Currently reading : SB6 Archive (2012): Deadly Friends

SB6 Archive (2012): Deadly Friends

30 August 2017

Words by Bruce LaBruce

Drawings by Patrick Lee

Bruce Labruce: So, how are you?
Patrick Lee: I’m good thank you, how are you? How was the film festival?

It was good, really busy for me because I have an industry pass so I got to go to all the industry screenings for free. So I saw like 20 movies, and I threw my own party, and I also dj’ed at the James Franco party and got to hang out with him a bit. A few glamourous moments here and there.
That's cool, did you show LA Zombie this year or did you show it last year?

Yeah it was at last year's TIFF, it had premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival and then went straight to Toronto. That was cool too because although it's pretty extreme they still showed it at The TIFF Bell Lightbox which is this really upscale, new, state of the art screening facility. Which is like the new ‘hub’ of the festival. So it was great that they showed it, they could have showed it at some more obscure venue but they showed it there.
That’s fantastic, it deserves to be there. I really enjoyed it by the way, it’s a blast.

Did you see it Downtown at The Red Cat in LA?
Unfortunately no, I wish I’d got to see it at the theatre—that would have been cool.

I would have liked to have seen it at The Red Cat because that’s a nice facility too.
I’ve got a cop friend who came to see it with me who loved it, by the way.

A what?
I’ve got a friend who is a cop, he’s really wild and crazy and he told me to tell you that he loved the film.

Wow, Is he a gay cop?
Yeah he is, although I don’t think he’s out at work. He’s this big Latin guy. He’s pretty wild.

I’d love to meet him.
If you’re ever in LA again you must. What’s even cooler is that he lives with a ranger and they live in this weird place in a park outside of LA where the ranger actually does his work. They have this cabin which they live in.

What? Like a forest ranger?
Yeah, it’s very bizarre.

A gay power couple.

You see, I’ve been trying to get this movie made for years: ‘LA Gangbangers’. I have to figure it out because it’s been attached to two different producers and nothing has ever happened. So I may try and get the producers from LA Zombie to do it. Did you see that film at the festival called ‘Rampart’? Oren Moverman directed it and Woody Harrelson is the lead. It’s kind of a period piece set at the height of the Rampart scandal, you must know all about that right?
Yeah, totally.

It’s actually less about the Rampart specifics but more about a character study of this cop who, who…it’s so bizarre because he lives with his girlfriend, well more like in the garage of his girlfriend’s place. But next door is the sister of the girlfriend who he is now having an affair with. The sisters are played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche.
Oh wow! (laughter)

I know right, it’s like all these power lesbians off screen. It’s strange because in the movie they are kind of coded as lesbians because they have this family where Cynthia Nixon’s 17-year-old daughter is a lesbian and has a girlfriend. So it's like this mean out of control drug addicted cop living with this lesbian family. It’s like Dennis Hoppers ‘Colours’ meets ‘The Kids Are Alright’.
I’ll have to look out for that. It sounds totally bizarre.

It had a pretty good buzz at the festival and it was co-written by James Ellroy and it has Sigourney Weaver in it! Do you know my friend Deadlee?
I do actually, I met him recently.

You should use Deadlee as a subject. He is like the butchest gay friend I have. I’ll hook you up by email. He is a total sweetheart. He actually has a small part at the start of ‘Rampart’. He plays a thug and a gangbanger and Woody Harrelson beats him up.
Oh wow! Well good for him.

Yeah, he’s been doing some acting recently. Anyway with this LA gangbangers idea I’ve been working on I’ve always had Deadlee in mind for the lead. I want the film to be like this Romeo and Juliet Story between cops and gang members. Where the youngest cop and the youngest gang member fall in love and become gay lovers. Which would typically end in Shakespearian tragedy. I also want it to be a porn too though. (laughs)
I would expect nothing less! (laughs)

I still really want to get that idea off the ground. Anyway, for the subjects for your drawings do you go into South Central?
I do sometimes yeah, and I’ll go to South Central or East LA and I always carry this small portfolio with me. If I do see someone I’ll go up to them but it's always initially awkward. Once I show them my drawings though they totally get it. Their either open to it or not.

I can imagine though, that in your work you possess real heroic qualities to your sitters. They must be very flattered by how you depict them.
I hope so, I mean I’ve never had anyone be offended.

"I absolutely love crispness, clarity and detail. For whatever reason when those things come together it starts to kick in. It’s this hour where I finally start to see the image become alive."

Has anyone ever insinuated that you are gay?
Oh yeah, some have asked and I’ve been honest. So it either dissolves right there and then or they are fine with it.

When it dissolves have they ever got homophobic with you?
I’m happy to report that I’ve never had a violent or explosive aftermath. I think that’s because I keep it really neutral and non-threatening as much as possible. I can always see the guys' ears turning and them figuring it out and they usually start talking about their girlfriends at that point.

But porn works the same way kind of. Because when I used to shoot a lot of guys for Honcho and Inches and stuff, even when they were posing with their hard-on or whatever or you were getting them to take their clothes of they always start talking about their girlfriends…
It is this weird dance, this seduction, where both parties know what the game is. It gets your adrenaline pumping, it's very exciting. But there is always a line never to be crossed.

Have you been in a situation where it seemed like it could get dangerous or threatening?
I really use my intuition before approaching individuals. There have been times where I’ve been walking down the street and I’ve seen a guy and think that he would be the most incredible drawing, but then there would be something about his body language which makes me think it would be better to leave it out. When I lived in Hollywood I never drove anywhere, I would walk everywhere. That’s where I actually met a lot of the individuals I photographed. There have been occasions in the middle of their high, and I’ve had to get them to get out of it.

Do your subjects ever ask for money?
Yes, a lot of the times I can tell that they are homeless or if there really in a stance about it I tell them that I’ve got some cash and that I’d be happy to help them out. Also I’ll get an extra print of the drawing to give them.

So you get their address and phone number?
Of course, a piece can take up to two months though. After that time I try and get in contact with the guys but some of them end up back in prison or their number no longer works. I get the drawings returned back to me in the mail. There are times though where the guys are getting their lives back on track though so it’s successful.

It’s interesting that walking is a part of your process, I think you must be one of the only people in LA that I know who doesn’t drive.
People I know who see me out walking pull over to see if I’m okay and ask me if I need a lift, which they automatically assume that I do. Everyone drives, the city is very spread out. People don’t realize what an amazing city it is to go out walking in though.

When I lived in LA for a year I didn’t have car and depended on the kindness of strangers or walked. I was afraid of the bus.
I hate the bus! The bus is the only place where I’ve come in to real trouble. There was this gangster and his girlfriend at the back of the bus once and I looked at them when I got on but didn’t think anything of it. I was sitting at the back, the last seat by the exit and we came to a stop. Then out of nowhere my head was smashed into the seat in front of me. The man punched me in the back of the neck. Then they ran out of the back exit. I was so dazed I didn’t know what was going on.

So what was it exactly that precipitated this?
I guess it was that he didn’t like someone like me looking at either him or his girlfriend…

So you didn’t follow him out of the bus and shout, ‘Hey can I draw you?!’
Unfortunately, this was before I started drawing. I’d been walking and getting the bus around LA for years before I got the courage to ask people to take their photographs. I’d seen so many amazing individuals over the years, I kind of just thought, ‘well I’m going to die anyway!’

The process is very labour intensive. How do you dig into it?
The photography is the initial inspiration. That’s the most rewarding and fun as well as being so instantaneous. Then the actual dissection of it and then digging into it is just very time-consuming. The final week of the drawing, when I see it actually coming together brings back some of that initial excitement. But that middle part is quite honestly total drudgery, it just looks like mud for weeks. I’ll work over sections like a hundred times. The final stage for me is really exhilarating.

What makes the moment come alive?
It’s weird, for me it starts to have this buzzing energy. I absolutely love crispness, clarity and detail. For whatever reason when those things come together it starts to kick in. It’s this hour where I finally start to see the image become alive.

Like a Frankenstein moment?! ‘It’s Alivee!!!’
Totally. Then it becomes like a homestretch and I can see the end. I’m sure you feel the same way about your work, you can work on something for years. At some point you have to walk away from something though.

That’s a really interesting point, there’s always that moment where you are aware that you could go too far and ruin it.
True, in some cases I think I have done that. You have to be aware of when to put something aside so you don’t kill it. Generally there is always a deadline so I’m rushing it out of the door to get it photographed and put in a gallery. Which is good because if I didn’t have deadlines I don’t think I would ever finish these things.

I’ve read in a lot of articles about how you use ‘the essence of masculinity’ and also how you show this kind of vulnerability which contradicts this masculinity. It’s hard to add anything to that but have you had any kind of epiphany to this concept? Or have you ever wanted to explore the feminine?
Absolutely, that’s a great idea. I definitely try to think about possible other directions, like for example the feminine and exploring that.

Would you explore trying to capture the feminine in a male subject or would you go for actual female subjects, or both?
Both would be very intriguing, although I think it would be challenging and fun for me to actually draw women. I think that would be because I’m not as into that subject matter…

No, that makes total sense. In terms of the context of sexual chemistry, it’s totally different.
It’s different, yeah. It would be an interesting challenge, who knows maybe I would love it. It remains to be seen.

"I’m very interested in how many men overcompensate to prove themselves, it's so amazing to me. It says so much sociologically about the health of a nation. It says a lot about where people are mentally and how insecure and sensitive that issue really is."

In a way it’s objectification versus identification. I think a lot of gay filmmakers for example do this. They either make a film about a male subject who they are kind of objectifying sexually on a certain level. Or if they make a film with a female subject then it’s a point of identification for them rather than that of an issue of sexual objectification. That’s more of a psychological rather than a sexual identification.
On some level I do try and find a connection with them, I guess, a kind of outsider status. As a gay guy I will never feel a part of society. No matter how much I try to act like it.

Thank you! That is a rare sentiment these days!
Well exactly and it should be cherished. I’m so grateful that I have this path. Whether or not I’ve liked it or not, it’s forced me to look at reality through a different lens. I think it’s been the best education ever. I totally cherish it.

It’s great to hear you say that because sometimes it feels like you’re pissing into the wind with that philosophy. I just don’t understand these gays who desperately want to be domesticated or normalized. It just seems like such a regression in some ways.
I agree, or a suppression of anything that’s remotely interesting about yourself, or even just of who you are. It’s like this notion of blending in, because it’s easier to cope or something. I personally have no hope for it anyway.

Well, I was wondering if you’ve drawn any dykes? I really like the masculine in females too.
No, I haven’t. I’ve been very narrow in my approach and focused on guys. I’d love to try that, or even female to male transgendered or something different.

It’s interesting how masculinity and femininity are inscribed into people of the opposite sex because it’s kind of exaggerated in a different way if it’s your own biological sex.
Oh totally. It’s filtered differently, it’s always amazing to see all the subtle differences that exist. For me and with men it’s endlessly interesting, which is why it appeals to me in the first place. I’m very interested in how many men overcompensate to prove themselves, it’s so amazing to me. It says so much sociologically about the health of a nation. It says a lot about where people are mentally and how insecure and sensitive that issue really is.

Totally, it's still one of the most sensitive issues. Masculinity in women and femininity in men is still such a taboo.
It’s ridiculous and there are prescriptions and if you wander even slightly out of those it’s still so threatening to people.

There are these parents in Toronto who became notorious for trying not to pose any kind of gender on their children. A friend of mine’s kids go to the same school as these kids and it became a kind of a media circus. People were going mad saying that it was child abuse?! But then these are the same people who watch ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ on television which shows infants wearing makeup and padded bras, you know?!
Those shows to me are so sick, they seem so unreal! Talk about screwing up your kids’ brains.

I know, right? I was wondering if you only drew faces and heads? Or have you drawn bodies in the past?
I have drawn bodies in the past, I used to do some erotic illustrations for magazines. When I was learning to draw through the early ‘90s I did do more bodies. I was always more interested in the upper torso and head. I don’t know why but as the years went by I focused in on that area more and more.

So would you ever see yourself going in that direction at all? Would you ever branch out into bodies or women? And if so would you see this happening organically or would it be strategic and more of an intellectual choice?
Ideally, I would love it to be organic.

Do you feel any pressure to go in any directions?
So far no, if anything I feel it coming from my own end. I think to myself how I’ve done this masculinity and gangster thing and maybe it is time to move on. But I don’t feel this pressure from galleries or art collectors, which is great. I do feel that it can be stifling to only focus on certain areas continuously but I do get endless inspiration from it.

But in the grand scheme of things you haven’t been at it for that long have you?
That’s true, and because I’m not at all prolific due to the nature of the work. I don’t produce more than 10 pieces a year.

Do you do commercial jobs?
No, I used to.

That’s usually when the pressure comes in to move into other styles and subject matter.
Totally, I feel blessed.

What do you think of Tom Of Finland?
Well, I certainly appreciate it, I definitely see its influence. For me though it’s never been a massive inspiration. Technically his work is fantastic though.

Do you know G.B. Jones’ work? She basically did female versions of what Tom of Finland did. She became well known for doing these pencil drawings but transposed them onto dykes instead. Then she started to do her own scenarios not based on Tim of Finland’s. She did that for about 10 years and now she’s doing these gothic drawings of gothic buildings and churches. I found that really interesting because she did one thing for a really long time and eventually has moved into something completely unexpected. I could imagine you doing something like that in future. But the area that you're in is such a rich area you could see yourself doing it for a long time.
You’re right, I’ve been doing some photography on the side to satisfy some of my own personal fascinations and curiosities but I don’t know if that will ever find appreciation. I honestly don’t care though because I find it really fun.

What kind of camera do you use?
I’ve kind of given up on film cameras and I now use a Nikon SLR D5000 and D200. I’ve been making films, too, which I’ve had a lot of fun with.

What have you been shooting on video?
In my last show I showed a little one. When I would initially photograph the guys I’d make very short films too.

Well that adds another great dimension to your work.
It does, someone said it resembled a sort of sketchbook, which it does I guess. I’ve also been doing cheap and crappy sci-fi stuff, too. That stuff needs some work though. I used to work in Hollywood making miniatures and props, which is why I do it.

Which movies did you work on?
I worked on ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Dante’s Peak’. It was a great experience, I worked on ‘Godzilla’ too but I left that.

You left ‘Godzilla’?
I worked with this total psychopath, I have a feeling he was on crystal meth or something…I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone so horrible before. He would scream and yell at us. But he got stuff done so the bosses loved him.

I don’t want to get too much into your background but I was interested in hearing about how you are from a small town in Montana. I’m just curious because of the mutual interest in masculinity we both share, and I was wondering if there was a trigger in your experiences there that started everything off for you?
I wish I could say there was a definitive moment. I’ve always been somewhat of a voyeur and I quietly like watching what’s around me.

You are like me, I grew up on a farm, went to high school in a small town and had to live closeted. It was a part of our generation. It’s almost like you’re a voyeur by necessity. Were you bullied at school?
A little, I was a ‘Star Wars’ fan...

Well you deserved it!
Well I developed a great group of friends so those feelings disappeared after a while.

I was always hanging out with the girls with the worst reputations, probably because they were the most interesting and intelligent. They always had older boyfriends who were kind of hot, but not so interesting to hang out with. Nice to look at but not the best conversation!
Well it sounds like you got the best of both worlds!

Oh, I did! I was wondering if you are represented by a gallery?
I am. Here in Los Angeles I’m represented by Western Projects and in New York I’m represented by the gallery Ameringer McEnery Yohe.

Have you ever considered going to jails to find inspiration?
I’ve thought about it on several occasions. I think you can volunteer to be an art teacher at some prisons.

You know John Waters taught filmmaking in prisons for years. He always says when he showed ‘Pink Flamingos’ to murderers, they told him he was really sick!
That’s amazing! I have a contact up in Folsom Prison where, If I got permission, I could draw them on set or photograph them.

That would be so cool because it would be like rehabilitation for the prisoners.
Totally, it would be very challenging and frightening but an amazing experience.

The subjects must have certain things written in their faces.
I suppose the main problem for me in that situation would be that men behave totally differently when they’re around their friends or in a group. I usually target people when they are by themselves because they’re not trying to impress anyone and they seem more like themselves then. It tends to be a lot easier when capturing those vulnerable moments too.

Have you done actual homeless guys?
I have yes. This one guy I found recently is incredible, I’ve photographed him about three times now. You hear some really tragic stories, I would say a high percentage, maybe ever a quarter of the guys I find are on the streets.

Well there are so many people on the streets in LA now.
It’s crazy how many there are with this recession.

We tried to represent the recession in LA Zombie by using homeless people; we paid them obviously. That’s what’s always struck me in LA was that you would see these gorgeous, hot, ripped guys who really stink and are wearing filthy clothes on the streets.
I know, I think sometimes what a gift it is to be that handsome, which is disgusting of me because I’m objectifying them and I think to myself, ‘the world is yours! Get over whatever it is that’s keeping you like this!’ But it’s always 10 000 times more complex than that.

I wonder if it’s people who came to LA to exploit their looks or bodies and then ended up being exploited by the entertainment system. And whether they got into drugs or after years of rejection from the business they just ended up being spat out by the Hollywood system and found themselves in the bottom of the gutter.
That must exist. I have to believe that.

It’s like the drain at the bottom of the pool. It’s the most terrifying example of something like David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’. Did you see it? That scene where Laura Dern is on the Boulevard with some crackheads and she doesn’t even know where she is, or if she’s in a movie or if anything is real. It’s like the ultimate Hollywood nightmare.
I watched that film when I was getting over a fever and it was the most hallucinatory experience ever. It probably would have been pretty intense even if I hadn’t been ill too.

So, would you ever take someone as a subject who was well known? Like a celebrity or a politician?
I have absolutely no interest whatsoever. I have thought about it though.

Do you think there is a certain plasticity to that kind of subject because they are so used to being photographed and objectified that they turn on this kind of shield?
I suppose that is a turn off on some levels for me. I prefer photographing individuals who have never been approached before. I always ask them if they’ve done this kind of thing before and they never have. Sometimes I photograph these guys, and on the surface they look amazing, but sometimes for whatever reason I just can’t capture what’s really interesting about them. But then again, I can find some guys who are incredible and I capture what I want out of them straight away.

Have you ever drawn your friends?
Not so much drawings, but I photograph friends quite frequently. I have used a couple of friends and then drawn scars and tattoos over them, but that was earlier in my work.

Who are other artists who use photorealistic techniques that influenced you?
One guy I like is James Bama; his work is extraordinary. He does a lot of paintings too, which have a kind of Western and Native American theme. That theme doesn’t especially interest me but his technique is gorgeous. They are totally photo-real; he is a big inspiration.

Do you like older artists who do this? Like Norman Rockwell? Artists who captured something very specifically American. Do you see yourself as doing Americana?
I guess, in some ways. I’ve only shot Americans and some of the subject matter is uniquely American. I have this feeling that Americans have this insecurity issue.

In terms of their masculinity?
Exactly, there is always this feeling of having to prove oneself, a false bravado. There is this strain of violence in our history that is exemplified in the individuals I draw or for example in the military. I get this sense of overcompensation or insecurity that I don’t see in more sophisticated countries. I mean you may know more but I don’t seem to see that in Canada, I certainly don’t see it in Europe to that extent. I think those countries are so beyond that, they can’t be bothered. I would love to say, go to Afghanistan and photograph Taliban fighters, or got to Bosnia. I’d love to explore that, ultimately that’s what I’d love to end up doing. Ultimately I’d love to get out of the US and explore the same themes but in a very different context.

Do you know the Canadian artist Kent Monkman? He does very meticulous, labour-intensive drawings of Cowboys and Indians but with the Indians fucking the Cowboys. He’s native himself, well half. So they are very political, you should check them out.
I will!

Do you ever draw old people? Would that be a challenge?
No, it would be appealing, I’m a little wary of it only because I think that it’s perceived as…I don’t want to say clichéd, but for a lot of portrait artists, maybe I’ve seen a lot of it. Unless I found a specific group of people I found really interesting then maybe, yeah, I would. I do try to draw older males, that’s always rewarding and fun, there's more to grab onto.

Maybe too much in some ways?
I try to avoid that, I think I instinctively avoid anything too young or too old.

Can you imagine doing a plastic surgery series?
That would be amazing .

It would be challenging and fascinating, where would that emotion of the character go? Where would it be concentrated? Because all of that would have been shifted in some way. Or re-concentrated in different pockets.
The human face is so bizarre and interesting. That’s why I’d like to explore the subject of science-fiction in a way, like looking into plastic surgery or distortion. As a structure the face is such a strange construction. What are the certain specific details which makes this face so appealing or fascinating? It’s kind of like this weird strange assemblage of details.

I know that you're interested in scars and imperfections, but have you ever had a subject where it’s been too much? Where it interferes with what you're doing?
Yes, I’ve had to pull back on some of it because I didn’t think that people would believe it’s natural or not too overly affected. There have been some cases where I would love to push it way farther, but I’m not sure I’d pay my rent if I did.

It’s funny because Cliff, my collector, frequently says to me that other collectors would say that things would be too terrifying or too ugly to buy. But in fact he says that normally those are the things that people buy. The more fucked up, the more ugly, that’s what they want.

Anyway I should get going but it’s been fantastic to speak to you. On a side note I’ve got a set of photos I’d like to send you, I thought we could do some kind of trade.
That would be killer, I would love that. This has been a pleasure.

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