“I love your assholes,” I told artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase during a studio visit at his Philadelphia home on a Saturday morning three years ago, while his husband watched cartoons in the next room. It was a friendly joke but sincere. Chuckling, Chase said, “They’re an entryway into the body—a way to access the interior. They allow these queer Black bodies—which are often assumed to be strong and hard, or are else fetishized—to be vulnerable, to be both soft and hard.”
The fat ring of an asshole, pink against black, is situated near the center of the canvas in 3SUM. As in many of Chase’s paintings, the figures shown in 3SUM appear simultaneously flattened and two-dimensional yet somehow suggest depth and interiority: body cavities, insides, yes, but also the depths of desire and feeling.
On the surface, bodies lose their boundaries. In the painting clap clap clap clap, the limbs of figures overlap and reappear in pentimento, contorting or splaying in unlikely directions. A nipple has migrated to an upper arm. Three heads are shown but only two pairs of arms and legs, making it difficult to discern if there are two figures or three, or more. The legs themselves clearly resemble chicken drumsticks, which also appear in collaged paper cut-outs arranged across the canvas in an almost comical arc, as though kicked from the tabletop by the tumult of sex.
This drive toward messy bodily abstraction—where distinctions between inside and outside, lover and beloved, are happily abandoned—grants Chase’s paintings a sense of honesty, what he described to me as “a different kind of realism.” A photorealistic painting of queer sex may be true to the eye, but Chase’s approach feels truer to the overall embodied experience. Sensuousness, not just sexuality, suffuses his work, implicating sound and touch and other senses in the act of viewing. “Visual observation is so important,” Chase said, “but I’m also thinking a lot about how something smells and how it tastes. I’m really interested in the line being a route for touch.” In clap clap clap clap, the four letters repeated in the title are shown on lamp-like shapes in the upper right corner of the canvas, inaudibly communicating the sound of the action the painting depicts. Plastic bags are incorporated into the surface of 3SUM, providing physical texture to one figure’s upraised ass-cheek and falling shorts, and musical notes appear wafting above the scene amid smoke from a joint or cigarette.
In the group exhibition Semblance: The Public/Private/Shared Self at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, six of Chase’s paintings are on view alongside paintings by Heidi Hahn and Doron Langberg. Although Semblance is the artist’s first presentation in the South, it is the second group exhibition this summer to feature Chase and Langberg together: the first, Them at Galerie Perrotin’s New York location, presented a survey of the rising stars of contemporary queer figuration, including Louis Fratino, Anthony Cudahy, and Salman Toor.
In terms of the contemporary art market, Chase’s work exists at the intersection of two prevailing trends (or perhaps a more fitting word is appetites) of the moment: collectors’ and museums’ voracious interest in queer figuration—exemplified by the artists included in Them—and Black figuration, whose recent exemplars include artists such as Toyin Ojih Odutola, Jordan Casteel, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, among others. At the Kohn Gallery booth showing his work at the Armory Show this past spring, Chase sold three large-scale paintings to major museums in the first few hours of the fair. During his first show at the Los Angeles gallery last summer, every available artwork sold within a day of the exhibition’s opening.
Seeing paintings by Jonathan Lyndon Chase changed the way I saw, experienced, imagined sex—its blood and shit and sweat, the literally visceral experience. Chase’s paintings revel in and celebrate this liberating nastiness. Despite their current viability as commodities, paintings such as 3SUM and clap clap clap clap show scenes that challenge the ubiquity of the white gaze and its desire to consume and collect Black bodies. Desire, they suggest, is not about the impulse for possession but rather the willingness to lose yourself in another.
Paintings by Philadelphia-based artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase are on view in Semblance: The Public/Private/Shared Self at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge through October 6. Chase will participate in a public conversation with artists Doron Langberg and Heidi Hahn at the opening reception for the exhibition on September 12 at 6:30 pm.