Weekly Inspiration: Jean-Michel Basquiat

It is a saucy day here in New Milford at the studio. I just sat down to my desk and realized its time for another weekly inspiration! This week I want to talk about one of the most integral figures of the neo-expressionist movement. Some have gone so far as to call my work neo-neo expressionist, which I guess it could be in the same way that Yale's architecture is neo-neo gothic (discuss). Either way, there are some clear parallels to certain aspects of our work that I think hold some merit in light of the philosophy behind The Gold Series.

"50 Cent Piece"

I chose this piece to illustrate the influence of Jean Michel on The Gold Series because it highlights his use of palimpsest textual elements to evoke the frenzied chaos of contemporary existence.

Although Cy Twombly too, made use of palimpsest text, I took from his his more frenzied less textual strokes and also borrowed his undulating color forms on white space, or his repetitive stroke patterns in the pieces focused on visual mantras.

Conversely, Basiquait inspired elements from The Gold Series were woven into many backgrounds and graffiti like structures as in the large scale 6 x 8 foot canvas entitled "If Bath House Walls Could Talk"  This powerful, large scale piece is a reflection on the 80's culture of which both Basquiat, The Downtown 500 and burgeoning gay community borne out of the initial wave of the AIDS crisis lived with. Dripping with paint suggestive of the…fluids that one may encounter…as well as the multicolored striations representing the classic "hanky code" colors, the piece uses gold as a representation of the unique place bath house culture played in the development of both the AIDS epidemic and gay social consciousness. The shadowy gateway figure (not visible in this shot below as it was still in progress)connoting the mysterious pleasures and hidden (potential) dangers in a bath house.)

Yours truly sitting in front of  "If Bath House Walls Could Talk" 2015  Notice the graffiti like forms peeking out from behind striated layers.

The piece raises questions as to how we as a gay culture claim to find a form of liberation through sex, but then slut shame and cast shade and stigma at those who are HIV positive. It asks us to compare the initial, communal, response to HIV that gave rise to the very LGBTQ movement that led us to marriage equality to the cavalier disregard of the violent and radical realities faced by trans women of color (49 % more likely than cisgender folks to contract HIV). Where is the community? Where is the solidarity?

Why is it that in the dark, low-lit rooms, fueled often by a mix of poppers and drugs, that many gay men shed inhibitions they'd never admit to in the light; while spewing vitriol the next day at brunch for the "dirty" and the "slutty".  If bath house walls could talk, they'd tell us as a community to get a grip. They'd tell us to be honest with ourselves and our history. They'd ask us to find new and more healthy ways to connect as people first and not merely tools to get off. They'd tell us that yes, "the glory days" were fun; but they're not a model for a modern liberation movement. They'd ask us to learn from our past, not doom ourselves to repeat it.

The piece places the colored striations and golden drips above a background of these frenzied strokes, these chaotic strokes formed from stacked cursive letters are the secrets of the bath house, the 2,3,4 AM bloodshot eyes rolling back in heads to the thump thump thump of a stranger unknown through a hole in some MDF; The colors our euphemistic codes for the raunch and the rollicking. Or the memorialized fallen from an epidemic of excess. 

I'll close with a few questions:

Hookups, fleeting intimacy, play, fun whatever you want to call casual sex is irrelevant. It’s a wonderful thing and I firmly believe in sexual autonomy free from stigma on all levels. But I must ask myself as a community health advocate the following , “How can we make fun, safe and informed? How can we meet people where they’re at in ways that speak to their personal truths absent stigma and fear based messaging? How can we reconcile the past with a responsible, informed future without romanticizing risk? If bath house walls could talk, what would we say back to them?
— Jonathan-Joseph Ganjian