Paul DeRuvo | critical queer moments
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 3 july 2019
“Within the defiant halo of an embrace, there can exist a tenderness so powerful and so vital it overwhelms the coded markers of otherness around us.” —Paul DeRuvo
If you woke up tomorrow and you were the last person on earth, how would you dress? Would it still be important to you to have long hair or short hair? To paint your nails? To wear lipstick? To not wear lipstick? To shave your beard, pits, pubs, legs, or chest? Would you simply buzz your head as not to worry about washing it anymore? If giving up all sense of self presentation is difficult to fathom even if there was no one else to see it, hold on to that thought, and tuck it away in your mind while you read this. It is an intuitive door into why gender fluidity must be accepted, respected, and loved. It is why the world needs to be, above all, safe for all gender (or lack thereof) expressions. This call to present ourselves to the world in a way that feels true is innate within us, it is not something we choose and yet how we style ourselves to show up in this world is a collection of critical moments made of choices in haircuts, closets, and adornments. It is these critical moments that Paul DeRuvo captures in their personal practice. However, how they acquired the interest and skill to capture them so gracefully is a story in and of itself.
DeRuvo is a non-binary printmaker working in Norwalk, Connecticut, as a collaborative printer and studio manager at the Center for Contemporary Printmaking. While they have been at CCP for going on five years in this professional capacity, their connection to the place goes back much further. Norwalk is Paul’s hometown and they grew up within a family of artists. Their mother is a preschool teacher and their father a darkroom photographer. DeRuvo had always been a maker, but had struggled to transform their ideas into two-dimensional forms. So they developed a practice as a young artist of bending wire to create flat metal sculptures, brushing the wire with ink and running it through a spring mount low pressure press in their father’s studio.
They grew up in Norwalk attending a school focused on Japanese studies, and one day their grandmother saw a listing in the newspaper for an exhibition at CCP of the mokuhanga woodcuts of Randi Bull and brought the young DeRuvo along. DeRuvo thought they were going to an art gallery, which they were, but CCP is so much more. CCP has seven intaglio presses, one lithographic press, a Vandercook press, a hydraulic press, an acid room, silkscreen facilities, a paper mill, a metal shear, an exposure table for photo-plate making, and a complete digital studio. DeRuvo who had up until that point been working with the aforementioned little press, was immediately and deeply drawn to the print studio and at only fourteen years of age told the staff of CCP, “Look, I’m just going to keep coming here, so you might as well put a broom in my hand.”
They began working at CCP knowing that going above and beyond would get them noticed. “If I was going to sweep the floor, I was going to make sure that I got every corner,” they said of their time there. This diligence is still with them today. When I sat down with them to record our chat for the podcast, they had covered the windows of the room they were sitting in with blankets to dampen the noise of the road outside. I mean, who does that?
So the young printmaker began their journey, and as planned DeRuvo’s dedication and diligence did not go unnoticed. They quickly became a part of the print shop community soaking up all the knowledge they could, and there was plenty to go around. At the time the master printer at CCP was Anthony Kirk, who had worked with Ken Tyler at Tyler Graphics, so DeRuvo’s first introduction to printmaking was at the high level to which printing can be done. Tyler to Kirk to DeRuvo is not a bad pedigree with which to start one’s printmaking career.
DeRuvo’s current work is a mixture of precise and reverent draftsmanship used to capture, almost documentary-like moments from their lives. Their father’s black and white photography always had a very formal look to it, which DeRuvo readily sees has influenced their work. With an observational eye, DeRuvo is constantly documenting the world around them, using their iphone camera as a digital sketchbook and building up an 80,000 or more archive of images. “Someone shows a side of themselves in a 16th of a second that you don’t see in a longer sitting,” they said. A seated portrait is made up of thousands of moments and countless decisions by the artist. Using their iphone camera they are able to make their documentation as unintrusive as possible. Their subjects, like most all of us, are acclimatized to the omnipresence of phones in their companions’ hands. DeRuvo’s documentary style takes advantage of this and it allows them to capture their subjects at their most candid. “Henri Cartier-Bresson talks about the decisive moment. There is a split second that if you’re looking for it, and if you stay sensitive and open, you’ll capture really honest moments. You need to make yourself a little bit invisible as an observer, as to not overpower those moments,” says DeRuvo.
Their subjects are their friends, lovers, and chosen family within the queer community. DeRuvo was interested in documenting the moments between these important people in their life, but wanted to do so with the kind of devotion and respect one might see in a portrait of a seventeenth-century aristocrat. They wanted to see that level of craft and care applied to the subject of queer bodies. By taking these snapshots of critical queer moments, transforming them through formal drawing and the intaglio process, DeRuvo knows that the viewer is going to approach the images in an entirely different way than they would the original photograph. Beyond this, DeRuvo is also interested in seeing a broader range of representation in queer art.
“Work that establishes itself visually as anti-establishment often rejects elements that are academic, and there’s a lot to be said for that, but I wasn’t seeing the range that is available represented. I wanted to see queer bodies represented with academic training and the reverence that goes along with it.”
DeRuvo received their BFA from The University of Massachusetts School of Art and Design, and while that was a time of growth for them, they found, as most young contemporary artists find, that they did not receive the intensive formal training in drawing that they would need to enact this vision. So DeRuvo enrolled in six months of instruction at the Academy of Realist Art in Boston, and while there learned how to draw in the way of the old masters. The instruction took the students back to the beginning of how to draw, even down to the way they sharpen their pencils. DeRuvo recalls working with aa pencil with a delicate six inches of exposed lead. They describe silent studios full of sketching artists and the tell tale pin drop sound of someone pressing too hard and inevitably breaking their lead. Everyone in the room would be silently grateful that it wasn’t them with 10 minutes of sharpening in front of them. At the academy, the students worked at a completely different pace than in college, DeRuvo once spent fourteen weeks on one figure pose. Starting with the lightest spidery lines and making the marks heavier as they became more confident in their placement. All of this training was given with the idea that these were preparatory drawings for oil paintings, but as a printmaker, DeRuvo was able to take out of it what they needed for their own practice.
In DeRuvo’s intaglio piece Ritual they used etching, aquatint and drypoint to capture a critical moment of queer life. A bit of a departure from most of their work because DeRuvo appears in the composition. Ritual captures the artist standing over their kneeling friend Webster in the moment before DeRuvo anoints Webster with lipstick. DeRuvo’s figure is lit from behind with their face cast in shadow, while Webster looks up, hands open, eyes closed, in a pose of perfect surrender and trust. It’s a moment that lasts 16th of a second, but it sums up so much about queerness, the community, and the chosen elements of the way one presents in the world.
“Queer people don’t have that roadmap so everything is intentional: how many partners you have, what you call them, who you’re committed to in what ways, how you look, how you present yourself, all of these are things we don’t have a roadmap for. So we’re kind of making it up as we go.”
Generally speaking, if someone is assigned male at birth they are going to grow up without exposure to the intergenerational knowledge of sisterhood. The bonding rituals of adornment which are a part of the lived experience of women from the youngest of ages. The details of adornment are critical to fem identity, so people who start to make steps to present this in their twenties or later can feel like they’re ten years or more behind. They rely on each other to share information and skills. DeRuvo refers to the Ritual as a scene of “a queer baptismal.” The two were getting ready to go out for the evening, and Webster turned to DeRuvo and asked if they would put lipstick on him. Webster floated down on one knee -waiting for the adornment. It was a moment of, ritual, community, love, and safety rendered with delicacy and love.
A few years ago DeRuvo’s work focused on the process of the coming out and transitioning of one of their partners. DeRuvo saw this process as made up of lots of little steps, some more crucial than others, that combined into the journey of their partner’s fully formed trans identity. DeRuvo’s piece called Buzzing is a silk aquatint featuring the contortions their partner was going through to buzz the back of his head while leaning over a sink. Hair has an immense amount of charge as a gender identifier, and DeRuvo knows first hand the struggle to get what they want, a haircut that reflects who they are. DeRuvo remembers the consistent disappointment in barber shops, an often male dominated space, to convince the barber to leave the little pixie-like curls in front of their ears when they had short hair. It is exactly details such as these that are read in intensely gendered ways, and are therefore crucial for showing up in the world how they wanted to. While these moments of identity creation are captured in a trans context throughout DeRuvo’s work, the moments are an experience shared by everyone. A viewer may be able to connect in a split second with desire, intimacy, or longing in an image before they decode the queer elements of DeRuvo’s art, because the viewer has had the same experiences as the subject. Even if the queer details are something that no one has seen in visual art before.
“Whenever I come across an image I haven’t seen before in our visually saturated world, I know there must be a reason, social pressure as to why that hasn’t come across my gaze yet. Down to the facebook algorithms that sensor with some binary idea of what is a female presenting nipple. It’s ridiculous, it is a nipple, it doesn’t have gender identity. In a very real and very programed way we limit the types of images we are able to see, and visual artists have a way to push back against that because our life is the images we make.”
Above all, however, these are images of intimacy and tenderness. “Intimacy is political and sharing our personal lives is political and there is never going to be a point where talking about those stories is going to become less necessary,” says DeRuvo. For them, tenderness is an act of resistance, and it is important to celebrate the powerful and delicate love between two vulnerable people. They say, “You find it in mothership, sisterhood and the way that people protect each other. The way people work through some of the most difficult things imaginable together with so much care and so much tenderness. The people who you think of as the strongest in your life are those that have been able to do that and not become bitter. When you encounter bitterness that is also an expression of having been through something. That’s when you realize that tenderness is something fragile and worth protecting.”
There is nothing more magnetic than someone showing up in the world completely themselves. When I first saw DeRuvo, I didn’t know them, but I instantly wanted to. With their formal dress highlighted by high collared necks of black on graphically patterned tops, wire rim glass, and the ever present pop of a red rosebud mouth they are striking and beautiful but it is more than that. DeRuvo has the ease of someone comfortable in their own skin. They hold that space with all the strength that it takes to do so, but also with the strength required to protect that fragile tenderness. This mix of tenacity and tenderness fills their work, and allows it to be simultaneously a protest, a rebellion, and a love song.