book was made in collaboration with designer Jerome Harris, who was tasked with building it out of Chase’s plastic binder of notes, collages, drawings, and written texts. The two books both read from left to right requiring it to be flipped upside-down halfway through and started again from the back, forcing a reorientation. They share a unified visual language that characterizes Chase’s larger body of work, a confident bright color palette, childlike scribbled text, chaotic figurative line drawings, screen grabs, and the artist’s own photographs, encased in a plastic slipcase that nods to the original binder that houses the reference materials. The two texts, though distinct stories, both feel equally diaristic with handwritten entries and poetry stanzas combined with typed text.
The first book, wild wild Wild West, is a tribute to Chase’s grandmother in four chapters: grief as memory, as a dream, as depression, and as a love letter, that draws on a shared love of cowboys and their grandmother’s religious rituals, imparted on Chase as a child. It opens with the note, “Dedicated to my Grandma / Dedicated to Black Queer Grandchildren, Black Grand parents of Black Queer Children and Black Grandkids, Dedicated to Black Queer children and their Grandparents who grew up in the church.” Motifs of religious crosses, praying hands, and “buckets of piss” run throughout this expression of the physical and mental toll loss takes on the body. Chase scribbles, “This grief / My grief is my own / The loss of my third parent / my grandma / loss of a hug / a kiss / an ear to catch tears / scent of a sweet number 5 / my friend” with a sticker at the bottom right reading “GRIEF NEVER ENDS.” The pages elegantly capture the weight, density, and permanence of grief in one’s body and mental state. Drawings of buckets of yellow liquid accompany descriptions of a narrator who cannot even rise to use the bathroom and instead ends up surrounded by bodily waste: “This depression is my own this emptiness is my own this tiredness is my own this hurt is my own this time is my own.” But there is also the hope offered by rediscovering communal interests (grief as love letter). “Cowboys in American history have predominantly been symbols of beauty and masculinity and have been mostly white and heterosexual,” they write in typed text. “Will Smith played a cowboy in the wild Wild West / Early notions of desire.” These parallel narratives of loss and desire fit with Chase’s larger interest in pairing opposites and unpacking dualities. There is a flow within the references too—drawings of cowboys on horses sit alongside an image of a My Little Pony with the text, “I had my little pony toys from a young age til about age 5 or age 6. Fairy tale faggot dream,” building a narrative of childhood desire.
The second book, Haunting of the Seahorse—with a title that references a different “horse”—follows a couple, photographer Issac Maltrop and partner Ha’Keem, who is carrying their child, during their time living on a space station photographing a greenhouse. The visuals of this story are a mix of emails, digital logs, handwritten diary entries, and lush drawings of the greenhouse. While not about grief specifically, death haunts this story too, as strange things begin happening on the space station: fish throwing themselves at the walls of their tank, lights flickering on the deck, and chairs mysteriously getting stacked. The occurrences cause nightmares about intruders on the ship, the loss of their baby, and their own deaths. In one spread a handwritten note on bright green paper reads, “Im scared / he takes the weight of my fear I spit it in his ear.” Despite the fantastical science fiction premise, the story is about family and the desire to build a safe home. It opens with the vulnerable admission, not clearly attributed to either partner, “I want to have a baby.” The title eludes to this, as it is the male seahorse that bares children. Drawings show Ha’Keem pregnant with their child, surrounded by budding greenhouse life. But the fears the characters express are rooted in a truth present in our current reality. As Chase said during Printed Matter’s live streamed book launch, “Going outside, it isn’t promised that you will be alive. It is very disturbing to think about your body in the blink of an eye being eradicated into hatred and fear—homophobia and transphobia.” A safe home begins with being safe in one’s own body.
While the books seem shockingly different in plot, both are about family love—the one we are born into and the one we create. And both are bodily stories, from the eroticized bodies of Black cowboys and the physical toll of grief, to the body that carries another life into the world and the vulnerability of queer and Black bodies. The pages of this story are loving and tender, but also uncomfortable and strange. “Embedded in the medium of science fiction and horror is the idea of being uncomfortable,” Chase explains during the launch. “And I deal with that every day, having a different kind of relationship to my body makes me really like horror movies where the body is the site where horror takes places.” Chase renders queer bodies bare and exposed, showing them to contain at times uncomfortable, painful, and deeply haunted spaces also capable of heartbreaking love, closeness, and quietness.