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Redefining the nature of the queer body

– an interview with J. Carino

J. Carino lives and works in California. He graduated from Parsons: The New School in 2011. His work has been exhibited internationally, including at Auxier/Kline, NY, USA (2021); Fluffy Crimes, Chicago, IL, USA (2021) and McCully & Crane Gallery, Rye, UK (2019).

"Nudity is natural, queerness is natural, sex is natural, and I think part of my work is an exploration of learning those facts for myself."

Could you tell us about your artistic practice and how it has evolved over the years? 

I think the main way that my work has changed over the years is by trying to weave together different threads that I’ve been pursuing separately over time. I’ve done a lot of landscape painting, particularly plein air, and I’ve done a lot of work drawing from models and doing self-portraits from life. I also have a love of storytelling, history, decorative art, and mythology, and have worked as an illustrator for many years. So as my work has evolved, I’ve been bringing these somewhat distinct threads into contact with each other more and more. I think it’s a process of kind of bringing together the different pieces of myself, and seeing my work as a whole.

Many of your paintings represent male nudes immersed in lush landscapes. Do you see your work as a way to challenge heteronormative notions of human nature?

I definitely see that as a big part of my work. There’s often an assumption of what “natural” means: heteronormative, aimed at procreation, and it’s often filtered, especially in the United States, through a puritanical lens. But nudity is natural, queerness is natural, sex is natural, and I think part of my work is an exploration of learning those facts for myself.

What does a typical day at your studio look like?

I recently moved to a studio outside the house, so it’s a short walk downtown. I like to be able to paint as immediately as possible, so I’ll often nail the canvas to the wall and begin laying down colored washes, stretching them afterwards (or not). For works on paper, like these, or larger paintings, I often begin by drawing myself in the mirror or from photos, figuring out which poses are working for an idea I have in mind. I also use drawings from sessions with models to construct later paintings and drawings. Sometimes I will work back and forth between various pieces, but I like to keep moving.

What is your relationship to the natural world – both on a personal level and in your artistic practice?

I grew up with a love of nature. In Colorado, the mountains were always present. Hiking, camping, just being in nature, were a big part of my childhood. I lived in New York for 15 years, and I think it took me a while to realize how much I missed real nature. My husband and I lived upstate a bit for the last few years in New York, partially to get closer to nature, but eventually we ended up out west. I missed the solitude and open space that mountains can bring. Now in Southern California, I’ve been inspired by the landscapes that feel both familiar with the mountains, but new and different. I began really exploring the connection between queer bodies and nature back in New York, with an emphasis on lushness and fertility. But here, in a drier landscape, fertility for plants has a different meaning, and that was exciting for me to explore artistically.

Could you tell us about ‘Waterbearer’? What is the genesis of this work?

‘Waterbearer’ was inspired by the river that runs nearby our house. It is mostly diverted for irrigation, but it is lined with palm trees and dense vegetation, and surrounded by scrub desert. I wanted to personify the creative force of the river in the desert as a sensual male nude: queer, sexual, and generative. I was also inspired by Greek depictions of Ganymede, the beautiful young water bearer, and Mesopotamian depictions of Prince Gudea and his taming of the rivers in Sumeria. The piece is built up spontaneously in layers, starting with large washes and shapes of color. For a piece like this, I don’t sketch first (except in thumbnail form), I just start creating the shapes and sculpting the figure out of them as I go. This gives it more life and movement.

J. Carino, Waterbearer, 2020

View work

Chant, 2021

J. Carino, Birds of Paradise, 2021

You’ve mentioned in past interviews that as a queer person you feel there is a dichotomy of wanting to be seen as a whole person, sexuality included, but also the fear of people seeing too much. How do you navigate this dichotomy in your work?

I think there’s a kind of push and pull that happens. I include a lot of nude self-portraits in my work, but they’re often stylized and exaggerated, which is one way to kind of stay hidden. I think that for myself, as a gay man, there’s been a long process of allowing my sexuality, not just sexual orientation, to be a part of who I am. I want myself to be able to see that, which means being seen by other people as well.

Aside from being a painter, you also work as an illustrator. Do you see those two aspects of your practice as separate or intertwined?

I think of the two practices as separate, but that they complement each other. The illustration work allows me to delve into a specific world for a time, which can help push my painting work into different directions. It’s also much more rapid-fire, where I might produce 20-30 paintings in a month or two, as opposed to a much slower process with my personal work. But illustration is, by the necessity of having a client, much more planned and directed. In my personal work I can allow the images to evolve over the course of the painting, which is very liberating.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m greatly inspired by a lot of different forms of art. I love decorative artists like Jean Dunand and René Buthaud, but am also inspired by painters like Romare Bearden, Pierre Bonnard, Ben Shahn, Odilon Redon, David Hockney, Matisse, and Picasso. I get the most inspired by working from life, whether it’s drawing or painting plein air or drawing from myself or a model. There is always infinite inspiration in drawing from life, and it excites me every time.

Henri Matisse, Bathers by a River, 1909 - 1917, Oil on canvas

If you could own any piece of art, what would it be?

This is a tough question…I think maybe I would pick Matisse’s “Bathers by a River”. I’ve always been fascinated by rivers, and I remember seeing this painting in a museum once and not being able to look away. I love the simplicity and the complexity of it. Or maybe David Hockney’s “Mulholland Drive”? It’s so inventive and musical. I don’t know, can I have two?

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now I am working on a series of paintings continuing to explore the idea of gay bodies within the landscape. I’m focusing on plants and landscapes of my new home in Southern California; it’s a kind of way of situating myself and getting to know my surroundings. I’m interested in how ideas of sexuality, nature, and fertility, can be expressed within a desert-like, mountainous landscape. I’m also interested in how outdoor, queer, nude spaces are a part of the landscape, and I’m interested in exploring how that changes the landscape as well. They feel like oases.