Paul Booth

Paul Booth visited by Nick Naber

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Like a lot of the people I have visited for the site, I met Paul through Instagram. It’s funny, how seeing someone’s art repeatedly on a digital platform becomes a way of knowing them, superficially. We began to chat back and forth, and Paul visited me in Clinton Hill. I knew I wanted to go see him too. We both work out of our apartments, we both work on paper, and oddly enough we both work at The MET (he’s a real employee, I’m just a contractual). We caught up after work on a nice spring afternoon and took the 6 train to Paul’s apartment, which was a great way to unwind and prepare for the visit!

Paul’s Kips Bay apartment is cool and he’s lived there for over ten years, quite the feat in this city. His workspace is small, it’s a desk that is pushed up against the living room wall. We’ve all worked in spaces like this, you’ve got make do with what you’ve got. We sit down and begin our discussion about the drawings in front of us. 

There are ten works out on the desk, and then Paul pulls another one out of his bag, so we’re at eleven. There is a variety here on the table, some are black and white, and others are full color. The black and white works are self-portraits, the larger colored works reference biblical or classical themes, and then the medium-sized colored drawings are depictions of Egyptian deities. It’s evident the MET has a been a major source of inspiration for Paul, how could it not be, he’s there every day!

Paul was raised Catholic, which imparts a particular visual sensibility that’s immediately obvious to anyone who shares that experience (full disclosure, I’m a recovering Catholic). Paul and I talk about this at length. He’s compelled by memories of the pageantry, the opulence, the iconography, and by all those biblical stories. It’s hard to explain this to people who aren’t familiar with growing up Catholic, but there is something about the pomp and circumstance that just sticks with you. There’s also a lot of macabre imagery associated with Catholicism, read any of the stories about the martyrs! It’s this bizarre, gruesome stuff that most informs Paul’s work.

When looking at Paul’s colored drawings, determining the medium is difficult, but the concept jumps off the page (more on that later). I ask him about his process, at first glance I thought they were colored pencil only, of course it is more involved than that. Paul begins his pictures with a graphite underdrawing, followed by washes of ink or gouache, and then he builds the surface with artist crayon and colored pencil. The touch of these works is soft in person despite their acidic palette. The acidic color comes into play with Paul’s ideas behind the work.

I spent a lot of time reading Paul’s statements about the drawings he’s been making and looking over his website (if you’re looking for a good time, check out his site). He talks a lot about people having only so much mental space for their problems. Those with lots to worry about condense their concerns to fit, while those with few problems allow them to balloon. The drawings are claustrophobic and frontal. He uses stories from mythology and the Bible mixed with iconography from other times and cultures. These references connect with the past but also work contemporarily. It goes without saying that a myriad of the stories, from these disparate cultures deal with similar universal issues. A lot of them moral, conceptual, political, sexual, and they haven’t really changed over the millennia that homo sapiens have been walking the earth.  I asked Paul if it’s more personal than that for him, he was a bit cagey about it but admitted that all of the work (not just the obvious self-portraits) are self-portraits. 

Self Portrait, 2019, Mixed media on paper, 7 x 5 inches

It’s fairly evident looking at the work that he’s creating self-portraits. I wanted to dig deeper into how he’s constructing these drawings, why they are so frontal and compressed? I was somewhat dumbfounded to find out that Paul poses himself in these odd, uncomfortable positions taking endless reference photos with the timer on an old iMac. It’s a tedious and awkward process so it’s no wonder he doesn’t ask friends to pose! Figures are made to fill every available space resulting in myriad uncomfortable contortions. The anxiety is evident in some pictures we looked at in his studio, but there are others that are tender, sexualized, or even comical. Paul works on these smaller drawings at night when he gets home from work. The need to download a whole days’ information onto paper in the form of a drawing is almost compulsive. He says he cannot start a drawing and then leave it unfinished, so they have to be completed in a single sitting. The larger drawings are done over the weekend while there’s more time to work. 

Paul’s compositional devices are well established. All of his drawings are frontal, with little to no background. I ask him about this use of space and he talked more about how the figures allow him to explore ideas of how much control we actually have in life and over our environment. In many ways it is a futile endeavor we all partake in. Paul creates these suffocating spaces that his figures can’t escape or even truly inhabit because no room is left for choice. 

Paul began this work out of necessity nearly 10 years ago. He was between jobs and searching for routine and structure.  A friend gave him a book that had a space to make a daily drawing for one year. It had been a long time since he’d made work but he completed the exercise and found his love of making art again. The routine and time element of that exercise carries into his current practice. As I mentioned earlier Paul makes a small drawing in one sitting, I’d say he’s pretty damn prolific. It’s always encouraging to see someone who spends a lot of time and energy in their pursuit. 

Toward the end of our conversation I ask him what his ideal way is of exhibiting this work. He tells me that he likes the way that Raymond Pettibon installs his pictures in clusters, up and down the wall. This arrangement amplifies the works’ content in a physical visceral way. This makes a lot of sense, to be able to see these oft times tight, and uncomfortable drawings installed in the same way. Creating a sense of too much information to take in causing the viewer to get close and share the cramped space with Paul’s figures for a moment or two!

For more information on Paul’s work check out his website or instagram.