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Before coming out in his 2019 memoir My Life on the Line, offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan had resigned to kill himself once his playing days were over. Since realizing he was gay in high school, the football star was unable to imagine a life without sports to distract from the anguish he felt trying to conceal his sexuality. In artist James Gobel’s new show Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedne’no She Betta Don’t at BOZOMAG, he presents two side by side portraits of the six foot seven, 331-pound O’Callaghan. Both Ryan, New England Patriot and Ryan, and Kansas City Chiefs (each 2021) feature images of the athlete between plays on the field, sweating on the sidelines and donning the mud-stained uniforms of the two professional teams he played for.
Best known for his colorful felt paintings of men that identify as “bears” in unassuming domestic interiors, Gobel takes a different approach with his portraits of O’Callaghan. Instead of drawn, painted, or embroidered, the image of the lineman was simply downloaded from the internet, printed out, smudged with ink, and adhered with crinkled packing tape to two mirroring, monochromatic canvases. O’Callaghan’s queerness is more concealed than that of any of Gobel’s other subjects. Yet, formally, these JPG portraits of O’Callaghan are the most figurative, clear-cut, and unmanicured in the exhibition.
The other works on view at BOZOMAG continue to depart from Gobel’s typical portraiture: some are in higher resolution, while others are looser and more abstracted. Old Vic Window (2020) captures the once exterior bedroom window of hefty British stage and film actor Charles Laughton. Like Gobel’s earlier portraits, this is a felt painting, depicting the weathered brick surrounding the notoriously closeted Hollywood star’s childhood home with choppy blocks of fabric. Whereas his previous works consisted of flat, unaltered swatches of felt, the fabric in Old Vic Window is speckled with paint to create gradients of misted white and deep, blood-red.
The viewer would be able to see clearly into the actor’s bedroom if it weren’t for the frosted, inky-black windows and chipped planks of wood. On screen, Laughton’s dramatic authenticity presented audiences with what must have felt like a glimpse into the actor’s real self. Here, Gobel experiments with new materials and different views of his subjects to consider the murky, interior lives of men in the public arena. Just as the viewer of Old Vic Window peers into the bedroom without being able to see inside, later reports by his contemporaries confirm Laughton’s private life was equally hidden behind a mess of cobwebs and muddled glass.
Elsewhere, Gobel trades in soft-edges and flat, colored blocks for thin layers of cut-up paper and scratchy graphite. Still in My Head (2021) is a geographic assemblage of hand-cut, vintage train ledgers shaped into caricatures of Weimar-era, rotund men with thick mustaches against a backdrop of looping, coaster-like lines and squiggles. Gay men in pre-Nazi Germany enjoyed a surprising degree of liberation, notably depicted in the 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret about a Berlin nightclub in 1931. However, like the closeted men depicted elsewhere in the exhibition, these men inevitably migrated towards a place of secrecy and repression. The cut-out, paper figures in Still in My Head tangle and overlap, disappearing into and out of the sprawl of multicolored helixes and curvatures. In this way, the figures in his new works are messy and agile, like speeding trains locomoting past one another.
These are not figures whose histories can be cleanly portrayed. Men in Weimar Germany experienced freedom followed by secrecy; O’Callaghan lived through the reverse. And while Laughton’s sexuality may have been known to those closest to him, it was kept out of view of the public. Because of these oscillations, the portraits we have of these men are often scribbles—quick sketches and glued-together cutouts that try to make visual sense of a life kept hidden.
James Gobel: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedne’no She Betta Don’t runs from February 14–April 4 at BOZOMAG (815 Cresthaven Dr., Los Angeles, CA).