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BH: They show a different side of Jerome, quiet and sad and reflective.
AK: Yes, but all of these are part of a large body of work. At the same time he was creating things like 'Bitch Ball,' offhand, very funny pieces. If you isolate, you can pull out these absolutely tragic pieces, but looking as a whole, you see beautiful homoerotic portraits...there is no question that his sexuality and libido were very much alive in the production of a lot of his work. It was a full spectrum of work being produced all along.
TA: But if you look at a painting like "Bozo Fucks Death," painted after he found out he was positive, it's both a masterpiece and a positively terrifying image. It is a stronger work than 'Bitch Ball' or many other works. So his HIV-status, I feel, was very important to him.
BH: Just incorporating it into his life...
TA: Exactly, but from this image we can see that being HIV-positive was on some level devastating to him, yet he wanted to express it. The idea of being humiliated by death recurrently taunts his figures.
BH: He used it as a source of creative inspiration. Another source you write about in the book is guilt--"the place inscribed for guilt became the area of creative potency."
AK: I think that's around the early drawings--torture chambers for fags. He grew up in a homophobic environment, and fags were the outsiders. I don't think that Jerome felt so much guilt himself around his homoerotic desires, but he knew it was in some way a guilty spot in a larger social context. I think that's where he comes out and presses a lot of people's buttons. The images are so compelling; they seem to draw the eye whether you want to look at them or not.
BH: And so unapologetic, there's nothing shy about them.
AK: Not at all, hardly shy. Thomas addresses the expiation of guilt in the paintings.
TA: Very much in the notion of reversal. Jerome believed that whoever is on top will be on the bottom at some point. We are all caught up in this natural struggle for survival. Libido, sexuality is different, but ultimately similar for everyone, including both the need to comfort and the need to ravish.
Jerome was keenly aware of the history of art and images that goes back thousands of years that some view as profane now. Idiots like Jesse Helms would say --I'd never publicly support this kind of art. Not only would he not support the paintings of Bosch, but the clearly homoerotic art of Michelangelo; for instance "The Holy Family", where adult male nudes are reclining into each other's arms. If we look at Attic vases--take a wing of the Museo Nationale di Napoli, now open to the public--we find explicit images of homosexuality...
AK: Or that Temple in India with all the erotic art on the columns...
TA: And art is suffused with violent images, like Reuben's "Saturn Devouring his Children," which is graphic and frightening. In literature, you only have to read the "Book of Revelations" to see how violent these "sacred" representations can get.
BH: It seems that Jerome was trying to express some universal truths.
TA: I think his truths are universal. That has something to do with the purity of his vision, and of the uncensored nature of his excavations.
AK: It had a lot to do with his voyeuristic delight.
BH: Let's talk about pornography for a moment. You quote Jerome as saying that there is no such thing as pornography; either it is worth looking at or it's not.
AK: Most people have a pretty clear sense of what operates as pornography.
TA: Here I don't agree with Jerome. I feel there is a clearly definable set of work called pornography--and it has to do with the intention of this kind of work.
BH: But certainly pornography is in the eye of the beholder.
TA: Images which encourage masturbation only, which go no further, are pornographic to me.
BH: So it is not a question of content per se...
TA: If you read Genet there are passages that people have used as jack-off material, but his work is also extraordinarily powerful, as distinct from Screw magazine. Sometimes, as in Jerome's art, there is a melding, but that's because he's bringing something greater to the image.
AK: I think the question is, is it necessary to make the distinction? Also the distinction between art and craft. Jerome plays with that a lot. He used a lot of elements of craft in his work, and for many people it is off-putting. He applied things to functional objects; he'd work on a burned oven mitt, for example. People often distinguish fine art as something that is non-functional, but Jerome played with the questions of "who is determining these distinctions?" He didn't feel comfortable operating in them at all. I knew Jerome sexually too, and I knew how he operated sexually. For him so much of it was around the tease and playfulness. He could goof around in the highly charged environment of a sex club to the point where people would become very upset with him. He had no sense of what is a playroom and what is a backroom. It sums up his opinion about work in general.
BH: You quote him as saying "Everything I do is a self-portrait, even if it's specifically a portrait of someone else. And even then it's a portrait of me." He is admitting that, as an artist, even if he's representing another person he is representing himself.
AK: Well, he was so obsessed with his own images, and he was always recreating and redefining himself through clothing.
BH: It sounds like Madonna--even though she is all these different creations she's always Madonna.
AK: It's also about the question of subjectivity; can you ultimately take on something outside of your own personality and your own way of seeing? Jerome really felt that all of his history, his beliefs about what made an image strong, no matter what he did, a quick sketch or a painting he'd spent years on, was all validated by this one vision which was his. It couldn't be escaped by claiming that someone else had been the catalyst for it. It's about his willingness to take responsibility for the images he creates.
BH: What are some of the things that you learned from Jerome?
TA: I liked the fact that he was unprotected, undefended. And that his art is undefended. It is only defended through the quality of craft. The fact that even though he is an incredibly gifted painter, there is a shocking directness to the art, even pieces that are allegorical. The democratic or catholic reality that we all participate in suffering, and have that in common ultimately.
BH: We all meet the same end.
TA: We meet death throughout our lives.
AK: On a personal level, I think I learned the whole notion of play, and of course, that is also evident in the paintings. His willingness to try things on, to challenge himself, and to practice visuality in a way I've never seen anyone do. Drag never got tiring for him while he did it; when he eventually stopped doing it he was ready to stop doing it. But he had these enormous bags he'd go through, and he'd try on three pairs of stockings over one another to determine how it was going to look. That level of willingness to play--I'd just get into drag and lay down on the couch. I'd watch him go at it for hours. Not just in that regard, but with painting; his willingness to go over and over a painting until he felt really satisfied with it. But it was a discipline that he had so much joy with. He enjoyed the process.