Most artists I know make work inspired by their personal lives — even if the end product looks so abstract or conceptual that you'd be hard pressed to find evidence of human experience in it. Keith Thomas, perhaps, just takes a more direct route than some from life to canvas — or, in his case, from screen to page.
Since his late teens, Thomas, a recent graduate of the University of South Florida's BFA program, has made drawings, paintings and installations inspired by his experiences meeting other gay men online. In fact, for all intents and purposes, his Internet-enabled love life is itself a work of art. Whenever he logs into a gay chat site or arranges to meet a guy in real life, Thomas embarks on research — not because he approaches each encounter with the scientific remove of an anthropologist, but because his intimate thoughts and feelings give rise to poetic visual translations of experiential data.
(Wait a minute, I hear you asking: Does that mean every time I jerk off to a photo of a naked, ripped guy online that I, too, am making art? No, honey — only Keith.)
In some cases, Thomas' feelings — and those of his romantic partners — do give rise, quite literally, to turgid hard-ons like the one lovingly depicted in Keithy's Adventures (2009). In the tender mixed-media drawing's three panels, Thomas touches on some of the themes that recur throughout his work — themes that propel his artistic inquiry into territory more profound and poignant than graphite porn.
For starters, there's the banality of the Internet as a site of intimate acts. ("Page load error: 403" reads bubble letter text in the drawing, evoking the moment when a technical glitch collapses the illusion of virtual presence into masturbatory solitude.) Or the gap between an invisible online subculture, experienced as highly sexualized by some users, and ticky-tacky suburban life — as evidenced by the presence of a cluster of average Joes in the drawing, waiting at a coffee shop for an assignation. And conventions of representing gay masculinity: a series of bodybuilder poses that Thomas — a relatively slender, though fit, young man — seems to perform (in a self-portrait) with some irony.
Behind Thomas' sweet and searching combination of these elements, there lies — to my thinking, at least — a universal desire to be loved. And, frankly, it's hard not to love Keith. I fell a bit in love with him, or perhaps with two of his paintings, last year when I judged a student exhibition at USF. Among the submissions were Young Liar (2008), in which Thomas depicts himself wearing a Pinocchio-esque mask, surrounded by the highly codified text of a Craigslist personals ad, and Narwhal Personal (2008), an even stranger — and thus, more delightful — foray into assumed identity. In the latter, a pastel-hued oil of a diminutive horned whale (i.e., a narwhal) with blushing nipples and brown hair serves as an obvious, if fantastical, self-portrait. In surrounding bubble letters, the creature boldly proclaims its desire in whimsical Craiglist-ese: "Narwal seeking narwhal. GWW looking to tusk 2nite."
I shit you not when I say that this painting made me cry.
For Thomas, growing up in Tampa and figuring out that he was gay in a community where gayness is often lived less publicly than in, say, New York or San Francisco, the Internet was a lifeline.
"The Internet is to young gay men what bars used to be," he says.
Earlier this year, for his graduating exhibition, Thomas embarked on his most ambitious project to date. Drawing portraits of men he had met over the past few years, he decided to pair them with audio in intimate listening booths. Scrapping an initial plan to record actual conversations during meetings with the men, which ran aground on the tension between participating in conversations as a potential friend or lover and as an observer, Thomas settled on writing narratives of his encounters. But then he declined to record the stories in his own voice, instead using a computer program to "read" his text aloud. As visitors to the exhibit stepped into each curtained booth to view a portrait and listen to a story, peculiarly narrated by a robotic voice, the detachment and anonymity of computer-assisted life rubbed up against the intimacy of the work's subject and the booth's invocation of the confessional in titillating and thought-provoking ways.
As part of the same show, Thomas relinquished his Internet identity to visitors, distributing a 'zine loaded with his email addresses and inviting would-be participants to assume his identity through email and on chat sites — in some cases, identities crafted through years of experience. The project turned out to be a bit too participatory when an irate ex hijacked one of the logins, which Thomas ultimately decided to shut down.
Next month, Thomas moves to San Francisco — to live with someone he met online (but of course) and plans to pursue a relationship with. That's why it was time to disconnect from the web of his online pursuits.
"I was spending eight hours a day on the Internet and four hours of my day lying about the Internet," he says. "But now I'm happy and I'm glad that I can make work about it."
For more information about Keith Thomas' work, go to ilovenarwhals.com.