Arts & Culture » Visual Art

In Narratives, Samuel Paden Explores Sexuality, Politics and the Male Form


Samuel Paden's upbringing and identity are deeply intertwined with his work, particularly in his latest exhibit, Narratives, a collection of mixed-media collages in bubblegum-bright colors that will be on display at the Boise State University Student Union Fine Arts Gallery through Feb. 9. By overlapping images of nude male bodies and then partially obscuring them with colorful paint, Paden explores the male form, concealing and revealing it in equal measure.

Paden was raised in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and growing up as a gay man under the censure of a dictatorship largely informed his art. Narratives stemmed from some of his early rebellious work, a series of collages in which he altered Thomas Kinkade paintings—which he considered the epitome of heteronormative, whitewashed art—by adding unexpected elements to the idyllic pastoral scenes, including what he described as "gay porn stars popping their heads out of cottages" or "George Bush surrounded by male models from Playgirl magazine."

Narratives isn't as obviously political, but it is intended to raise similar mixed emotions and questions in viewers about societal right and wrong. While some of the figures on display in Narratives are sourced from pop culture magazines and casually posed, others were cut from gay porn and are obviously suggestive. Boise State University Art Curator Fonda Portales said this interrogatory bent was one of the reasons the Boise State panel selected Paden's work.

"His work is specifically about his experience as an open gay artist, but I think the ideas can be pretty universal...We are all quite influenced by the images we see, and they inform what we think our identities are supposed to be," she said. "So if we're at odds with what that cultural information is, how does that help us form or how does that hinder our formation of identity?"

Paden, who is now based in Garden City, said his work gets mixed reactions, but he's often pleasantly surprised by how open-minded people are about it. Once, an older woman considering a piece featuring lime green and hot pink nude figures, told Paden his style was "like Matisse and Hieronymus Bosch had a child"—a comment far from the critique he'd expected.

Inspired by Paden's work, Boise State is hosting a speaker series called Civil Discourse on Identity and Art, which began Jan. 11 with a talk by Paden and will continue Wednesday, Jan. 24 with the panel "Signs of Identity: Constructing Selves with Images and Text" and Wednesday, Feb. 7, with the discussion "Speaking as (Significant) Other."