While Julien Ceccaldi’s solo exhibition ‘Gay’ is, admittedly, very gay – it has the feel of both a cum-drenched Roman bath scene and a 1980s coming-of-age rom-com – it’s also universal in its depiction of classic, unrequited love: the kind in which the ugly frog longs for the beautiful princess (or, in this case, prince). There’s no happy ending here, though: just a constant negative feedback loop. Ceccaldi’s ‘prince’, a well-built and tight-assed gym bunny, appears several times in the exhibition’s paintings to haunt their thin, balding protagonist. The comic characters are styled after 1970s and ’80s Japanese cartoons, which were sold to television stations in Ceccaldi’s native Quebec. ‘Gay’ is a manga-style mash-up of stereotypes, played out in a flamboyantly queer high school setting.
Case in point is the large wall painting greeting visitors as they walk into Lomex, Pompeii Bathhouse (all works 2017). A washy landscape of pink and blue pastel, it depicts our confident stud-muffin, dressed only in a barely-there towel, lounging by the pool or caught just getting out of it. In hilarious counterpoint, his sickly stalker peers in through a corner window, shut out from this space of male pleasure. His skin is pale, almost chalky, while his crush glows a luscious orange. The hunk swaggers; the waif mopes longingly. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve all been rejected, excluded before.
In Volcanic Tea Room, the two are pissing at adjacent urinals, looking down at each other’s dicks. The hunk’s shoulders are twice the skinny man’s size, and so is his ass; so too, we imagine, is his cock. A billowing volcano painted on the wall behind them summons a sense of hormonal surge, or the spray of cum, like the one featured prominently in Peach Jizz; in that painting, Skinny, his receding hairline on full display, literally stands beneath a disembodied semen stream aimed for his face, palms facing up as if about to receive the Eucharist. Ceccaldi’s hyperbole is a hilarious jab at the theatrics of cum worship in gay sex. Muscle worship is here, too, in Peeping Tom: it pictures two chiselled dudes from the neck down, locked in an embrace. Their pecs are impossibly huge; Skinny looks in awkwardly from around a corner wall, impossibly small – his face the size of one of their nipples. With its thin black line work and expanses of glowing orange and red, the painting clearly nods to Ceccaldi’s background in anime illustration. Like the other works on view, Peeping Tom features acrylic paint on plastic film, the building blocks of an animated cell.
‘Gay’ also features two life-size units of six metal lockers, the kind familiar from middle and high school hallways (and which, for some, might trigger traumatic memories of bullying). The doors of Repulsed Face Locker bear an oversized wispy-eyed visage. Praying Skeleton Locker sports Skinny’s skeletal figure, bent at the knees as he reaches outside the frame; he’s recognizable from his distinctively long forelocks and bald crown. It’s not clear what keeps him in this position – faith or fellatio; again, sex and religious fervour are perversely conjoined. One of the locker’s doors has been left open to reveal an unfamiliar figure inside, gazing across at the scene, while at the very bottom another hunk, painted in blue against a square of pink, looks on forlornly. If Ceccaldi plays with the flattened, comic-book stereotypes of high school drama, the anxieties of beauty and desire he presents cut across the lines of age, gender and sexuality. While his references pertain to a specific subculture, they are by no means exclusive to it. We all want what we can’t have – and what we can’t have, we obsess over.
Main image: Julien Ceccaldi, Pompeii Bathhouse, 2017, acrylic paint on plywood panels, 2.4 × 3.4 m