receiving an invitation to view an exhibit by Utah artist Randall Lake,
my curiosity was immediately aroused. The invitation from the Art Access
Gallery featured a painting by Lake titled “Weimer Berlin.”
It showed a very sad man dressed like a cabaret performer, sitting on
a barrel with images of Hitler, a German soldier and a war leader painted
in green shadows in the background. I had no idea what this painting represented,
but I had to see more.
As soon as I walked through the door, I knew that this was not going to
be an ordinary exhibit. The paintings were different and intense. Many
of the paintings address experiences that Lake has had living as a gay
man. The emotions seeped from the paintings adorning the walls of the
gallery. The air was thick with meaning. Meeting Lake in person was the
only way that I could satisfy my curiosity of the origin of these emotions.
The RED Interview
I met with Lake in the comfort of his elaborately decorated home. Two
big, brindle-colored dogs were near an enthusiastic artist who was talking
with his daughter about the portrait he was producing featuring his cute
granddaughter. The feeling was a bit chaotic as the dogs were excited
to receive company and his adorable grandson was showing off his new monster
truck by crashing it into my arm. I didn’t know what to expect,
I had hardly been able to greet Lake, but I could sense that this was
not going to be an average interview.
When his family left, the air got quiet, though he was a bundle of nervous
energy. After lighting a number of white candles, he brought out a notebook,
made himself a drink and sat down with some cigarettes, “I’m
going to open this door so that you don’t die of second-hand smoke,”
he casually told me. And thus it began, my two-hour journey into the life
of Randall Lake, an exceptional artist with a story to tell that explains
the passion, grief and drama of his exhibit. The journey was like nothing
I have experienced before, and is one in which I only hope I may have
the honor experiencing again…
It started out as any story would, “I grew up in Orange County,
California,” Lake said. “I have lived in Utah since 1973.
Alvin Gittins taught me the style that earns my living. My goal is Paris."
The information was basic and useful, yet I knew that there was more coming.
After giving me his background, he easily transitioned into the story
of his personal life, one that has been filled with pain, but has taught
him many lessons, and explains his art perfectly.
Randall told me that he has always been gay, but growing up in Orange
County during the ’50s, coming out was something that he could not
imagine doing. So he lived his life trying desperately to be someone he
wasn’t. It was while living in France that Randall was introduced
to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints religion. He read a
book by an LDS prophet, and it inspired him. He felt that he might be
able to find happiness within a straight lifestyle.
Randall Lake joined the LDS church and married a woman with whom he had
five children. Although he loved his family and religion immensely, he
could not escape the fact that he was not a heterosexual man. Randall
said, “My father and Gittins had to die before I could come out.”
The deaths of his father and Gittins occurred in 1981, but the suicide
of a lover with whom he had an affair was what finally inspired him to
come out to everyone.
Family and members of his religion who chose to believe that Lake’s
lover could not have possibly really been gay ignored the reason behind
his lover’s suicide. This infuriated Lake and he knew then that
he must tell people the truth behind the man’s suicide. After informing
LDS Church leaders and his family of the affair, Lake felt that he needed
to leave the church. He loved his children and his wife, but he could
not live a lie any longer. Though he attempted to vindicate the suicide
of this man, he could not escape the effect the death had on him.
Randall spent a few weeks getting help from appropriate psychiatric figures,
but his feelings and discomfort of who he was would not leave him. He
had spent his whole life being well behaved to compensate for being gay.
In response to learning that he was gay, Randall’s wife replied,
“I would rather you were dead than shame the children.” This
comment led to Randall’s attempted suicide. After his failed attempt,
he found relief in the comfort of therapist Noemi Mattis, who is the inspirational
voice behind his exhibit. Mattis told Randall that he “…would
be a better father gay than dead.” She also called him on the paintings
that he had produced.
The artist has always painted landscapes and still life portraits so that
he might be able to provide for his wife and children. Wanting to be well-behaved,
he felt it was impossible to paint what he truly felt. Mattis inspired
him to paint what he felt by telling him that art is an intrinsic beauty
and that it was time he painted what was inside of him— the grief
and the rage.
The therapeutic advice has led to a series of remarkable paintings filled
with emotion and meaning. Randall credits all of his productions to Mattis,
who awoke in him the desire and ability to paint what had been festering
inside his mind for so long. Thus we come to the exhibit titled, “In
the Blue: 17 Years of Unfashionable Art, the Personal Paintings of Randall
Lake.” Lake refers to these paintings as his “blue”
paintings because they are representations of so many emotions that he
has dealt with throughout the course of his life. They are ones in which
he has sought solace and had not intended to show in Salt Lake City.
The ability to paint his emotions allows him to take out his anger on
individuals who have effected him and the gay community in negative ways.
One painting in the exhibit titled, “St. Jude and the Martyrdom
of Medusa” features his partner dressed in elegant robes holding
the head of Utah moralist Gail Ruzicka, head of the Utah chapter of the
conservative watchdog organization The Eagle Forum. Lake disagrees with
the dominating woman’s elaborate and ridiculous means of protest.
Her protests against the protection of gays in the workplace bother Lake,
as does her anger over the distribution of condoms during the 2002 Winter
Lake represented his frustration toward Ruzicka through an image of Medusa.
The irony of the painting is that the gay man is portrayed as St. Jude,
who is the patron saint of lost causes. Not only does this painting reflect
anger toward Ruzicka, but it makes for a very powerful political message,
revealing that Lake hopes that gays will one day be treated as equals
and not be bombarded by the tyrannies of over-zealous, so-called "moralists"
Other paintings in the exhibit feature gay men dying of AIDS. Randall
has had the painful experience of losing many loved ones to both AIDS
and suicide. The emotions felt through the loss of friends who suffered
from AIDS is expressed through a number of his paintings. Randall said
that he had spent years trying to find someone who would model for the
painting, but nearly every gay man he had known who suffered from AIDS
was unwilling to pose as a figure affected by the virus. Randall finally
resorted to a man suffering from stomach cancer to pose as one suffering
from AIDS. The paintings are powerful and saddening, but as Randall is
a realist, they are true.
The gallery is filled with emotionally stirring paintings produced by
Lake. Each and every one has a remarkable story to it. Some works express
his feelings toward his ex-wife, who he maintains a close friendship with.
Some portray his feelings toward being gay in a religion such as the LDS
religion. Though he feels it is impossible to be LDS and gay, he holds
no resentment toward the Mormon religion and believes strongly in many
of its values. Other paintings reveal the domestic lifestyle of gay couples.
Through his paintings, Randall wishes to expose the lifestyle of many
gay men who are invisible to our society, overshadowed by the stereotype
of a gay man concerned only with drugs and sex. The domestic paintings
are calm and peaceful, and prove that the gay lifestyle is not always
what the stereotype promotes.
The exhibit is remarkable. The various paintings incorporate different
styles, some being smooth and concise, others more impressionistic and
rough. Colors range from vibrant and bold to quiet and dark. There are
so many messages within this exhibit that they all seem to be bouncing
off one another, exerting much energy from the viewer in simply admiring
the pieces. The exhibit is emotional, but well worth visiting. The stories
behind the pieces are often sad and hard to hear, but it is through his
hardships that Randall Lake has created masterpieces. The story of a life
lived well is reflected in the art of an individual who wanted nothing
more than to be accepted and happy. The art is amazing, the atmosphere
is electrifying and the autobiographical representations of Randall Lake
will leave impressions in your mind for a long time to come.