Born Detroit, 1956 / BFA, Wayne State University/ Lives in Grosse Pointe, MI
To understand Carl Demeulenaere it is best to approach his art from the perspective of technique, but also to remain conscious that the resulting work originates from a place of deep-rooted anger. Demeulenaere sets out to seduce you with color and craft. He sees himself as a “contemporary Pre-Raphaelite,” seeking to emulate the 19th century English “brotherhood” who themselves sought a return to the detail and intense coloring of 15th century Italian art. The Pre-Raphaelites famously created vibrant colors by applying successive thin layers of bright paint. Demeulenaere does something similar, except he uses a self-developed process of meticulously applying tiny marks with a sequence of colored pencils. It is painstaking work, performed under a consistent incandescent light, and on surfaces that are often smaller than the size of a postcard. By using pencil, rather than paint, Demeulenaere greatly increases the effort involved, but achieves a unique effect that both pulls viewers in while simultaneously keeping them slightly off-balance. Crucially, Demeulenaere also believes that artworks are stronger when the “heaviness” of their subject matter is reflected in the labor involved.
Demeulenaere sees his drawings, paintings and installation work as addressing conflicts that arise from history, religion, sexuality, race, and prejudice. His formative years were not easy. As he puts it, “Growing up a gay Catholic in a racially mixed, Eastside Detroit neighborhood, my schoolbooks negated homosexuality, my church prayed to heal me, acting on sexual impulse condemned me, and prejudice was directed toward me. I was often bullied.” Demeulenaere also talks about a dark period between 1980 and 1987, when a series of personal crises led him to psychiatric help and regression therapy. In 1987 he started coming out to friends, and in 1989 he came out to his parents, a watershed moment. The following years were hugely productive, and resulted in major installations, Demeulenaere’s first openly gay-themed works, and a growing politicization as he attended increasing numbers of funerals for gay men who had died of AIDS. In 2009 Demeulenaere retroactively created a triptych of works illustrating his journey through this stage of his life. His 1980 work The Past in Myth, shows some early hints of ambiguous sexuality, and the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite and High Renaissance painters he had studied during an influential trip to Europe. His 1987 image A Presence in Dreams shows an androgynous Demeulenaere staring into (his own) hand while in the background stand three dark sinister figures and a burning church. Demeulenaere sees this piece as showing his acceptance of his homosexuality and reconciliation with the Catholic church on his own terms. Beyond Other Worlds (1992) uses the figure of an unequivocally gay saint/astronaut to imply a future world of limitless possibility.
Demeulenaere’s installations typically employ an archetypal structure (e.g. the church in the DIA installation Sanctuary, or the house in Little White House (both 1993)) to contain a collection of miniatures that talk from his perspective as a gay man to the institutions that the structures represent. For example, see Noli Me Tangere (1992), which draws an analogy between Christ and a gay man dying from AIDS; Unto Us a Child is Born (1993), which shows a gay male couple as parents; and Kouros (1993), which references the Greek term for ideal man. The works are undoubtedly homoerotic and transgressive, but never gratuitously shocking. Demeulenaere walks a fine line. Not coincidentally, the structures also allow Demeulenaere, ever the perfectionist, to control both the lighting and the viewer’s relationship to the work. Little is left to chance.
Latterly, Demeulenaere has broadened his subject matter to include other minority groups that have endured prejudice through history. For example the Arcada Triptych (2010-13) draws parallels between the treatment of Moors in Inquisition-era Spain and contemporary conflicts. Demeulenaere sees these works as both expressions of solidarity with other persecuted groups, and experiments in imagining what their experience would be like. In these and earlier works, Demeulenaere has often used his art to explore a fluid identity, shifting between different genders and races long before it was fashionable to do so. One senses in fact that he is contemptuous of fashion, just as he is of what he considers “political correctness,” and of artists whose craft doesn’t meet his exacting standards. Ultimately his work is about tolerance, but for someone so uncompromising this doesn’t always come naturally; or as he puts it, “I have to keep reminding myself.”
Steve Panton, July 2016
Copyright Essay’d 2016