Sunday, 20 September 2009
Delmas Howe occupies a strange position in the American art world. Currently, he is probably America’s best-known ‘gay artist’ – in the sense that he is the best-known artist who puts homosexual feeling at the very center of his work. A large number of American gay men have learned to recognize their own feelings through stumbling across his paintings. His web-site, www.delmashowe.com gets many thousands of hits every year, and he has been further publicized by the success of the recent documentary film ‘The Truth or Consequences of Delmas Howe’, which celebrates his personality, his life-style and, most of all perhaps, the remote little town in central New Mexico where he lives and works. Young gay men regard him as a hero figure, and some even make pilgrimages to see him. Recently he was the recipient of a Governor’s Award from the State of New Mexico, a recognition not of his fame in the gay world, but of his long-sustained cultural efforts in his local community. In terms of his social significance, his career rivals that of America’s major feminist artist, Judy Chicago, who also lives in New Mexico. It is no accident that the two artists are personal friends.
Yet it is also true that Delmas is an outsider. He doesn’t fit into the structures of the American art world. Museums welcome his work only grudgingly (though he is represented in the collection of the British Museum), and he has never had a major dealer. It is of course tempting to attribute this to his subject-matter. However, openly homosexual art has made great strides during the past four decades. One has only to think of celebrity artists such as Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Robert Mapplethorpe to understand that gay subject matter is no longer necessarily a stigma. In fact, allusions to homosexuality and the gay life-style are now often used by artists to certify their all-important membership of the avant-garde, as this is defined by influential curators, critics, collectors and dealers.
It is the duty of avant-garde art to be upsetting – but upsetting in the right way. Delmas evidently cannot manage this. It is interesting to ask oneself why. Several answers immediately suggest themselves. One of them has to do with matters of style. Delmas is a figurative painter in a way that art-world insiders think of as old fashioned. He admires the Old Masters, such as the great French Neo-classicist Jacques-Louis David, and direct references to them are often to be found in his work. In ‘The Crucifixion’, from Delmas’s ‘Stations’ series, you will see in the foreground a supine figure that is borrowed directly from ‘The Sleeping Groom’, a print by the German Renaissance master Hans Baldung Grien. In the same series, the chief figures in ‘The Gentle Executioner’ have clearly been influenced by Michelangelo’s celebrated Pieta in St Peter’s, while the composition of ‘The Flagellation’ owes a good deal to Italian Baroque depictions of the same subject - for example to Ludovico Carracci’s even more violent treatment of the theme, now in Douai. Yet another painting in the series also recalls Ludovico. Delmas’s ‘The Awakening’ can be compared to the Italian master’s strange ‘Lamentation’, recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum.
It is not of course new for painters to paraphrase their predecessors in this way. The practice isn’t even a novelty in homosexual art. Some of Tom of Finland’s most erotic drawings, for instance, are based on Old Master paintings that Tom saw during his frequent travels in Europe, long before he ever came to America. One, for instance, is a superbly outrageous version of Rosso Fiorentino’s ‘Christ Carried to the Tomb’ in the Louvre. I have been able to document some of these links in the huge new survey of Tom’s work that Taschen will publish later this year.
What makes Delmas’s paintings memorable, but also, I suspect, repels orthodox opinion, is the element of incongruity. For example, the men beating Christ in ‘The Flagellation’ are decked out in contemporary SM leather gear. The setting for many of the works in the series is the ruined West Side piers in New York. In the 1960s and 1970s, these were the scene of much gay activity. Many gay men of that generation remember them as a theater of homosexual desire.
This prompts a comparison with yet another important painter from the past – Edouard Manet. If one remembers the scandals once aroused by Manet’s ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ and ‘Olympia’, one sees that these operated in a very similar way to Delmas’s ‘Stations’. That is, they forcibly yoked contemporary themes to Old Master formulae. As most students of art history know, the ‘Dejeuner’ is based on a print after Raphael that circulated widely in art academies in Manet’s day. Manet took this template and used to for a contemporary scene – two clothed men, evidently students, with two naked female companions. This allusion to the sexual freedom of the 19th century ‘vie de Bohéme’ upset Manet’s bourgeois audience, even though they knew perfectly well what the score was. The ‘Olympia’, based on the ‘Venus of Urbino’ by Titian, shows a naked woman, who is evidently a prostitute, receiving a bouquet of flowers. Brought in by a black maid, it is, one deduces, a tribute from a client. Far from feeling abashed by her nudity, the woman gazes boldly out at the spectator.
Today the things that unsettle us have changed, but in certain circumstances our reactions are not far from those once aroused by Manet. Delmas Howe alludes to aspects of the homosexual life-style that sill make a lot of people feel uncomfortable – in particular to the ritualized aspects of gay sex. At the same time, he uses religious imagery – in fact, specifically Christian imagery – to call attention to the fact that homosexuals are still persecuted and ostracized. In the United States, fundamentalist Christianity has often taken the lead in this kind of persecution. In Truth-or-Consequences, where fundamentalism is strong, Delmas has had direct experience of this – the confrontation is one of the themes of the recent documentary film. His paintings, however, are also in some respects ambiguous. They can be read as suggesting that homosexuals in some ways combine to persecute one another.
In Truth-or-Consequences, and other places like it, the crime committed by these paintings is their subject-matter – and still more so the fact that they kidnap familiar Christian images and use them in ways that some believers will certainly find blasphemous. In New York, if in this case we take New York as the paradigm of the sophisticated, complicated world of contemporary art, they commit a quite different offence. Despite the fact that they contain elements of irony and ambiguity, they are actually quite serious. They say things about society, and the relationship of morality to society, that many sophisticates don’t want to hear. Speaking as an outsider of rather a different sort – that is, as a European not an American critic – it seems to me that an avoidance of seriousness, a deliberate lack of emotion and affect, is something that characterizes much recent American art. It is certainly one of the things that links Warhol, the dominant American artist of the last few decades of the 20th century, to Jeff Koons, one of the dominant artistic powers of the present moment.
Despite this, American art has a long-established tradition of seriousness. One finds it in the work of artists who are other ways very different from one another – in that of Thomas Eakins, in that of Thomas Hart Benton, and in that of Mark Rothko, who once said that he wanted his pictures to make people weep, without them knowing why. Today they duly do so, in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. In his ‘Stations’, Delmas perhaps wants to make us weep, but even more, he wants to make us think.
Asked to offer a commentary on his work, Frank Stella is reported to have replied: ‘Oh, I got a guy that does that for me,’ Delmas doesn’t need a guy of that kind. In other words, he doesn’t really need me. As a gay man, he’s prepared to tell you up front what he thinks. If you don’t like what he has to say, tough titty.
This site was last updated 20-09-2009