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Issue 222

The Hedonistic Fever Dream of Julien Nguyen’s Twinks

The artist’s sleek tableaux present ghoulish, lithesome male figures as both objects of desire and graven images of death

BY Evan Moffitt in Opinion , Profiles | 21 SEP 21

There’s something sinister about the lithe young men in Julien Nguyen’s paintings. I imagine the Internecivus raptus from Alien (1979) ready to burrow out of their pale bellies and strike. That creature, or something like it, crops up in The Temptation of Christ (2020) – its devilish corkscrew tail recoiling from Nguyen’s nubile Son of Man. Posed in taut ballet counterpoint, his soft pink nipple exposed, this young Jesus seems more seducer than seduced. The lissom figure in Richard (2020), with his lupine yellow eyes and hair as kinky as a gorgon’s, is equally desirable and demonic. Conversely, the bloodless body in Resolute in Privation (2021) – his face a dull grey smear beneath greasy bangs – hangs limply from a pair of hooks. The work’s title suggests a militant asceticism, while a small window at the painting’s lower right corner looks out onto a desolate Martian landscape. ‘I’m like a thing, or like … a meal, or … whatever!’ says the horny teen Henry to a john in Dennis Cooper’s 1991 novel Frisk. The twink in Resolute in Privation has surely come to the same realization from his nightmarish meat locker. These boys want to both eat and be eaten.

‘Pictures of the Floating World’, Nguyen’s exhibition at Matthew Marks this summer, took its name from ukiyo-e, 17th–19th century Japanese woodblock prints and paintings. The ‘floating world’ they depicted was a hedonistic fever dream of the Edo period’s growing mercantile class, full of geishas, kabuki actors, courtesans and prostitutes. Shunga, or erotic ukiyo-e, often depicted same-sex desire. The prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige were especially instrumental in forming the Western perception of Japanese art, inspiring Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh, among others. Ukiyo-e offered the impressionists a way to escape the European preoccupation with vanishing-point perspective and return to the pictorial flatness that predominated before the Renaissance. Their shared subject matter, meanwhile, from Tokyo to Paris, was a world of bourgeois decadence and decay filtered by hazy romanticism. Nguyen’s youths break free from painterly convention while remaining trapped in a flat, subterranean world where their unblemished skin barely conceals the rot. ‘He was slender, bony and his skin was the colour of steamed glass,’ writes Cooper of another boy in Frisk, but he could have been describing Nguyen’s Jake (2019). If we drew a finger across his bare torso, would we see through to the other side? 

Julien Nguyen, Capricorn Rising, 2018, oil and tempera on wood panel, 91 × 91 cm
Julien Nguyen, Capricorn Rising, 2018, oil and tempera on wood panel, 91 × 91 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York and Los Angeles

Nguyen accomplishes this translucency by glazing wooden panels with oils until their surfaces are smoothly saturated with colour. His favoured points and whorls, meanwhile, add a compact dynamism to figures set within disquietingly serene landscapes. For instance, in Capricorn Rising (2018) – exhibited in the 2018 group show ‘Positioner’ at Matthew Marks Gallery in Los Angeles – a boy sits in a bare room, the darkness of the window behind him contrasting with the ghoulish whiteness of his eyes. The palette is Lucian Freud, but the features are more redolent of Francis Bacon. Noli me tangere, Caesaris sum (Do Not Touch Me, I Am Caesar’s, 2018), meanwhile, depicts a youth in languid repose on earth the colour and texture of worn leather. According to the third-century CE historian Gaius Solinus, these words were written on the collars of white stags nearly 300 years after the Roman emperor’s assassination. This boy is an object of desire who remains forever out of reach: he is literally owned by death.

Nguyen’s morbidly beautiful subjects remind me of Tadzio from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). The novella follows a middle-aged writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, as he stalks Tadzio, a prepubescent boy, through the titular city (another floating world). When Aschenbach first sees Tadzio, he is struck by his ‘imperfect’ teeth, ‘rather jagged and bluish, without a healthy glaze’, and imagines that ‘he will most likely not live to grow old’. Aschenbach, Mann writes, ‘did not try to account for the pleasure the idea gave him’. The writer hopes that death might embalm the youth so age will never disturb his beauty. In the end, it’s Aschenbach who’s sick, like the decadent bourgeoisie to which he belongs. I imagine Nguyen’s brittle twinks have come to sweetly warn us that the end is near.

Executive Solutions (2017), which Nguyen exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, is one such apocalyptic vision. Panels and a tondo, arranged beneath the banner for The New York Times, turn ‘the paper of record’ into an altarpiece for the end of days. Their forms quote European painting from Fra Angelico to Bronzino, while their figures are either ghostly or skeletal. At the bottom of the work, in a radioactive orange chamber, two boys based on Thomas Eakins’s homoerotic Wrestlers (1899) have been rendered with rat heads. No longer simply playing, they appear to devour each other. 

Julien Nguyen, Resolute in Privation, 2021, oil on panel, 40 × 30 cm
Julien Nguyen, Resolute in Privation, 2021, oil on panel, 40 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York and Los Angeles 

Click on any image from an online selection of works on the Matthew Marks website and DJ Sammy’s 2002 club hit The Boys of Summer will play. ‘I can tell you my love for you will still be strong / After the boys of summer have gone,’ Dutch pop star Loona sings in the chorus. Summer’s over, but Nguyen’s boys are still here, trapped in a nuclear winter that has preserved their beauty but left little else intact.

This year, Nguyen completed a rare self-portrait. Opaque, frameless lenses float over his eyes like a pair of silver coins. A lunar landscape behind him resembles the craggy backdrop in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503). The work’s title, hic manebimus optime, is another bit of Roman apocrypha: according to Livy’s History of Rome (25–27 BCE), the phrase was first uttered in 390 BCE by the centurion Marcus Furius Camillus as the Gauls prepared to sack Rome. It means ‘here we will stay, most excellently’, and it could be a description of Nguyen’s painterly resolve. Or perhaps a bit of winking self-deprecation from an artist who finds beauty by sifting through the ruins. Embalmed in oil, his boys will outlast us all.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 with the headline ‘Julien Nguyen's Necrophiliac Twinks', as part of a special series titled 'Painting Now'.

Main image: Julien Nguyen, Richard, 2020, oil on panel, 61 × 46 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York and Los Angeles 

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in New York, USA.