Sunday, June 9, 2013

Paul DeMuro

I had the pleasure of seeing Paul's fantastic paintings right before they were shipped to Galerie Z├╝rcher in Paris.
Paul's newest paintings reference AIDS quilts. The first time I saw photographs of the AIDS quilts was in LIFE magazine at age five. My mother showed them to me, just as she showed me many magazines, hoping to expand my young mind. Although my mother rarely cries, I remember she was crying, because she felt such tremendous sympathy for the victims and their loved ones. I was aware of the immense tragedy of the epidemic from such an early age, that I can't remember a time that I didn't know about AIDS.
 I was moved by the personal and psychological intensity that Paul's paintings possess. The personal is the political, as Marcia Tucker would say. Paul's limited, red, monochromatic palette is both pithy and poignant, and it is satisfying to see a painter using color conceptually. Many of the paintings' surfaces bear an unsettling resemblance to coagulated blood. Paul's palette as well as the textures he uses are reminiscent of Philip Guston, although Paul's content as well as his approach are very different. Even though there is a haunting sadness in these paintings, it's not the same as the utter despair and hopelessness of Guston; Paul's paintings are more open-ended. 
Paul and I discussed how growing up, we were both convinced that we would contract AIDS. During that time there was a lot of confusion and mass hysteria linked to the disease. Paul thought he would get AIDS as a child because he was gay. My own fear was caused by the scaremongering tactics used in teaching safe sex in the public schools I attended. Instead of being taught to protect ourselves, we were taught to dread and fear our own bodies as well as everyone else's bodies. "The only safe sex is no sex," was a popular catch phrase I would hear ad nauseam during these informative lectures. I am convinced that the moralizing way in which much of my generation was taught safe sex, was just as insidious and detrimental to a healthy view of sexuality as religion was to prior generations.  
What terrifies so many people about sex is that it's an instinctual and immutable force of nature that cannot be controlled or stopped or ever even successfully repressed. The view that Judeo-Christianity is the only cultural tradition at the root of sexual repression, is too simplistic. Even the ancient Greeks whom we imagine today to be free and wild sexual libertines, commended and revered philosophers who abstained from sex and chose to live the life of the mind, rather than succumbing to the lowly pleasures of the flesh. Eastern Philosophies also place an emphasis on asceticism. Karen Horney, the psychoanalyst who famously countered Freud's penis envy with her own theory of womb envy, believed that the ascetic impulse is a neurotic one, and that people who choose the life of a nun or a monk, do so because of their inability to fit in with society at large.

Thankfully, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Paul's paintings would take on an entirely different meaning if he were painting them 25 years ago. Time changes the way we interpret everything. Nothing is timeless because our ideas and attitudes keep shifting and changing alongside the world we inhabit.   

Leo Bersani wrote an incredible essay during the height of the AIDS epidemic, called Is The Rectum a Grave? Bersani is one of the most riveting theorists I've encountered, with his beautiful and unorthodox writing style as well as his no bullshit, incisive powers of analysis, he turns theory into an art form. Is The Rectum a Grave? helped elucidate so much of the injustice and homophobia that surrounded the AIDS epidemic. Before reading that essay, I wasn't aware of how deeply the cruelty and injustice pervaded popular culture at the time. I was baffled by how the media coverage was aimed at heterosexual groups who were at the time at low risk, and excluded the high-risk groups almost entirely. 
This painting has the closest reference to an AIDS quilt with its rich narrative details. Despite the grave subject matter, this painting contains a magical vitality. Paul's paintings celebrate life even though their subject matter addresses death. The ancient Greeks knew all along not to fear death. One of our greatest struggles in contemporary life is to accept our own finitude.