The fascinating contradictions of Paul Thek

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“Feathered Cross” (1969) is an appropriate greeting for visitors to Paul Thek: Interior / Landscape, on display at the Watermill Center until November 13. The feathers add a note of irreverence, softening the power of the object. Even covered in feathers, this giant cross still commands a piece, towering over the works of art in front of it. The sculpture encapsulates the work and life of an artist who rebelled against his first virtuosity as a draftsman by rendering scribbles and scribbles in later works, and who became angry with aspects of religion that rejected his homosexuality, while remaining a devout Catholic. He was a great mathematician whose work included paintings, sketches, collages, installations, and sculptures.

The tensions and contradictions that make Thek’s work difficult to pin down and market are also what makes him fascinating. There is so much variety to see in the galleries of the Watermill that it could almost be a group show. Yet its thoughtful curation translates into a comprehensive tour of its practice, highlighting themes such as nature, death, rebirth, and faith. There are enough key pieces from every period of his career, and in every medium, to make it cohesive.

Installation view of Paul Thek: Interior / Landscape at Watermill Center, Water Mill, NY

Thek’s precise drawing skills are exhibited in the untitled drawings he created in Italy in 1976, in which graphite adds a subtle texture to the mountains and seascapes of his beloved Ponza, where he lived in the 1970s. Despite their technical skills, they become repetitive after a while; Thek’s skill would have been just as effective with fewer examples.

The Technological reliquaries series, his most iconic works and my favorite pieces on display are a highlight of the show. These are sculptures composed of abstract casts of flesh taken from his own body, as well as wax made to resemble raw meat, and various elements of nature, such as leaves, all enclosed in plexiglass vaults. “Untitled” (1964) features lacquered wax disguised as meat, emblazoned with the number 75. It looks like a slice of fossilized Sicilian pizza, but inspires reverence simply because it is behind glass, like an exhibit of relics nuns in a museum, or perhaps ancient porcelain or other vessels.

It’s also a nod to the minimalist sculptures popular at the time, but the visceral and emotional qualities diverge from the distant aesthetic of minimalism as they challenge viewers to consider the bodily at the same high level as the spiritual.

Installation view of Paul Thek: Interior / Landscape at Watermill Center, Water Mill, NY

On the other hand, the so-called “bad paintings” that Thek painted towards the end of his career unfortunately live up to their name. They are made up of childish scribbles, zigzags, and doodles straight out of a bored teenager’s notebook – for example, “Susan Lecturing on Neitzsche” (1987) (the philosopher’s name is intentionally misspelled, so mocks Sontag’s teaching through handwriting in the style of bathroom wall graffiti. Nearby, in “Untitled (Five Vertical Red Lines)” (1981), red lines suggest careless cuts in the “skin” of the pink background. The inclusion of these works contributes to a broad overview of Thek’s work, career, but I would have liked his other installations to have received more real estate.

If you can’t make it to Long Island, or want a bigger dose of Thek, Paul Thek: Relativity Clock, presented to Alexander and Bonin until October 16, serves both as a context and as a companion to the Moulin à eau show. Additionally, there is a portrait of Peter Hujar, “Paul Thek with Sculptures in Hand” (1967/2010), and pages from Thek’s diaries.

Paul Thek, Untitled (Meat Piece with Chair) (from the ‘Technological Reliquaries’ series) 1966 wax, bronze, formica and plexiglass 16 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 9 1/2 in / 42 x 55 x 24 cm photo : Joerg Lohse © Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York

“Untitled (piece of meat with chair)” (1966), from the Technological reliquaries series, is a powerful centerpiece. Inside a display case is an object that resembles the gaping mouth of a fish with its head cut off, its glossy satin scales. The creature’s body seems to cry out in pain, even without a head to fully express it. A small chair watches the fish-like creature and the gallery from the top of a small shelf. Equally visceral are the wax-cast faux meats in “Untitled (meat cable)” (1969), which dominate the front porch. Strung on wire ropes, the wax meat looks like little hearts or brains, exposed body parts.

The exhibition also features excellent paintings, notably “Untitled (Plongeur)” (1969), in which the subject’s muscles are highlighted in pink to show his shoulders and arms waving under the strain, against an azure sky which merges into the sea.

I found the picture light more confusing paintings. In works such as “Pink Cross and Green Buds” (1975-80), childish drawings are placed in golden frames adorned with lights, as if they were on display in a collector’s house; chairs are placed in front of them for visitors to sit down and apparently gaze at the paintings. In the contrast between the simple images and the scholarly setting, Thek seems to challenge us to question his installation, to ask whether these simplistic works deserve contemplation. Even though I didn’t like the paintings themselves, I admired the challenge.

Installation view of Paul Thek: Interior / Landscape at Watermill Center, Water Mill, NY

Thek, who died in 1988 of AIDS, was close to Peter Hujar and Susan Sontag (she even dedicated her 1966 book Against interpretation to him), but, despite critical acclaim, he was never more famous during his lifetime, nor more at home in the art world, than some of his closest friends. The exhibitions are a tribute to his talent and his vision; I hope they will encourage a wider artistic audience to give it the recognition it deserves.

Paul Thek: Interior / Landscape continues at the Watermill Center (39 Watermill Towd Road, Water Mill, New York) until November 13. The exhibition was curated by Noah Khoshbin and Owen Laub.

Paul Thek: Relativity Clock continues at Alexander and Bonin (47 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) until October 16.

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