In conversation: Paul James Kearney
Paul James Kearney discovered the darker side of the gay community in Brighton, where chemsex parties were enabled by smartphones and hookup apps. The artist observed people of all ages and professions partaking in chemsex, including educated and seemingly normal individuals. While not judging or vilifying drug users, the artist aims to raise awareness of the global epidemic of chemsex through their art, continuing the much-needed conversation about this issue.
Insights of an Eco Artist Team
11 de abril de 2023
When I moved to Brighton in 2017 I quickly discovered a darker side to the gay community. I experienced a disconnect, empty gay bars and clubs. Behind the veneer of jovial drag queens and Regency architecture lies a new way to party, enabled by smart phones and hookup apps such as Grindr and Scruff. G&T? I thought it meant gin and tonic, it means tina and gina, slang for the two primary drugs of choice for such events which are methamphetamine and Ghb. Ghb is the dangerous one as its so easy to overdose on, you can't mix it with alcohol and a millimetre is the difference between a good arousing buzz and a drug induced coma. I'm talking about what's known as chemsex, the combination of drugs and sex in a group that can last for days. To say this was a culture shock is an understatement.
It was and possibly still is to some degree seen as part of everyday life in some places, however its not just Brighton and I am in no way bashing Brighton its in every village and city in the UK, Dublin, Madrid, Melbourne, Rio, Berlin, no where is exempt in the developed world.
Living in the UK I met a lot of men of all ages who partook and invited me to parties in London and Brighton. From PhD students at Oxbridge to BA Pilots, GPs to Teachers, no one is exempt. Its hard o see very nice and educated people deteriorate in your friend or acquaintance group. I'm not judging or vilifying drug users, we all have our reasons and past traumas, nor am I glorifying it, I am simply observing it as an artist.
Chemsex, is a global epidemic of the developed world. I've seen too many incredible people vanish into the depths of addiction from this vicious cycle, they are worthy of beating it, they deserve so much more, and I'm delighted to say I know people living happy and fulfilled lives who are thankfully out of it. Its a very slippery slope and the inevitable outcome is death. I'm using this art to continue a much needed conversation about chemsex and I'm not the first artist to make art related to it, but here's my version. Be kind.
To begin, can you tell us about your background and studies, and what inspired you to become an artist?
I initially studied Biotechnology at the University of Galway, Ireland and I was very involved with the art society there. I decided in my third year to leave and go to Art College. I made some lifelong friends in Biotech who are doing extremely well in their careers. People (not my friends) thought I was unhinged leaving a degree with such solid career prospects. I’m not motivated by money; I’m motivated by culture. In 2010 I started a BFA in Fine Art Painting at Atlantic Technological University, Galway and finished it in 2014. After that I went straight into an MA in Arts Policy and Practice again at the University of Galway and completed that in 2015, I thought I wanted to be a curator, I really didn’t mind what I ended up in as long as I was dealing with art in my career on a daily basis. During my masters I made a series of paintings for a gallery in Cologne, Germany and it was in making that art I realised I’m going to stick with making it as I was happiest doing that.
What led you to focus your art on the topic of chemsex and its impact on the LGBTQ+ community?
It happened naturally, it's in any urban area of the developed world really. It’s a dark topic and somewhat controversial but it’s the truth. The role of an artist is to reflect the world in which they live, and unfortunately sometimes that world has darker undertones. To answer your question more succinctly it’s the prevalence of chemsex that makes it noteworthy.
How do you hope your art will contribute to the ongoing conversation around chemsex and drug addiction?
By removing the stigma from it. It's not all freaks and fiends who use drugs, it's just normal people in normal jobs. For example, a recent study found Antwerp and London to be the cities with the highest consumers of cocaine in Europe, cocaine traces have even been found in the Houses of Parliament. I’m hoping my art leads to meaningful, socially engaged conversations about drug use and more importantly honest conversations about it.
One of your submitted drawings is entitled An Evening in Madrid. Can you describe the creative process behind this artwork?
I had a wealth of photo material for creating chemsex art when I lived in London on my iPhone, unfortunately on a night out I left my phone in a black cab and before I had realised it was missing, he was gone, this particular part of the series is from a friends private videos who was involved with chemsex in Madrid, with his permission and the consent of all involved I made art from stills I found to have a nice composition to them. Phone in my left hand looking at the still and my right-hand scribbling away on the iPad while mixing a complimentary colour palate I made that work in a short amount of time. It is in my opinion one of the better ones, you must make a lot of bad art to make good art as an artist. I think it's fitting I am using digital media to make this work as it's reflective of the platforms that make chemsex possible.
What challenges have you faced as an artist exploring such a sensitive and potentially controversial topic?
Yet to be seen. I have not exhibited these works publicly yet and have been hesitant about doing so for obvious reasons. I have sold a number already to private collectors in London and Dublin, I do expect a lot of criticism however from the gay community but the reception so far in private has been surprisingly good with a lot of interest from collectors. I’m hoping to exhibit 3 of them in Brighton this summer so we shall see how they are received by the public. The challenges in the research stage were there, it’s a potentially dangerous situation to be in being present at a chemsex party. When I was invited to these events I was never told “I’m taking you to a chemsex party” I was simply told “Let’s go to this after party” which I happily went to naïvely.
You have your work in several private collections. What can you tell us about these partnerships? And what advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
Where to start? I’ve works in Leipzig, Bonn, Cologne, Geneva, New York, Vienna, London, Paris and I’ll stop there, I could go on a bit. A lot of these patrons are repeat buyers and I’d say it's important to establish good professional relationships with your patrons. If someone is spending thousands on your work it’s a nice gesture to treat them to lunch or at least a drink. Good patrons will follow your career and generally are highly educated in contemporary art. You can learn so much from them. As regards starting out for an artist I would say the most important thing is to have fun when you make the art, this always comes across for me in art, it should be an enjoyable experience not a frustrating one and if it is keep at it until it’s fun again. I would also advise to look at what platforms you have locally, cafes and restaurants are a good place to start showcasing your work. Also, perseverance is paramount.
How do you balance the need to raise awareness about the dangers of chemsex with the desire to avoid glorifying or glamourizing drug use in any way?
I don’t believe I balance it in the sense that I only portray the action of it and not the after effects, simply because this is the portion of the process I have observed and it wouldn’t be appropriate to make fake observations. I recall in Brighton meeting a guy by chance on the street I met at a chemsex party who evidently had cirrhosis. It was very sad, he had once been a journalist with a very promising career, educated with a typical well-spoken English accent . I don’t think he ever got out of the chemsex circuit alive as this was back in 2018 and he had deteriorated very quickly. When you’re doing that every weekend or in some cases every night it really ages you quickly and causes a myriad of health problems both physical and mental. When I met, let's call him Jay for anonymity, I was more concerned about getting him the appropriate help than making art of him. We all know addiction can lead to untimely ends.
As regards glamorizing drug use, I think there already exists a lot of art that does. In terms of my own art, I try to find the visual beauty within the chaos of the chemsex world. I’m interested in colour and composition primarily and I aim to make art that is both thought provoking and beautiful. I want it to be suggestive rather than explicit.
Are there other social issues or topics that you hope to address in your art in the future?
I’ll probably continue to make art on the theme of addiction. I’ve made artwork on the theme of climate change in the sense that a lot of my work depicts man's attempted dominance over nature which is a common theme in a lot of art, but I portray it in my own style. I see a lot of wealth inequality in my life so perhaps I could make art about that, but I haven’t had a good enough concept to actually make art about that yet.
How has your experience living in Brighton and witnessing the culture of chemsex influenced your broader perspective on the LGBTQ+ community and its struggles?
I loved it, I lived in a Regency townhouse a stone’s throw from the beach. As regards the chemsex scene I wanted to do everything I could to help them. I met a straight blonde nineteen-year old female fashion model at a chemsex party in Brighton. She was and still is extremely beautiful and kind. She got out of the chemsex scene fortunately and I’ve kept in touch with her and sent her books to read and I always say to her if you can’t concentrate on the book, you’re doing too many drugs. She is now a Neuroscience student and I’m very proud of her. I feel that a lot of gay men are lonely and chemsex offers an intense social lubricant that pulls down mental social barriers. England still has a class system, and some people ask what school you went to like it matters, what they are really asking is were your parents wealthy enough to send you to a private school which is always a red flag for me.
Chemsex is not a Brighton Issue, it's everywhere, I just happened to live in Brighton and witnessed it, I lived in London and witnessed it, I’ve been to Dublin and witnessed it. I believe empathy is the way forward, people don’t use drugs like that unless they are running away from dealing with a trauma on a serious level. I’m no expert but my intuition tells me there’s something more to it than frivolous fun.
Lastly, what message would you like to leave for our readers?
I hope you enjoyed the interview and if you have been affected by it there are a number of help support for people dealing with chemsex related issues in Ireland and the UK, no one is here to judge you.
Cover Image :
An Evening in Chelsea | 2019 | by Paul James Kearney. Image courtesy of Paul James Kearney.
2015 MA Arts Policy and Practice, National University of Galway, IE
2014 BFA Painting Creative Centre for Media and Arts, Galway, IE
Selected Solo Shows
2015 “Another View”, Renzo Gallery, Galway, IE
2015 “The Races II”, Galerie Iliev, Köln, DE
2014 “The Races”, The Cow Shed, Farmleigh House, Dublin, IE
Selected Group Shows
2023 “Cityscape-City Life”, Cista Arts, London, UK
2022 “Straight Out of Ireland”, The Irish Diaspora Centre, Philadelphia, US
2022 “Open Art”, Art Number 23, Athens, GR
2022 “Open Art”, Art Number 23, Barcelona, ES
2019 “Untitled [landscape]”, Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre, Limavady, NI
2019 “Untitled [landscape]”, The Luan Gallery, Athlone, IE
2018 “Untitled [landscape]”, Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin, IE
2018 “Untitled [landscape]”, The Bridewell Centre, Magherafelt, NI
2018 “Somewhere Between Perception and Reality”, Olivier Cornet Gallery, Dublin, IE
2018 “Nostalgia”, Misc. Arts Centre, Timisoara, RO
2018 “Brainchild” Revolve Gallery, Asheville, NC, US
2017 “Brainchild” Gallery 126, Galway, IE
2017 “The Knack and How to Get It”, Olivier Cornet Gallery, Dublin, IE
2017 “2°C”, Olivier Cornet Gallery, Dublin, IE
2016 Hennessey Portrait Prize, National Gallery Ireland, Dublin, IE
2014 “Spring Equinox” Greenpoint Gallery, Brooklyn, US
2017 Olivier Cornet Gallery, VUE, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, IE
2018 Olivier Cornet Gallery, VUE, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, IE
The Office of Public Works, Irish State Art Collection, Dublin, IE
Flazathores Conseil, Paris, FR
The National University of Ireland, Galway, IE
Villanova University, Philadelphia, US
101 Contemporary Artists, Collect Art Gallery, Tbilisi, GA 2023