Leslie Lohman Museum

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Len Paoletti and His Art:
Provincetown/Fort Lauderdale

By David Jarrett


For nearly thirty years, Len Paoletti has been painting images of beauty and, occasionally, images which provoke controversy. In some respects his paintings would seem to be more appropriate for the 19th century—quiet landscapes, genre scenes and artfully posed nudes. His palette is impressionistic, his style realistic. But his subject matter, his themes are definitely gay. The nudes are male; the landscapes are of Provincetown, Key West and Fort Lauderdale. The genre scenes are of Tea Dance, discos and the beach. Gay images of the late 20th century predominate.

 

When he studied art in the 60s at Brandeis, professors railed against his realistic renditions. ”We are not painting pictures for Playboy,” one professor growled. “Express yourself!” Which in those days meant you must do abstract expressionism. But abstraction left him cold. Ingres and Sargent were two of his idols. He was not deterred by the tenor of the times and persisted in developing his considerable figurative skills.

 

In the late 70s he was living in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which already had a reputation for being an art colony and a “bohemian” tourist destination; i.e., it had a substantial gay component. In the early days, however, the gay aspect was not openly acknowledged and it was only from Stonewall on that “P-town” became part of real societal change. Gay men, and later women, flocked to the town, transforming it into an openly gay resort. It was in that place and during that period of rapid change that Len found his true subject: gay “life.”

 

For years, Provincetown artists had been painting scenes of rotting dories and quaint village streets but virtually no one was documenting the gay scene. Len was one of the very first to do so. The gay beach and Tea Dance became his subject matter for many years, and along with other related themes, they still are.

 

When a Provincetown Art Association Show jury rejected one of his Tea Dance paintings, with a judge’s comment—“we do not show such works”—Len sought out private galleries in which to exhibit. Secrets Gallery gave Len his first one-man show, which included a few full-frontal male nudes. And sure enough, controversy arose, this time over a life size portrait of a seated, bearded man wearing only socks and boots. Someone called the police who, shaking their heads in disbelief, dismissed the complaint. Gay art had become part of the emerging gay scene in the Provincetown of the 80s and Len’s art was one of the important instruments of gay art's new visibility. He was noted and featured in publications such as After Dark, The Advocate, Blueboy and The Alternate. Playing catch-up, his local newspaper The Provincetown Advocate belatedly ran an article on him.

 

The artist never sought controversy. He simply painted life around him as he saw it. For many years (and it is still the case now) “gay” art was persistently equated with pornographic art. Although Len, using the pseudonym “Dirk,” briefly supplemented his income with pencil illustrations for a few gay publications, he never painted “porn.” Gay life, not gay sex, was and is the basis of his work. Gay men at play, the furtive glance, the provocative stance, the subtle gesture, the questioning stare, the suggestion of sex, are at the heart of much of his imagery.

 

When he was criticized for painting “just a photo,” he pointed out that the Tea Dance paintings, while done from his photos, were his "interpretation" of Tea Dance. Multiple images were often used to create a single painting. The artist would use a figure from one, a pose from another to create scenes that look natural but are carefully arranged composites, sometimes using a dozen or more images. “They are Tea Dance as we remember it, not as it actually existed,” he says.

 

Len now lives and paints in Fort Lauderdale. Color and light there are as vivid as that of the Cape and are an ideal fit for his impressionistic palette. Light bouncing off men in water or off men in darkened discos dancing on podiums provides ever-new challenges. From the bright sharp glare of water in a pool to piercing strobes in a dark club, the effect of light on glistening male bodies remains the soul of his repertoire. The occasional gay cruise also insures a continuation of his Tea Dance themes.

 

Finding new ways to paint, to express inner angst, or make overt political statements have never been the artist's concern. Rather, finding new ways for the general public to understand, to appreciate, and eventually accept aspects of gay life that are regularly demonized is important to him. Paoletti's work has become part of the artistic record, as well as the socio/ historical record of the last quarter of the 20th century. And the work goes on.

 

One of a series of occasional articles on artists associated with LLGAF.

 

To find out more, visit the website http://www.paolettistudio.com.

 

Also see The Hapazard Collector, a 2-part article by Len Paoletti on his art collection in previous editions of the Archive: Numbers 13 & 14. Online at www.leslielohman.com.


 

 

 

 

 

Paoletti
Leaning Out, 1999
Acrylic on canvas
16" x 20"
Collection Len Paoletti

 

 


Island Boy, 2004
Acrylic on canvas
16" x 20"
Collection Len Paoletti

 

 


Reflecting, 2001
Acrylic on canvas
16" x 20
Collection Len Paoletti

 

 


Labor Day Tea Dance, 2004
Acrylic on canvas
24" x 36"
Collection Len Paoletti

 



 


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