By Justin Allen
I first saw Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s work about two or three years ago on Tumblr. From 2010 to around 2015—my senior year of high school to one year out of college—I frequented Tumblr. Over this span I engaged a confluence of pop cultural imagery, original art, confessional blog posts, porn, and mundane snaps and selfies. Images on Tumblr exemplify those commonly sourced for memes elaborated with text that set up a scenario or joke for which the image provides the conclusion or punch line. Thus, when made a meme, these images reflect a specific sentiment or experience that, Aria Dean writes, “sustains an appearance of individuality (‘it me’) while being wholly deindividuated (‘same’).”1 When addressing sexual dynamics and experiences, memes can cultivate a distinct intimacy, particularly when passed among social media platforms and text messages. In relating to and sharing a sexual meme, one connects with others—the likely anonymous meme makers and meme-passers with whom a sexual memory or turn-on is shared—and one connects with oneself, a type of confession-acceptance of personal kinks encouraged by public online expression.
I mention this because Chase’s work, for me, echoes such an intimacy. In Legs Legs Legs Legs (2015), two nude men splay their legs in mirroring poses, flexing their feet in a manner that makes them appear either lying down or squatting. As a black viewer, I immediately notice their hair. They look to have recently visited the barbershop. The man on the left likely sleeps in a wave cap. But what strikes me most is the artist’s use of freely painted geometric shapes to depict his subjects and the rooms they inhabit.
While frequenting Tumblr, some of the first works I saw from Chase portrayed the vogue ballroom scene, utilizing such shapes to evoke the precision, flexibility, and playful sensuality of the voguing dance form. I hesitate to describe this as a form of abstraction, but instead describe it as a portrayal of the sensorial impact of black creative performance production. Similarly,In Legs, shapes feel less like an exaggeration than an insistence on the acknowledgement of a queer social realm beyond that of exclusionary hook-up preferences and commercial simplification: a realm in which black men,wrestling with the terms of gender binarism and reveling in each other’s curves, gloriously and unashamedly exists. The work urges us to recognize.
In 3SUM (2016), Chase props the 72 x 60-inch canvas on a pair of his own sneakers. Music notes hover and give the scene a steady thump. Two men stack on all fours, one on top of the other. A third appears above them as a floating head and massive palm lifting a smoking joint to the man in the middle’s pouted lips, which form a thick red circle almost identical to that painted on his butt cheek. A similar red circle emphasizes the anuses of a black cat and tattooed man in another painting, At Trades Place (2017). In a number of works, we notice the limbs and genitals of multiple subjects blending together, intertwining, considerately disarranged like action figures misassembled.
Thinking on this painterly jumble of bodies, I am reminded of some of my own experiences of contorting and twisting myself into positions that at once reinforce giver-receiver dichotomies and relieve the sexual urges that these dichotomies can satisfy. Chase’s layering, blending, and use of the circle to depict ass, lips, sphincter, and areolas pinpoints the emotional extremities of sexual arousal that render the seemingly vulgar comforting and gratifying. Chase pulls us into the parts of ourselves aroused by the wonderful nastiness and funk of our own bodies and others.
While the work does not center in social media, I begin with an anecdote about Tumblr because Chase’s paintings point to ways social media has shifted our relationship to a medium that predates it. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that many of us more often see paintings on computer and smartphone screens than we do in person, and Chase understands this and the expectations set by an onslaught of meme generation and reception. He understands the validation in identifying with a meme when we realize that none of us are idiosyncratic alone. His paintings inch us toward confession acceptance.
For those of us part of the demographic that appear in these paintings, it is likely one of few times we have seen narratives like ours in an art gallery, let alone represented in media in a manner
that does not either conveniently overlook our sexual desires or reduce us to nothing more. Fitting, then, that I first encountered Chase’s work online, amongst a digital landscape where much content is user-generated, and thus users have a heavier hand in complicating normalcy. As online communities tighten, as their identities grow more specific and their interests more niche, hesitance toward openness often dissolves as the world and norms outside this small, comfortable space dissolve, too. Insularity allows conversations to deepen, bonds to
deepen, and the nuances that connect us to become more prominent when we exit this comfort, leaving our computers, our beds, our bedrooms to reenter the larger world. When I see Chase’s work I am reminded of this social straddling, and moments in which the unlearning of norms opened up new possibilities for living and loving with and among others. Chase’s paintings do not only feel like thoughtful representations, they feel like an embrace.