|John Paradiso at his show opening earlier this month. Photo by Rink.
In John Paradiso’s “SEW MANY MEN” series on display at Magnet, the Castro health and social well being center, the artist hand quilts contour drawings of men taken from gay male pornography. Paradiso says pornography has been for him both a sexual outlet and a place to find inspiration. As a young gay man, pornography served as his first gay sexual education. This series takes the overt sexuality of pornography and places it into the context of nostalgia: the home sewn, and a more romantic point of view. This is certainly not your grandmother’s embroidery!
In my interview of the artist, he told me about his technique. The embroidery work is all done by hand. First he says he looks at “a lot of porn until I find just the right image. (It’s exhausting, and then there’s all that masturbation, but that’s another story.)” Once he has selected an image, he makes a contour drawing of the figure or figures on paper. He pins the paper to the fabric and stitches through the paper and fabric to make the first stitched outline. He then pulls all the paper off and reinforces the stitch to make the line solid. If all is well at that point, he stitches the background by stitching around the figure to the wood hoop and keeps adding stitches until the piece is complete.
For the quilts, he looks online for images of men on blogs, sex sites, and wherever he can find. When he finds an image he likes, he prints the image on fabric with his ink jet printer. He sews the top layer of the quilt with his sewing machine. The top layer consists of images of men, pansy fabric, and caution tape and other found plastic material. He layers the top with batting and a muslin back, and hand quilts the piece. Men working, caution, danger, and do not enter are some of the signs and symbols he uses metaphorically to refer to messages influenced by disease and homophobia. “I use images from the Internet to reference sexual exploration in modern life for gay men,” he says. “The pansy fabrics speak to derogatory slurs while helping to make the pieces pretty.”
He told me he finds inspiration from all the gay men who have gone before him working for sexual freedom and equality for all. He also finds it within the pages of gay male porn - both vintage and new. “I am motivated by the possibility of sex with men whether real or imagined,” says Paradiso. His philosophy in life? “I believe in a power greater than myself. Sometimes that’s god and sometimes that’s sexual desire; it’s really the same thing (for me).”
He got started making art since he was a very young man (he is 47 now) in art school making photographs. “They were of me alone in the bedroom or with other men usually having sex or speaking to the risks involved with sex such as love and/or disease,” he says. He started making quilts inspired by the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt about five years ago. He has worked in HIV prevention for over 20 years, although he does not do prevention work now. “I wanted to make quilts that reflected living in a world with HIV and homophobia, etc., and still being sexually active,” he tells me. “The embroidery just came out of making quilts.”
We chat about the pieces that I especially like. “Lazy Afternoon” is about men meeting and spending the weekend in bed. “Calling out for Chinese take-out and never getting out of bed. Like when two guys first meet,” he suggests. It is also a grim reminder that even though this seems like an idyllic moment, the caution and danger tape refers to the times of HIV/AIDS, homophobia, anti-marriage, and “sew” forth impacting the afternoon - whether the two men are conscious of it or not.
“Threesome” is a piece about personal choice and sexual freedom. It also speaks to fantasy and possibility. Like “Lazy Afternoon,” the caution and danger tape refers to these perilous times looming.
“Faded Blue,” stitched on blue jeans, is about aging. “Blue Jeans fade with age,” says Paradiso, without further comment.
“Caution Pansy I” and “Caution Pansy II” uses the male figure and the pansy flower interchangeably. They are both beautiful. The irony is that the pansy is a very hardy flower and highly disease resistant. “The word ‘pansy’ has its history as a gay male slur, and in my work it represents all gay male slurs,” he says. They are both about personal freedom and personal responsibility. He elaborates, “They also speak to mainstream society, as a possible warning that we will have equality on our own terms.” Paradiso concludes, “No matter if we are hated, beaten, withheld rights, or are a community dealing with HIV/AIDS for years, we have found a way to survive sexually as a community. A force to be reckoned with!”
Be sure to check out this clever artist’s website at john-paradiso.com.