There’s a lot going on in Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s chaotic paintings of gay black men, often in sexual congress. They capture the inchoate feelings of intertwining oneself with another body, but they also reflect a raw engagement with fragmented facets of gender, racial and sexual identity.
The Philadelphia artist’s first Los Angeles exhibition at Kohn Gallery features 14 large paintings on bed sheets stretched like canvases plus a selection of smaller works on paper. The figures are delineated in quivery, wavering lines, as in the frankly erotic works of Egon Schiele. The outlines seem to trail and cross from figure to figure — sometimes impossible to ascertain where one body ends and another begins. These bodies float in indeterminate, abstract spaces like those of Francis Bacon, another painter of contorted flesh.
Yet the most startling art historical touchstone is “La Grande Odalisque,” Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1814 painting of a woman whose body is so twisted for display that her pose would require extra vertebrae. Many of Chase’s male figures also present both chest and buttocks to the viewer, signaling sexual availability and messing with the conventions of gendered representation. Some of the men, such as the ecstatic lover in “Bend,” have feminine breasts. Others, such as the mustachioed beauty in “dimonds all over my body,” sparkle with collaged rhinestones.
By integrating distinctly feminine attributes into erotic images of black men, Chase expands our visual vocabulary beyond the all-too-common stereotypes of hyper-masculine thugs and sports stars.
He also touches upon tensions related to faith. “3 halos Three crosses on bed” depicts men engaged in a threesome, eyes shut tight, each wearing a large cross around his neck. The piece suggests that gay sex might be just as holy as religious traditions that haven’t always deemed it so.
In the end, the looseness and eclecticism with which Chase’s figures are rendered suggest the openness of an identity in which stark contradictions are not so much reconciled as simply allowed to exist. “It is what it is,” they seem to say; bring your whole self, and nothing less.