Amid growing fears about AIDS in the early 1980s, public health officials shut down gay bathhouses in several American cities. Though such orders were never issued in Los Angeles, many of the city’s bathhouses closed in the face of diminished patronage, political pressures and gentrification. Danny Jauregui explored this historical terrain in his first New York solo show (all works 2010), presenting seven medium-size to large paintings inspired by defunct bathhouses that once catered to gay men in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Painting with gouache on canvas, Jauregui invents empty bathhouse interiors using two or three intersecting grids that are rendered in perspective. Floor, wall and ceiling planes meet in various configurations and appear to be tiled with black and gray rectangles. None of these spaces is fully realized, however, and the partial grids invariably give way to underlying grounds covered with delicate daubs of gray gouache. In Jack’s Bath, for example, scores of dark tiles seem to have fallen from a wide sauna wall, exposing a large mottled area in the center of the canvas. A similar disrepair afflicts Hyperion Health, where the viewer looks up at the crumbling corner of a steam room. Jauregui creates his light gray grounds by sprinkling salt on wet gouache and scraping the mixture away when it dries. The resulting stains resemble mildew and appear to erode the fragmentary architecture. But since the titles reference specific gay bathhouses, these marks can also suggest the more sinister spread of a virus.
Despite their intimations of decay and disease, Jauregui’s paintings possess an elegant beauty that sometimes conjures the pre-AIDS heyday of gay liberation. In Lion Heart Baths, two broken wall planes form a corner that projects toward the viewer. Here the tiles are colored with silvery shades of gray and flecked with bits of mica, subtly invoking the nightclubs and discos that also helped define gay culture in the 1970s. The orientation of the single recessive plane in 1350 Baths is ambiguous, allowing one to perceive a moldering vertical wall or a shimmering, light-dappled dance floor. Like excavated artifacts, such paintings seem to bear witness to both a cultural efflorescence and its subsequent decline.
This archeological theme was extended in a suite of six numbered drawings that are all titled “Disguised Ruin.” Measuring 14 by 11 inches, each work layers three or four sheets of paper that are darkly stained with gray gouache. By cutting out grids of small squares from the bottom half of each sheet, Jauregui creates overlapping planes that resemble those found in his paintings. But here the rows of tiny apertures suggest fenestrated buildings seen from afar and cloaked in thick smog. Specific references to gay culture may be absent in these drawings, but a link to Los Angeles remains.
Photo: Danny Jauregui: Hyperion Health, 2010, gouache on canvas, 96 by 66 inches; at Leslie Tonkonow.