I must say that I have been delaying having to see this show because it is so dear to my friend Kenny Schachter who curated it and with whom we have this comedic thing going on between this blog and his Facebook persona. Having said this, his curating of Paul Thek’s show is a disembodied self-portrait of a narcissistic mind (like Kenny’s) that is asking the world to look at him in awe and the world, well…., keeps refusing to do so. In that sense, Paul Thek’s art is that of a child trying to come across as a victim. I mean, a two-time victim: first of AIDS and second of his times. As it happens with people that try to become their own zeitgeist, though he had a very long career, stretching from the 1950s to the 1980s, his work went deeply out of fashion toward the end of his life, and, apparently, he ended his days doing odd jobs like packing groceries and washing floors. This can be seen in ’The Death of a Hippie’ in which Thek cast his own body in full flower power regalia as a corpse. It is difficult not to whisper: ‘Drama Queen…’ when in front of that one.
Pace’s exhibition is small and far too diverse. Schachter wanted far too much with too little. For starters he takes for granted the canonisation of sorts that comes, firstly, with daying and, secondly, with showing at Pace London. The truth is that the show comes across as a few objects and paintings thrown in an artsy way so as to claim a status that leaves the viewer confused. The question that one keeps asking oneself is what is the poit and why are these people trying to pontificate upon the life’s narrative of a gay man who refused to acknowledge his own….averageness.
It does not come as a surprise that when Thek died of Aids in 1988, aged 54, his work was hardly known outside his circle of friends. Looking at this small, fascinating exhibition, it’s not hard to see why it escaped the art world’s radar. It’s just too diverse and wide-ranging, too full of strangely contradictory references to be summarised within existing art movements. It is childlike.
Take, for instance, a piece from Thek’s ‘Technological Reliquaries’ series of the mid-’60s. It consists of a series of long, angular cases set inside one other: the outer one, made of white formica and propped open, is followed by a green plexiglass one, then a slick-looking metal case whose open hatch reveals the grisly heart of the piece – a waxwork replica of nerves, muscles and other bloody viscera. It’s a brilliantly peculiar thing – a sort of religious-minimalist-pop object that also smacks of sci-fi and horror. It’s this weird amalgamation of the conceptual and the corporeal that has ended up becoming influential on younger artists like Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman but those are, of course, the wrong people to impress.
Yet, concentrating on Thek’s paintings and watercolours, many of which were made in the last years of his life, the main focus of the show takes you in a different direction entirely. Quite a few of the 21 works on display are relatively straightforward – impressionistic landscapes or rootftop views from his New York apartment in lovely, nocturnal colours. Others are blurry, aggressive, childlike scrawls, or floating, scribbly symbols such as a repeated hammer-and-sickle motif. Individually, they are non sense and as a group they are unbearable.
The problem with this show is also the curating because apart from the aforementioned dispersion, there are two forces clashing here: on one hands, this show exaggerates scopophilia in order to criticise it through exaggeration and the other hand, asserts his modernist rights to be scopophiled, if that is the word. In other words, this show says: ‘please look me’ and then it says: ‘See? You are looking to me! I told you that you would sooner or later’. It is as if this raging queen is impossible to satifsy. I am talking about Thek and I think I am talking about Schachter, too.
Until November 9
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