Paul P.: Lyrical and Transient
The subjects of Paul P.’s portraiture all display a kindred presence. The youthful men whom the Toronto-based artist paints and draws wear a range of expressions – ruminative or sullen, coy or ecstatic – but invariably, they appear engaged, active and unposed, as if caught in the middle of a moment. They share a disposition that expresses evanescence. Perhaps this is because both youth and beauty are fleeting. Or perhaps it is because P.’s subjects belong to another time that, cruelly, was but temporary.
In early 2020, the National Gallery of Canada added 29 works by the artist to its permanent collection, including many examples of his portraiture. The acquisition is career-spanning, and it encompasses a wide range of media, including etchings, lithographs, pastels, watercolours, oil paintings and drawings in ink and graphite. It also reflects the various strategies P. uses to create his work – whether created in his studio using appropriated images, or made from photographs taken during his travels, or drawn by him en plein air. These works, selected in dialogue with the artist, make for a fulsome survey of the practice of a Canadian artist of significant international acclaim, who was previously unrepresented in the national collection. P. himself calls the selection “expansive”: “It touches on almost every motif, strategy and way of working I have undertaken over the past fifteen or twenty years.”
Much of P.’s work begins in The ArQuives (formerly known as the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives) in Toronto, where he collects images to later transcribe in his studio with oil paint and other media. He regards the discovery of this resource as critically important to the development of his practice. His image research focuses on gay erotic magazines produced specifically between Stonewall in 1969 and the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. P. calls this period of liberation and blossoming, “a golden age,” before horrific tragedy. “It is a bracketed period of aesthetic and cultural progress,” he says, “with periods of political and other forms of catastrophe on either side.” He cannot view the era nostalgically – he wasn’t part of it – but, born in 1977, he came of age as a queer person feeling its ripples.
Whether it be portrait, landscape or abstraction, P.’s work often draws comparisons between this 1970s “golden age” and other such prolific periods in the history of art. “I’ve always been interested,” he says, “in artists like [James Abbott McNeill] Whistler and [John Singer] Sargent – fin de siècle or Belle Époque artists, who prioritized aesthetics and forged the ‘art for art’s sake’ ethos. They were in their own ways bracketed by the beginning of the 20th century, all of the upheavals into the First World War and a more strident Victorianism before them.”
These two expat American sensualists are deeply influential to P.’s own painterly style. He’s always trying to balance them, he says: “Whistler with his mists and murk and unfinished elements, but also the panache and glamour of Sargent.” From the archives’ erotica collection, P. looks for source images that “not only transcend their erotic context,” he says, but also have something in common with the “vocabulary of postures and gazes” he had noticed in the depictions of women by these late Victorian painters. “It’s sometimes an exhausted or a wary gaze, and I think, retrospectively, they can be seen to hold something foreboding in them.”
In the mid-2000s, P.’s attention turned to landscape, which later imbued even his portraiture with an environmental or atmospheric quality – “from the seascapes,” he says, “from the dusks and dawns.” Reading periodicals about the social and artistic scenes surrounding Whistler and Sargent and then also about the world of underground magazines and soft-core pornography pre-AIDS, he encountered a name important to both sets: Venice. One is the ancient Italian port city, the other is the beach neighbourhood in Los Angeles.
He began depicting these two Venices, regarding them as personifications or ghosts of their bygone eras. “They are geographical peripheries,” he says, “water-bound places of exile, both known for their qualities of light. Each also attracted artists and outsiders. Both epochs had their mecca, and they were both named Venice.” He recognizes that neither locale still offers the promise of escape or reward that caused these respective generations to flock there. In a sense, he is painting their ruins. But you can still perceive the echo, he says.
For P., this exercise in retrospection, in finding linkages between these heydays past, is a means of archaeological exploration and of mapping the route to present-day conditions. But it's also a way of considering the future, he says. “Though [the work]) is backward-looking, I think it postulates about the recurrence of history and of tragedy and about the tenuousness of freedoms.”
For detail of works by Paul P. in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.