I met Jack Early decades ago when he was part of the art duo Pruitt-Early. He split with Rob Pruitt who is an art star on his own and stopped making work but he’s been back in the last several years with some powerful new work. His latest show just opened at New York’s Fergus McCaffrey gallery. He was born in Raleigh, North Carolina and his current work goes back to the early days with a focus on his own storytelling. Early has an eye for icons, both old and new and a fascination with popular culture of his period. Most of the large scale works are painted on canvas that were silk screened with a reworking an old photo of his childhood bedroom. (He altered it slightly by have the toy soldiers hold hands.) There are photo-realist paintings of Popsicles, breakfast cereal, and gay porn with freestanding sculptures of family members and household objects, backed with the same wallpaper design on bean bags.
I had a chat with Jack about his early years and growing up gay in the south.
So, were you ever bullied in our out of school?
I was bullied once but not because I was gay but because I was cute. I tell it on my life story recording. But I was super-aware all the time as a kid that the bullying thing could happen. I was so aware of it in fact that I think I became a master of keeping it at bay. I knew what acting fem looked like and I was, or so I thought, super careful not to act that way. I don’t think people had great gaydar back then, even I didn’t really know what gay was.
I skipped school, smoked cigarettes, threw rocks, started fires – that gave me some clout as to not get bullied. I was never outed. I had friends on both sides of the fence, the really bright kids liked me but so did the tough bad kids.
Did your parents know…?
Well, I was very careful for my parents not to catch me watching ‘The Odd Couple’ and I tried to casually leave the room when Gay marches were on the news and my parents were watching TV. It made me a loner in a lot of ways. I’d rather be shut in my room, than have to hear a comment about gays… my dad had a book and there was a chapter about homosexuals sticking light bulbs up their asses. It was hateful really. I saw it mostly as gay porn but it was also traumatizing.
When did you have your first gay experience?
…I stole ‘Looking Good’ from the bookstore. I learned later Bruce Weber took the pics… it was like the fist thing I jerked off to. Funny, years later I dated one of the models.
My first sex was with girls. It was hard for me. So, I had sex for the first time with this weird guy that played the organ. I was like, 18, 19…
Anyway, I was grasping to know what gay was… I finally figured that the men that owned Flowers of Henry (a hometown florist) were. So, I had fantasies of them on the table that they made bouquets on.
I did have a crush on David LaChapelle. We were at NCSA high school together and I fell in love with him. He liked me too, but he was so worldly, even in high school. He had lived in New York. I didn’t even know what a bagel was.
So, no one called you fag?
I learned early on that people were nice, but if you got into it they could say some really awful things about gays and blacks. I knew that very well. We had a cook who was my second mother. She was a friend. We knew this truth together and we loved each other and looked after each other. She was black I was a gay boy. We had a unpoken understanding for each other and we knew we both were navigating in a world that was not really built for us.
Does she figure into this show in any work?
She gave me a lot of faith in how to love the people that just did not know any better. She is in my life story in the show…
I guess I meant visually…
Ha! She used to dish out the Popsicles!
Jack asked if I REALLY liked the show, and I said yes… do you know how I know? I was jealous –but in a good way. You can see more of Jack’s work here. The works are musically accompanied by a Victrola playing Early’s own performance of his autobiographical Jack Early’s Life Story in Just Under 20 Minutes, on SoundCloud here. Listen, it’s good. The work is on view at Fergus McCaffrey through April 9, 2016.
(Installation photos, courtesy Scott Rudd, Fergus McCaffrey)