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A series of key images and a few installation views of the exhibition Paul P. : Amor et Mors, currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada.National Gallery Of Canada

The Toronto artist known as Paul P. was born in 1977, which means he came of age after the height of the AIDS crisis. That’s relevant to his art because it looks backward to pre-AIDS erotica, pulled from the pages of 1960s gay-porn magazines or inspired by the more coded images of the 19th-century aesthetic movement.

In portraits and landscapes, his estheticizing approach is subtle and filled with both much longing and some foreboding, characteristics that have been cleverly highlighted in a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.

Just before the pandemic, the gallery acquired a selection of small paintings, drawings and original prints by the artist (who in the age of Google has counterintuitively forgone a last name), dating from his early career in 2003 up to recent work from 2019. To introduce this acquisition, prints and drawings curator Sonia Del Re has combed the permanent collection and pulled out works by James McNeill Whistler and some of his contemporaries to underline the historical precedents for Paul P.’s approach to surfers on Venice beach, views of palms or pagodas, and portraits of young men.

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National Gallery Of Canada

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Two untitled paintings by Paul P. purchased by the gallery in 2020 with the generous support of Diana Billes.National Gallery Of Canada

In pastel on ochre-coloured paper with black shadows and white highlights, the artist draws a naked man framed in a doorway; his pose is a mirror image of Michelangelo’s David. For a moment it will unsteady the viewer who will perhaps briefly mistake this image for one of the famous statue, perhaps realize the poses are reversed or perhaps recognize only subconsciously that this figure somehow straddles past and present.

Nearby, Del Re hangs an image from the early 1900s of a male nude by the British artist Charles Shannon, a helmet and sword clothing the naked figure in a mythic guise. And she includes a painting by Charles Ricketts, the British artist, theatre designer and connoisseur who was Shannon’s life partner (and also advised the Canadian gallery on acquisitions in the 1920s). Ricketts’s painting, a rather soupy and dated example of British aestheticism executed sometime in the early 20th century, shows the mythical Danaides, women condemned to carry water in cracked urns. Del Re speculates that Ricketts empathized with their frustration as he tried to communicate queer desire in his art without endangering his life with Shannon, a live-in “friendship” whose true nature was largely denied by the outside world.

Meanwhile, she has also unearthed the National Gallery’s 1913 drypoint print by Paul César Helleu of Robert de Montesquiou, the unrepentant dandy who was the basis for the licentious Baron Charlus in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It’s a fabulous portrait, the fine black line capturing every detail of the wavy hair, proudly tilted head and luxurious mustache. Perhaps the sexuality is still coded, but the code is easier to crack than it is in the British work.

Del Re makes another powerful comparison between a 1912 head by British artist Glyn Philpot, a wonderfully sympathetic portrait of an Ethiopian man only identified as Billy, and Paul P.’s many portraits of the early 2000s based on magazine images. In these, soft oil paintings or graphite drawings, he gives us merely the head and the sidelong gazes of figures depicted without their bodies, given psychological presence by their extraction from their erotic context.

Or she pairs Paul P.’s classic view of a Venice courtyard, a drypoint print where the tile floor dissolves into water, with Whistler’s 1894 lithograph of a blacksmith in his shop, images that use a similar perspective to depict an urban interior that hovers between the public and private realms.

Whether he is painting people or places, there is a sense in Paul P.’s work of both affection for the past and prediction of approaching change. In Venice, the water rises. On Venice Beach, the party will soon end.

Yet, despite climate crises and pandemics, change isn’t necessarily disastrous. The longing captured by Shannon and Ricketts ultimately gave way to gay liberation, and Paul P. is heir to queer cultural tradition that can now speak its name.

Indeed, this smaller show forms something of a coda to the mighty General Idea retrospective that the gallery mounted last summer. That trio of Toronto artists – two of whom died of HIV complications in 1994 – colourfully exposed society’s responses to AIDS, their loud critique perhaps best summarized by giant floating blimps shaped like capsules of the retroviral drug AZT. Paul P. is the polar opposite, all quiet and small, but his approach is only possible because of what has gone before.

The National Gallery speaks these days of bringing new voices into the conversation and new visitors to the gallery. How that is to be done institutionally remains an open question. But at least this well-considered introduction to a contemporary artist on the one hand, and seldom-seen pieces from the historical collection on the other, sets a strong curatorial example.

Paul P.: Amor et Mors continues to June 11 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

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