Make Watercolors Great Again: JOHN KELSEY Paints the Sad White Alpha Male

Why the tragicomic sight of online fight videos is the perfect insight into the Trump-Le Pen-Farage demographic.

At the beginning of the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, a young and hard-bodied John Voigt arrives to Park Avenue dressed to the nines as a living, breathing Marlboro Man. His plan is to work as gigolo for ladies who lunch, but he quickly learns that his porn-inspired self-marketing strategy and “aw shucks” pick-up lines are a total bust. The only housewife he manages to get in bed with ends up balking at his fee and hitting him up for cab fare. Joe Buck (Voigt’s character, but also the name of a present-day NFL sportscaster) ends up destitute and homeless, meandering on a path of indignities. Later on, as he lies in bed with a failed erection, a downtown socialite gives him some words of wisdom: “Maybe if you didn’t call me ma’am, things might work out better.”

Forty-seven years later, the urban metropole seems equally inhospitable to the likes of the White Alpha Male. In fact, decades of civil rights movements and the globalization of manufacturing jobs point directly to the archetype’s imminent extinction. This “tragedy” is the plate on which the Donald Trumps, Marine Le Pens, and Nigel Farages of the world eat their daily bread. Yet the end-game of this political moment seems more destined to be a slapstick outro than a new world order. Remember: This is the dusty Billy Joel CD wedged under the passenger seat of a Ford F-150; the police officer holding an Egg MacMuffin in his mouth as he fumbles with the zipper of his trousers. This is not the apocalypse. It is an old destiny’s death rattle.

John Kelsey’s watercolors of men fighting on sidewalks, now on view at his untitled Galerie Buchholz exhibition, encapsulate the clumsy tragicomedy of this zeitgeist. Swirling in a wash of paint, his figures wobble through a blurred landscape of curbs and parked cars. They pull and stomp each other, revealing waist bands and swathes of belly fat. No one looks cute in a fight. And here we witness that even the accidentally gay moments in the action—like a man face-planting into another man’s crotch—do not succeed in floating above the abjection. In one particularly heartbreaking painting, a beer-gutted victim with khaki hair kneels doggy-style in a circle of blue pant-legs. A single red blood stain adorns his half-tucked dress shirt. It reads like a state of the union on middle-aged heterosexuality: the ultimate #fail video. 

A blank play-button in the center of another painting shows us that these images are from the Internet, where fight videos remain a sprawling genre. We learn that Kelsey is a viewer too, just as he is a member of the core Trump-Le Pen-Farage demographic: white, male, older than 40. He didn’t ask to be there, and he takes more direct aim at himself with other gestures. Throughout the gallery, rustic whale sculptures in a Vineyard Vines silhouette—purchased by Kelsey on eBay—lend the room a preppy, New England ambiance. It makes us imagine the artist, critic, and art-dealer lounging on a weekend, wearing a pair of LL Bean moccasins and scrolling through Vine compilations on WorldStarHipHop. This Sunday painter quality finds its long lost twin in the amateur paintings of George W Bush. One of the former president’s first canvases to leak onto the Internet depicts Bush standing in front of a gushing shower head, his back curved and eyes staring blankly at the viewer from a mirror in the center left of the composition. It is a punchline that has a built-in laugh-track in Germany, home to Martin Kippenberger’s slumped and flaccid self-portraits.

Around the gallery, strangely shaped white paintings serve as a near-invisible companion to the carnage. Their geometries are floor plans gathered from Kelsey’s search for a new apartment in New York. They take their names from the promotional text of their real estate listings: “Locations and Light!”, “Paris in Manhattan”, “Townhouse Feel”.  They conjure the image of post-gentrification hermit crabs scavenging for smaller and smaller shells—or two-bedrooms that feel like townhouses. It is a shrinking world for the men in charge. 

John Kelsey is now on show at Galerie Bucholz Berlin until 27 August. 

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