by Rafael Damast
The process of creating art for José Luis Cortés is very personal. It combines his experiences, his memories and his state of mind, and it is a manifestation of his passions, his hopes, and his fears. It is the means that validates his world and voices his identity as both a gay man and as a Puerto Rican.
Cortés is not a political artist or activist, but he does acknowledge that his tastes tend toward the provocative: to a place of rough sex, sex workers, and drugs. His work is filled with pain but also with beauty, pleasure and love. In his curatorial essay for his online VisualAIDS exhibition, “It Feels Like Love But It’s the Drugs”, he starts with the admission that his sexual awakening came at fifteen – and with that the recognition of a new identity as a gay man.
Cortés was born in Philadelphia to Puerto-Rican parents. His father, an avid newspaper reader, instilled in him his love for papers, and in New York City he fell in love with The New York Times – the Grey Lady. He appreciated the paper not only for its power to convey information, but also its structure, the layout and juxtaposition of ads, and its history and presence. For Cortés, the columns and the grids of that newspaper, with its photos and headlines, were the beginning of a dialogue; a dialogue he recorded in paint.
In the pages of The New York Times, he saw his life mirrored, his career, his loves, and the places he frequented. In his work, he shows us plainly and honestly his desires and frailties, with inside jokes about gay identity and addiction (see the work Crystal Favors with double entendres as an example – “put yourself in a better position”). With paint, masking and highlighting, he guides the viewer’s eyes.
In his 1996 work Stairway to Eros, he depicts, in stark black and white, the stairwell that led to the stage of that famous gay club. On the side of the paper reads the headline “Exquisite Beauty”; below is a scenic image of a beautiful bay and sea town. He knows he is far from that place, and he contrasts this in thick brushstrokes depicting the stairwell. The space is shown as confining, absorbing, and filled with expectant tension. You may ask yourself if this is the point where you enter the stage, become the center of attention – the great “exquisite beauty”. The answer may not be clear to you, but the tension, and, dare I say, excitement is there – emotions that he must have felt when he worked there as a young man.
For Cortés, his arrival in New York City in the 1990s was liberating. He found work where his looks and body were appreciated, and to him this was akin to finding a rare drug. He was intoxicated by it. In the flashing ads and billboards of the city, he read the subliminal messages calling for hedonistic pleasures. It came to him plainly and clearly as black type on newsprint.
In his work Self Portrait with G-string Full of Money (1996), he bluntly presents to us the image of his groin
in underwear stuffed with dollar bills. In the margins of the paper reads “Liberty Travel”, and through these play on words, he shows us what supported him and gave him freedom. This was in the time of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s New York City, when the gay clubs were closing and Disney was moving into Times Square. Cortés’ friends were dying from AIDS, and the city with which he fell in love was beginning to feel like it was leaving him behind. He also saw the effects of crystal meth take a stranglehold on him and his friends. He recognized then that there was a cost for desire.
In José Luis Cortés’ art, we see his love for architecture and place. In the portraits he created of his friends, family and strangers, we see the important connections he has made. Throughout his work, he has been honest about his sexuality. In his newspaper series, and later in his performance and video work, he asks us to engage fully in who he is without judgment or regret. In doing so, he starts a conversation with the public about identity and acceptance that is base, raw and framed by urgency.
For more information on the 50th anniversary of the Reminder Day demonstrations go to http://waygay.org/reminder2015.
This exhibition and cycle was made possible by grants from PECO and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.