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PHILADELPHIA — More intimate than meticulous, Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s rendering puts human touch at the forefront of his art. As the artist tells Doron Langberg in a recent interview for The Color Hour, he’s able to “really find out what is happening in a painting through touch” and that “the line is a way to talk about tenderness and sensitivity”
Chase, who is black and queer, shows the power of his subjects by exposing just how vulnerable they are. In his current exhibition, Rosebud, at Lord Ludd Gallery, the roughly painted African-American man in “Man with Heads” (2015), wearing nothing but a necktie and Nike high-tops, presents his shapely ass to the viewer, boldly planting himself in the center of the composition.
But his boldness doesn’t come off as an affront. Chase isn’t that kind of artist. He would rather draw you into the intimate subjectivity of the painting. Some of the details are hard to ignore: the net bag slung over the man’s shoulder containing three heads, the man’s prominently delineated ass — the darkest outlines in the picture — and his testicles, hanging just low enough to be seen. There’s a fourth head on his shoulder, tucked into the crook of his arm.
The heads aren’t severed. Chase isn’t a macabre painter, either. Instead, he’s more concerned with the Janus-like layers of identity that people carry around with them. In the Color Hour interview, he describes his interests this way:
I think about identity and masks. Roles we take on in private spaces and in public spaces. Masks are sort of flat but not really – flatness comes from my interest in collage and the idea of something or someone fitting in to a space. I am literally developing this space and the narrative, and sometimes literally cutting and tearing parts to fit in to different areas. Something about ancient art, like Egyptian hieroglyphs and images of bodies being iconic or powerful, means something to the history of how black bodies are depicted and owned by black creators.
The man in “Man with Heads” carries these identities with him like so much laundry. Chase’s paintings seem to ask, Isn’t this how it is? Aren’t these heads, these faces “to meet the faces that you meet,” as T.S. Eliot wrote, a nuisance and a necessity?
For the most part, Chase’s settings are not immediately apparent. On one level, this encourages a de-contextualization of the subject, but Chase subverts that reading by providing a bodily and emotional context. As he told Langberg:
Some of the spaces I depict are a little more abstract and ambiguous in nature, I think black queer men are aware of the danger of being in some places for sure. But often it happens in less expected times and places. You never know when entering a white or straight space when a word or gaze or even someone’s fear will bring harm to you.
The men in Chase’s paintings fear violence rather than threaten it. In other words, he’s looking at the effects of hateful behavior rather than the hateful behavior itself.
“Man in Tub,” which is one of the few works with an obvious setting, depicts a young black man whose body is contorted to fit into a too-small tub, his nose just barely above the water line. He seems caught between self-consolation and suicide.
The most recent work in the show, “Here” (2016), hangs opposite “Man in Tub.” I stood in front of this painting for a long time, caught up in Chase’s inventive use of materials. “Here” is listed as being acrylic on canvas, but there are also a couple of pieces of gold foil, as well as a single line of yarn stitched vertically in the upper left corner of the painting, while another is stretched horizontally across the middle of the frame. Two puncture marks suggest that the horizontal yarn was meant to go a little further to the left, but those spaces are vacant now. Chase simply could be using the yarn for the sake of texture, but he could also be using it for its traditionally gendered (female) associations with crochet and knitting.
In the painting, two fragmented figures, both men, face off with one another. The man on the right, with “HERE” faintly written or tattooed on his arm, reaches for the other, saying, perhaps, Come here. From the size of his genitals, sketchily outlined in blue, he appears to be well-hung, and his asshole, or “rosebud,” is visible, too. The space is clearly intimate, but the mood is tentative, even tense. The submissive man on the left (also nude but for Nike high-tops), his head literally detached from his body, turns his back on his partner, but there is ambiguity as to whether he considers his body desirable or taboo. Looking at this painting, I felt pressure in my chest and my head grew heavy. The emotional gravity of Chase’s work was seeping in.
“Untitled” (2015) sits on the floor, forcing the viewer to squat to see its details. There are four Nike sneaker boxes, their labels facing out. While Chase’s paintings depict high-tops, these boxes are for running shoes, specifically from the Nike Zoom line: Vomero and Pegasus, but the shoes themselves aren’t there. On top and inside of the boxes are downward-facing heads made from painted clay. By incorporating Nike, the goddess of victory, Pegasus, the winged stallion, and (as suggested by the heads) Janus, the god of transitions, into this show, Chase seems to be setting up a corollary in Greek myth to the murderous violence against black men like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. But by putting the viewer at a metaphorical murder scene implicitly involving queer black men, “Untitled,” focuses more sharply on a crime — the murder of gender non-conforming people — that goes underreported in the mainstream media. That number should be its own crime statistic.
Throughout Rosebud Chase ties his materials to his subject matter to raise questions about the fluidity of identity, suggesting that we must maintain multiple identities at all times simply to survive. Sometimes these identities are layered, other times they seem detached, like the masks we put on whenever we need a particular face.
The title of the show, gay slang for a man’s asshole, also alludes to Orson Welles’ classic film, Citizen Kane (1941). In a scene at the beginning of the film, Charles Foster Kane, the main character, whispers “Rosebud” and then dies. “Rosebud” — spoiler alert — is the brand name of a sled from his youth, a symbol of desire as well as all that he’s lost. Chase, by calling Kane to mind, reapplies this symbol to questions about black identity and homosexual love. His work reminds me that we are always whispering “Rosebud” under our breath, desiring many things but unable to have them all.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase: Rosebud continues at Lord Ludd Gallery (306 Market Street, 5th Floor, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through April 17.