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Photography Files: Paul Latislaw

Two years ago while working at Pierogi Gallery in the Lower East Side I followed my colleague Paul Latislaw’s Instagram. I expected what one so often received from  an art school student’s social media in 2015; an array of softly lit, tightly cropped pastel pictures of their friend’s in cotton underwear smoking cigarettes. I was proved most significantly wrong—I was confronted by a stream of contorted self portraits splayed across different landscapes. I wondered how he even got himself into such positions? Wasn’t he freezing lying there half naked in the snow? I also was astounded by the simplicity of the compositions – the faceless figure acting as a link between humanity and its environment.

Latislaw’s portfolio has continued to grow and develop, with images becoming more abstract and complex. The images are often comical in their ridiculousness, but they facilitate a conversation between figure and space: “an absurdist conversation,” Latislaw explained, “somewhere between humor, beauty, tragedy, vanity, gravity and sublimity.”

When did you start photographing your own body?

I started working on this particular series four years ago. It began as a one off photo of me laying face down in an empty pool and the ideas ballooned from there. I have always been drawn to self portraiture, though, not in a traditional sense. I’ve always enjoyed using my body as a blank canvas to work from – a mannequin of sorts. My last photo series was comprised of digitally manipulated portraits of my face as hyper-feminized women and hyper-masculinized men. I love having the opportunity to use my body to explore new characters.

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Are the photographs planned out or is the capture more spontaneous?

The time and place that the photographs are taken in are mostly spontaneous. I usually happen upon a scene that I find interesting and throw myself in the middle of it. Oftentimes going into it I have in mind a position or a feeling that I would like to incorporate. However, I try not to tamper with the setting too much. Any props included in the photographs are objects found on site.

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Do you think of your body as a separated subject of these photographs? Or is the subject the relationship between the body and its surrounding space?

The subject is definitely the relationship between the body and its surrounding space. I really try to develop a dialog between body and environment within these spaces. I like to think of the body as a prop that is trying to be incorporated into its surroundings – be it taking the form of a household object in a domestic setting or an organic element in a landscape – but failing to do so.

You rarely see your face in these pictures, why is that?

I really want the focus of the pieces to be that relationship between the body and the setting. I don’t want the figure to become a representation of my likeness. I find that including a face distracts from what I actually find to be interesting about the images. I like to imagine the body as a shell, a puppet, to be thrown about at will. I want my body to be used as a representation of any body.

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What’s the most uncomfortable position you’ve found yourself in creating these pictures?

I would have to say that the most uncomfortable position so far has been the one in the image of me back bending over an upright log. The wood was the only thing supporting my body, perhaps not the wisest decision. I definitely blacked out a bit when I was in the full bend and I needed the person assisting to roll me off of the log. The contorted positions are oftentimes more comfortable than the weird situations I find myself in when, say, passerbys stop and stare as I try to backbend over a log with my clothes off in a public park.

You’ve described your composition as a series of “whoops-a-daisies, bangs, bumps, and booms,” almost as though the body was an instrument – would you agree?

In certain ways, yes. I enjoy the comparison when it comes to the idea of dropping an instrument and the ridiculous sound it might make, like a honk. I often turn to onomatopoeias when I am trying not to take something so seriously; acknowledging that a piece can contain a perceived violence while still maintaining a certain absurd humor. I enjoy hearing people’s different perspectives on the photos, they tend to fall somewhere between being funny and grotesque. I try to maintain a constant tension between the two. I do my best to make them funny rather than grim because I know how the body can come off looking corpse-like. That’s why I often go for the dramatic, silly hand gestures. If I fill the posture with sass then, at least in my eyes, they lose some of the potential for morbid misinterpretation.

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You described your work as a “battle of theatrics” – explain this a little.

I think that the body and the environment that it finds itself in have separate personalities of their own. They are complex and strange but also so commonplace. I like to view it as the body reacting theatrically as it tries to adjust to complex and relentless everyday settings. The body is being squished into frames and forced to find a place that had been defined prior to its entry. I also love the idea that this relationship between these environments and the body evolves over time. I can’t wait to see my flabby seventy year old body draped into a scene. Certainly not doctor approved.

I sometimes find your pictures quite comical in their ridiculousness, and refreshing that an artist is using humor in such beautifully stage pictures – was this a purposeful decision?

I am so glad to hear that! It is absolutely purposeful. If I find a picture too grim I will not use it. Without some humor in the work I would have no drive to continue the series. There is enough depressing content to contend with out there. I’d prefer to be a whimsical reaction to that content.

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Which artists impacted the creation of these pictures?

Andrew Wyeth, Tatjana Gerhard, Francesca Woodman, Artemisia Gentileschi, Francis Bacon, Jan Brueghel the Elder, just to name a few.

What projects are you doing alongside these?

I have a few video projects in the works that fall within the vompaul series. I’m also working on a series of paintings which are in an entirely different category; I am very excited about them. Outside of making my own art I am working on creating a digital gallery space to represent other queer artists.

Paul works and lives in NYC, follow his work at @vompaul

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