When I was an art student I had a great teacher named Nancy Chunn. Her first assignment was to bring in a bunch of stuff we really “responded to.” The stuff could be pictures from magazines, photos, fabric, basically anything. Then together we would look at the objects and “read them like a shaman would read the entrails of a sacrificial animal,” to interpret my artistic muse.
Anyone who would use the words, shaman, entrails and sacrificial animal in an art assignment (or even the same sentence) was already rating high in my book. Since I was a collector, it wasn’t difficult to fulfill the request. My apartment, a boarded-up storefront between Avenue A & B in Alphabet City, was crammed with the stuff I collected. I brought in a number of items, including some old Valentine’s Day greeting cards (my birthday) and an illustrated western story about Billy the Kid.
Her interpretation? “There are a lot of female artists who deal with women’s issues, but I think you may be one of the few men who really wants to communicate male issues.”
She was right. The sweetness, innocence and desire for love and connection represented by the corny Valentines was a symbolic bookend to the rugged, tough, unemotional cowboys like Billy the Kid. My response was to create a series of silkscreened paintings utilizing these images with a second layer of silkscreened text. The text was composed of abusive phrases my parents said to me as a child, threats from bullies, rejections from girls, all kinds of things that impacted me – and invited or demanded my response – as a man.
When I grew up, men were expected to be tough. You weren’t supposed to cry. You weren’t even supposed to care. If it hurt you “took it like a man.” But what happened once you “took it”? What did “it” do to you? How did it change you? How did you cope? The Book of Paul explores these issues through the various approaches the main characters take to deal with their own childhood traumas. Especially the men.
Martin shuts down all emotions and becomes the quintessential Marlboro Man tough guy. He can’t even smile. William wants to belong, but his loneliness, resentment and insecurity lead him to a path of degradation and corruption. Michael becomes an eager sycophant, following Paul around like a puppy dog, craving his approval, seeking his protection.
And Paul? Paul is “man” unchained. All id, all the time. Testosterone run amok. The animal in all of us unbounded by society’s conventions, morality, laws, remorse — unfettered by any emotions, propelled by rage, ambition, lust and an unquenchable thirst for revenge.
The Book of Paul isn’t pretty. It’s tough, very tough in places. But some of my biggest fans are women. Is it the romance between Martin and Rose? The steamy sex? The S&M elements? The darkness? The humor? Or are women sometimes more in touch with the abuse we all receive in different measures. Can women feel it more?
I don’t really know. The men who have read it have been equally enthusiastic in their reviews. Is it the action? The violence? The mayhem? The romance, steamy sex, S&M, darkness and humor? I don’t know that either.
I will say this: whoever you are, male or female, if you read these descriptions and think The Book of Paul might be too much for you — if you think you might not be able to “take it” – my guess is that you’ll be glad you did. Or not. On Amazon TBOP has thirteen five star reviews and two one star reviews (http://amzn.to/LJf2nX). Read them and notice the distinctions. Make your choice.
If Paul were to get the last word in with some typically terse advice, it’s easy to imagine what he’d say, no matter what your gender:
“Be a man.”