In Paul P.'s recent exhibition "Sherbert in Damascus," titled for a short story by Daniel Snow, the paintings seemed to have been not so much hung on the wall as purposefully enlisted in a subtly suggestive mise-en-scène. The 25 diminutive works (which ranged from around 9 by 7 to 14 by 18 inches, all 2010) feature artfully wrought-if overtly familiar-scenes of the sort we might associate with a travelogue of bygone days: a footbridge spanning a canal and wash hanging from windows in Venice; Mediterranean foliage seen in dark silhouette; the Spanish Steps.

Even while observing these works' twilit palette of pale purples, smoldering teals and warm pinks, brushed on capably, one couldn't help but notice seemingly marginal elements in the surrounding room. The normally white walls had been painted mint green, mauve, pale yellow and-adding drama-light-absorbing black. The front window was completely covered by a rough-textured checkerboard of paper in warm tonalities of brown and tan, gently filtering the light and effectively blocking the view from the street. Meanwhile, at one end, a comfortable couch upholstered in gray Egyptian linen and detailed in unfinished mango wood and sandalwood (an elegantly spare, contemporary reproduction of a piece in French provincial style) beckoned viewers to repose-or more. The paintings alone would have made for a fine, if average, show, yet they were only part of the story. We hadn't entered a gallery, but a mood.

For all the evocativeness of this arrangement, P. also chose to lay bare his conceits. Snow's story, available at the front desk, describes a serendipitous meeting between the author and a young man from Damascus, with all the frisson of a pending sexual encounter. In addition, a 35mm film projected in the back gallery displayed a host of P.'s visual and inspirational source materials: covers of books, among them a vintage copy of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited; portraits of the decadent gay British esthete Stephen Tennant (1906–1987); bold interior designs from the 1920s and '30s (including a lounge that the interior decorator Syrie Maugham, Somerset Maugham's wife for a time, designed for Tennant); and other works of art and design conveying lost elegance, grace and flamboyance.

Ultimately these materials provided the show with some much needed ballast. P.'s earlier (2003–07), portrait-based realistic paintings drew upon gay porn from the pre-AIDS era, and in them the artist focused on his subjects from the waist up only—their faces, individual identities, expressions. By comparison, despite its century-old, recherché sources, this show felt more tangible, more daring. The stage was set, and romance was in the air.


Photo: Paul P.: Untitled, 2010, oil on canvas, approx. 91⁄2 by 71⁄2 inches; at Daniel Reich.