Now in its second year, the artcritical prize at the Annual Student Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, chosen by faculty vote, awards a graduating MFA student an article in these pages. Author DIDIER WILLIAM was recently named chair of the MFA program at PAFA.
The paintings of Jonathan Lyndon Chase display an overwhelming elasticity to them. Bodies are readily stretched, twisted and contorted to fit into spaces that remain unnameable but still very much present. In an untitled work from 2014, the space and depth of the painting references a fecal pile in the way the paint is stacked and sits on the surface with a kind of clumsy audacity. Visceral grit, orchestrated by a network of collaged material, weaves its way into more traditional painting language. But even the collage is sometimes abrupt, with intruding shards of aluminum foil, stitched yarn and foam, constantly causing the paintings to throb and pulse in and out of resolution. Elegance is replaced with subtlety of intrusion and the tenderness of seamless collision. His figures are painted with skins that seem vividly translucent, allowing us to gaze through the stratified layers of paint. Their luminescence seems both coy and purposeful, often serving as the only rational light source.
Chase manages to excise gender performances from his paintings almost entirely. Instead, we are left with the residue of toxic masculinity, repurposed and repositioned in a manner that allows us to probe and question their function and meaning. Chase tends to leave his paintings absent of nameable places, with the exception of a few paintings – such as Man in Tub (2015) in which a figure’s limbs and body are recombined like Tetris pieces to fit snug into a placid bathtub, for instance, or another in which two figures are reclined in intimate repose in what appears to be a bed. In this intentional defamiliarization of space, he begins to deflate the omnipresence of normative social structures that forcefully define how and where conventionally masculine and feminine bodies are supposed to function. In this way, he prevents us from hijacking the agency of these figures forcing us to read their bodies as texts.
The specter of racist and homophobic violence looms large when queer black and brown bodies deny conventional legibility and insist upon the opacity of their own historical narratives. When we don’t know what to do with young black boys and girls who don’t behave according to our violent prescriptions of manhood or femininity, we kill them. We kill them with prayer. We kill them with conversion therapy. We kill them with oversimplification. We relegate their complicated and contradictory humanity to the darkest corners of our imagination. We erase them. What I find most intriguing about this work is the way Chase leans into this obscurity instead of privileging clarity. This playful and at times spectacular irresolution plays a significant role in his work. Bodies are refigured as complex ensembles, brilliantly synthesizing the facility of his line, his deft paint handling, and a color sensibility that references comics and ‘90s cartoons. A collection of hieroglyphic hands, heads, dicks and asses with an elastic relationship to one another and to the spaces they occupy, these robust and curvaceous figures at times aggressively push the limits of the picture plane and at other times are jettisoned into the constellation of body parts strewn about the canvas, leaving us to sift through the pile to discern the dead from the living.
Trying to place the men and boys in Chase’s paintings becomes a struggle. In one painting he simultaneously captures the enormity of Superman’s “Fortress of Solitude” as well as the suffocating horror of the Well in Buffalo Bill’s basement in “The Silence of the Lambs.” In another painting, Man with Heads (2015), we see a figure carrying a sack of severed heads. Again, like many of the figures in Chase’s paintings, he seems to glow almost like a beacon at the center of the composition, illuminating the sheets of dark walls that confine the open space behind him. A bit farther off in the distance we notice two cliffs on either side of the canvas, converging into a precipice. With a firm and confrontational pose, torso twisted around and eyes focused back onto us, and with a full view of his bare behind, the figure entices viewers toward this conceptual edge of the painting, reminding us that our polite curiosity is not to be trusted.
We do not miss the clarity of representational narratives in these paintings. Instead Chase presents us with a curious proposition. What if we affirm the unconventional complexity in the bodies of black and brown queer folk? What happens to gender if we decenter masculinity and femininity and consider other modes of self–expression, displacing history to freely probe and repurpose the sources of our identity construction? There is no rush to answer these questions here. He instead forces us to sit, wholly attentive and present with every painting. This is encouraging.