When the American artist Paul Thek died of Aids in 1988, aged 54, his work was hardly known outside his circle of friends. Looking at this small, fascinating exhibition, it’s not hard to see why it escaped the art world’s radar. It’s just too diverse and wide-ranging, too full of strangely contradictory references to be summarised within existing art movements.
Take, for instance, a piece from Thek’s ‘Technological Reliquaries’ series of the mid-’60s. It consists of a series of long, angular cases set inside one other: the outer one, made of white formica and propped open, is followed by a green plexiglass one, then a slick-looking metal case whose open hatch reveals the grisly heart of the piece – a waxwork replica of nerves, muscles and other bloody viscera. It’s a brilliantly peculiar thing – a sort of religious-minimalist-pop object that also smacks of sci-fi and horror. It’s this weird amalgamation of the conceptual and the corporeal that has ended up becoming so influential on younger artists like Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman.
Yet, concentrating on Thek’s paintings and watercolours, many of which were made in the last years of his life, the main focus of the show takes you in a different direction entirely. Quite a few of the 21 works on display are relatively straightforward – impressionistic landscapes or rootftop views from his New York apartment in lovely, nocturnal colours. Others are blurry, aggressive, childlike scrawls, or floating, scribbly symbols such as a repeated hammer-and-sickle motif. Individually, they may not be extraordinary but, as with his work in general, Thek’s commitment to diversity and constant experimentation remains impressive.