An ode to pre-pandemic nightlife and queer spaces, James Bartolacci returns with a new set of paintings
While continuing to craft his luminous scenes of partying, James has also turned his focus onto his friends’ bedrooms as a result of the pandemic.
- Ayla Angelos
- 4 June 2021
How do you dance again? What’s a club? And what does music even sound like if not played out of your headphones or home speakers? Helping relive the past days of nightlife – a time pre-pandemic – is James Bartolacci, an artist who’s currently opening his first UK solo show Life Without Night on 19 June at Taymour Grahne Projects.
James last graced our screens way back in 2017, which “feels like ages ago,” he tells It’s Nice That. Ever since, he’s left New York to attend graduate school in New Haven, CT, for painting, before moving back to the city post-graduation during the pandemic. Despite the global and seismic shifts offloading across the world, James’ subject matter has remained very much the same; he’s still crafting intricate and luminous scenes of queer nightlife, all of which is now heavily sprinkled with a more fluid and looser approach. “I’ve been focusing more on colour and atmosphere,” he adds. “I’ve always been a figurative painter, but I started to experiment with abstraction and other materials like pastels.”
Nightlife has remained a constant throughout the entirety of James’ practice, more specifically queer nightlight in New York City. Yet as things closed and the after hours were temporarily paused due to Covid-19, James not only had some momentous realisations, but he also turned his focus elsewhere. “This was something I thought a lot about during the pandemic, since nightlight was shut down. The absence of nightlight left a huge void in terms of socialising and connection, which felt significant to me,” he notes. “It showed how much I depended on nightlife to meet other queer people, artists and lovers, and how certain queer spaces fostered these connections. Also, many venues were in danger of closing permanently, so I felt a desire to make a sort of document through means of painting.”
Shifting gears, James started painting the scenes of his friends’ bedrooms, a steer away from the usual four walls of a club. And by doing so, he’s managed to evoke deeper sense of intimacy; a closer connection between both himself, his subject and with his medium. “I want my paintings to tell stories that are about the present,” he explains. “It used to be that I would go to a party and then make a painting about it, but I didn’t want my new work to feel only nostalgic for pre-pandemic partying. I wanted to expand the work beyond the dance floor.” His reasons for painting the bedroom arose naturally, having spent the majority of the past year in his very own. This particular space beholds many universal connotations, too, for it’s the space of rest, calm, individuality and intimacy. For James (and many), it’s where his nights begin and end, both in the context of getting ready and with coming home alone or in company of another.
While creating his latest pieces, James started off by asking each of his subjects to choose an outfit they’d usually wear to go out. Reminiscent of dressing up for the evening that awaits, James also wanted them to choose two colours for the lighting, “hoping to recreate the lighting conditions of nightclubs.” Besides giving the choice to his subjects as to how they wanted to present themselves and their environment, the main aim with this request was to make the setting as intimate as possible.
The Last Night, for example, sees James replicate the last party held at the Spectrum in Brooklyn before it closed down in 2019 – a piece that contrasts with his current pandemic bedroom scenes. There’s a large group of party-goers letting loose on a dance floor. A disco ball shines above, while the luminescent rays of greens, blues and pinks light up the moving bodies. Hugging, arms waving, closeness; these interactions feel so alien right now it’s hard to believe that a year ago this was the most ubiquitous thing to do. “It’s my favourite painting not only because it depicts my favourite queer venue and the joy of going out, but because it includes all the things I’m interested in and have been slowly finessing over time in painting – colour, lighting, fashion, community and architecture.” While creating this specific piece, James had called out to some people who were also at the party whom later shared some photographs from the evening. He then collaged these pieces on Photoshop and formed a new composition, while making up the figures entirely. “the intense colour saturation was created by slowly building up layers of thin oil glazing.”
While the world still grapples with the pandemic, nightlife is undeniably one of those that’s been hard hit. Even if James has more than enjoyed the Zoom parties on Club Quarantine – likened for the fact that he could meet people from across the world, not just those who live in big cities – it’s a place that has been (and still is) sorely missed, especially within the queer community. “My paintings come from my personal experiences and interactions, but I hope that they resonate most with those who participate in queer nightlife,” he adds. “I try to capture the range and complexity of these spaces rather than just a joyous night of fun. That’s important, but it’s not the only story to be told.”
James’s Life Without Night will be on show at Taymour Grahne Projects, London, from 19 June - 14 July 2020.
GalleryCopyright © James Bartolacci, 2021
James Bartolacci: Chris and David, 2021, Courtesy of the artist and Taymour Grahne Projects (Copyright © James Bartolacci, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.