The Beauty and Anxiety of Seeing Myself, and My Partner, in a Portrait

Danny Ferrell, “Fred and Adam” (2018), oil on canvas, 38 x 28 in (courtesy Galerie Pact)

Danny Ferrell manifests daydreams in shiny paintings of his friends and loved ones, often bathed in the light of a full moon or surrounded by flowers. A new work of Danny’s, on view recently in his solo booth at NADA New York with Galerie Pact (Paris), depicts me and my boyfriend, Fred Blauth. I forget if we asked Danny to paint us or if it was his idea, kind of like how relationship origin stories are often blurry and conflicting. (I don’t remember meeting Fred at the book fair; he says he has my zine as proof.)

Danny posted the work on Instagram before I had a chance to see it in person: “Fred and Adam,” oil on canvas, 28” x 38”, 2018. There we are, larger than life in full tropicalia fantasy. A warm glow tints our skin. The sky is blue, bluer than usual for Pittsburgh, with a few wispy clouds. Fred’s head rests on my shoulder as I look off into the distance. The floral pattern of an old shirt of mine seems to swirl around us. Had he ever rested his head on my shoulder, in this exact way, as I looked off absentmindedly? Was this pose, directed by Danny and culled from some old painting from a gay romance novel cover, something new for us? Or a restoration of a prior moment, a previous performance? Were we mimicking this story we hadn’t read, or were we being ourselves? None of it mattered much to me; Fred could have kept his head there as long as he wanted.

I hadn’t given much thought to how I might feel upon seeing the work, and was surprised to feel so much. Danny is generous to both viewer and sitter; the scenes are lush and vibrant and the subjects shine. I also make work about love and have made countless photos and videos of Fred at home, lounging or sleeping, but mine are made quickly and without staging. Over a few days, I vacillate between identifying with Danny’s portrait and not. He captures a good likeness, but Fred is more attractive in person and when he’s not on the spot. It looks and feels like us, and then doesn’t, and then does again.

Adam Milner, “Fred (August 2, 2017)” (courtesy the artist)

Danny has painted his friends, boyfriend, and pets, and these subjects are familiar to me — I know these guys and dogs, have petted and kissed them. But the new world he has created in his latest paintings is decidedly less familiar. In one, Bowie, Ferrell’s young spaniel, sits on his haunches in a field of tiny flowers, a shooting star streaking through the sky behind him. The usually spazzy dog sits calmly, almost regally, and gazes directly at the viewer. He dwarfs the flowers around his feet, defying usual notions of scale and filling the picture plane. Utopias, from the Greek for no place, are literal nowheres — by definition, these perfect places do not exist. Or perhaps another way to interpret the etymology is that utopias are not places at all, but something else: a state of mind, perhaps? Can Danny’s optimism provide a temporary reprieve for us?

(screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
(screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

In these scenes, everyone is all right. I’d say we’re doing well, but we’re not doing much at all. We just sit and that’s enough, and I’m thankful for that fantasy. Maybe generosity is letting someone feel pretty whether they are or aren’t; maybe it’s the reassurance that love and beauty are the norm and not the exception; maybe it’s helping us pretend, for a moment, that we don’t have to be here. This generosity embedded at the heart of Danny’s work is a kind of love. There’s affection and admiration in his portraits, even the solo ones, as he gently brings to life the images of people he’s close with, rendering them with a careful and considerate touch. The image of Fred and me has a double love, embodying devotion in both process and image.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t check the Instagram post of the painting compulsively for a few days, comparing the likes to Danny’s other painting posts, watching the counter go up and up — 100, 150, 300, 637. It’s a very likeable painting, but were people liking us, too?

(screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
(screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

With the painting at the fair and friends and strangers sharing images of the work online, anxieties surfaced. I certainly hadn’t anticipated caring so much about what people thought. “Is that Adam Milner?” someone I don’t know asked. And then later, a comment from someone else I don’t know: “Is that Martin Shkreli?” The dig ruffled me more than I expected. Do I really look like the skeevy pharmaceutical guy and now convicted felon, the “Most Hated Man in America”? I guess I kind of do.

Then I realized that a painting of the despised pharma-bro in an embrace with another man would probably be a popular painting, too, but for diametrically opposite reasons. We’ve seen this before, the gay couple as joke. Putin and Trump making out comes to mind. “Call Me By Your Name fan art?” someone else asked. I googled and found that the promo image for the film also depicts two men, intertwined at the neck, ear to shoulder, propping each other up. It reminded me that images of intimacy between two guys are still surprisingly rare in the mainstream.

In Danny’s paintings, queers are the only ones, and there’s no joke. Even painting someone who doesn’t identify this way incidentally brings them into a family. There’s an inherent closeness between everyone he paints, even as we exist in separate canvases. There’s no conflict, just closeness. In our painting, nothing matters except the way Fred’s head touches my shoulder.

Danny Ferrell,”Moon Brothers” (2017), oil on canvas, 48 x 60 in (courtesy Galerie Pact)

Artnet News reported that Danny’s booth nearly sold out the first day of the fair when they listed him as one of six emerging artists to watch at NADA. “Did the painting of Fred and me sell?” I later asked curiously, again mistaking the painting for myself, hoping someone had liked us enough to want to live with us. Finding out it had been one of the first works to sell, and to a high-profile collector, felt more fraught than I had expected. Will the painting go into storage, or into a fancy house on the Upper East Side? Is one better than the other? I wondered, but didn’t ask, if the collector is gay, not knowing what answer would make me happier.

While oil and canvas are meant to last, we are not. That portraits usually outlast their subjects is no revelation, but that this work will likely outlast Fred and I — in every way — is unsettling. Most relationships come to an end, while most paintings in prestigious collections go on to be conserved and cared for. I find myself wondering, where is the specialist taking care of us? This painting stops time and lets us stay this way forever. In Danny’s paintings, things are especially still. These are not snapshots of a larger moment, these scenes are everything. There is nothing happening and nothing about to happen. A nuzzle lasts forever; the moon is always full.

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