Pleasure Trumps Politics in George Quaintance’s Queer, Utopic Paintings
retrospective, on view at the TASCHEN Gallery in Los Angeles through the end of summer, is a revelation. Quaintance, born at the turn of the 20th century, was a gay man who
While the artist’s male subjects tend to be nude, their genitals are always strategically concealed. The politics of these paintings is inherent, clear, and powerful, but neither temporal nor grounded in any specific civil-rights issue. It is directed not toward the state, or legality, but beyond it, toward a genuine pleasure. Quaintance dreams bigger than gay assimilation into a flawed world; he dreams of utopia.
The artist’s dramatic oil paintings, produced throughout the 1940s and ’50s, are only now making their public debut (alongside ink drawings by Quaintance’s famous successor
Quaintance, who was also a Vaudeville dancer, hair stylist, and elite portrait artist, worked out of his home in the Arizona desert—a Western paradise called “Rancho Siesta” where he and his friends could live and lust and love. Paintings like Morning in the Desert (1951), Night in the Desert (1951), and Siesta (1952), in which denim-clad men play music, lounge, bathe, and light each others’ cigarettes, illustrate their sensuous, forbidden world.
His oeuvre is as chock full of cowboys and ranch hands as it is with figures from Greek mythology; but while Hercules fights with his hands, the desert-dwelling outlaws fight with their beauty, their self-indulgence, their commitment to queer sex and community. In Pyramid Builders (1952), Quaintance paints two chiseled men hoisting a stone up the side of a classical building—famously, slaves’ work. They bear a heavy weight, but retain a kind of California levity. They lay the foundations of the pyramid so that we might climb it. Like Quaintance, they are legendary and heroic.