Who said that matters of the flesh are separate from matters of the spirit? Sandwiched between two drawings of conch shells, a journal entry by Paul Thek, famed for his sculptures of flesh encased in resin, simply reads: “Mystics of the world, unite.” On view at Alexander and Bonin, “Relativity Clock” turns back the clock, showcasing important work from across Thek’s long but nonetheless curtailed career, tapping into suspended or queered time.
The earliest work on view is perhaps the most emblematic of Thek’s practice. Encased in plexiglass, Untitled (Meat Piece with Chair) (1966) is lacquered blue like a sea creature. Its gouged-out insides are cartilaginous and gory. The work bears some connection with the acrylic-on-newspaper Untitled (Diver) (1969), in which a figure with bright red flesh, as if flayed, slices through blue water like a blade. Suspended in their respective media, both works suggest a desire to suspend time—to encase the body for safekeeping.
“This week’s events:” Thek writes in another entry, “Photographed by Peter Hujar at his house, mine.” Hujar, who later became his lover, contributes stately photographs of his hand sculptures, life-like and gored, as well as of Thek himself, who gazes out at the lens, hiding his own hands in the crook of his elbows. Nearby are intimate, blue-tinged Polaroids of him in various stages of dress and disarray. In one, he pulls at his sock, glancing askance at the lens, surrounded by fish and other photographs. The image of a youthful, healthy Thek, frozen by the flash of the camera, recalls the effect of the artist’s fleshy sculpture displayed in a vitrine nearby.
The exhibition (which runs concurrently to a show at the The Watermill Center) draws its title from one of Thek’s sketches: written in a neat cursive, the phrase accompanies a drawing of a clock shaped as an endless spiral, and bears runes and symbols in addition to numbers. Time, as Thek imagined it, was more relative than real. Here, the theory of queer time—that the lives of gay and queer people unfold antithetically to heteronormative schedules of family, marriage, and reproduction—also finds resonance in Thek’s ouevre. Though he succumbed to the AIDS virus in 1988, Thek’s work might also end with an ellipsis. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Paul Thek, Pink Cross and Green Buds, 1975-1980. Oil on canvas board with artist's frame and picture light, 12 x 16 inches. Photo: Joerg Lohse © Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York