Hank Trout Talks to Curator & Archivist Anthony Cianciolo About Showcasing the Lost Art of Jerome Caja
Transgressive, blasphemous and reverential, humorous and horror-filled, unapologetically raw, sexual, purposely primitive, classically informed, wildly inventive, gruesomely violent, outrageous, overtly political, yet intimate and deeply personal. The art of Jerome Caja will make you laugh, challenge your assumptions about religion, make you cry, and most of all, make you think long and hard about love and sex, death and dying.
Jerome David Caja (pronounced “CHAYA”) was born into a Catholic family of eleven boys on January 20, 1958, in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned a BA at Cleveland State University in 1984; he then moved west and earned an MFA degree at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1986. Jerome became a prominent figure in the burgeoning underground radical queer art scene of the 1980s and ‘90s, featured in solo and group exhibitions as early as 1984. From his arrival in San Francisco until his death from AIDS-related causes in November 1995, Jerome created hundreds of paintings and performance pieces.
“Hundreds of paintings” does not mean “hundreds of canvases.” Jerome’s idea of a canvas
was broad and loose. Match boxes, old tin serving trays, metal business card holders, wooden planks, scraps of paper, bottle caps, crumpled cigarette packs and butts, Band-Aids, candy wrappers, tin can lids, even pistachio shells—all of these served as Jerome’s canvases. Although others encouraged Jerome to make larger pieces, he resisted; he wanted the pieces to be intimate, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. The materials he used to paint were also rather unusual: he used nail polish, glitter, make-up, and eyeliner (staples in any drag queen’s purse), as well as cremated ashes, Wite-Out, and his own HIV-positive blood, more than oils, charcoals, or other more typical materials.
Equally eclectic is Jerome’s use of well-known as well as self-created symbolic imagery. He created an entire cosmology filled with recurring images—of toasters (“the real world”), eggs (“new life”), bowls of fruit (“faggots [Jerome’s term] ascending to Heaven”), Venus (self-portraits), and black birds (death). Jerome was somewhat obsessed with “Lives of the Saints”; his religious iconography includes saints and sinners: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucy, Satan, imps, priests, cherubs, Bozo and other demented clowns, cannibalistic birds, pigs, and gay icons. And his images often reference Old Masters, Ingres and Goya prominent among them.
“FOUND: The Lost Art of Jerome Caja” is a “jewel box exhibition” of paintings, sculptures, photos, and reliquaries rarely seen since Jerome’s death in 1995. These “Little Lovelies” (Jerome’s term) are cozily nestled inside a free-standing alcove in the main Anglim/Trimble Gallery in San Francisco. The exhibition was curated by Anthony Cianciolo, the founding director of The Jerome Project and a fellow Ohioan. The Jerome Project is a non-profit organization that aims to bring recognition to Jerome as an important twentieth-century American artist, not just a controversial, marginalized, queer artist of the 1990s “AIDS, Art, and Activism” era in San Francisco.
“I met Jerome in 1990 at Club Uranus,” Mr. Cianciolo told A&U. “He was go-go dancing on top of the bar, or should I say flailing about like a tornado of trash. I could not take my eyes off of his skinny frame. He did not care about what people thought and he did not fit in or adhere to the mainstream gay scene at that time. Jerome was a welcome freak of nature. He radiated radical individualism and creativity. He was an odd bird and a beacon of light at a time when my queer community was at its lowest. Jerome’s public drag performances and antics made me laugh at a time when I had little to laugh about.
“It was his drag that drew me in, and it was not until many years later that I realized his brilliance as a master American painter. After his death in 1995 from complications related to HIV/AIDS, his star faded like so much of the countercultural art scene in San Francisco. It was the beginning of the dot.com era and artists, like me, were fleeing the city in droves. I began to curate exhibitions to reintroduce him back into the contemporary art narrative, to make sure that younger queers know this man’s brilliance.”
I recently had the privilege of a private viewing of the exhibition guided by Cianciolo and Michael Johnstone [A&U, March 2017], Jerome’s friend and sometime collaborator. Cianciolo began by explaining that the exhibition is “found” because many of the pieces have been scrounged, acquired for the exhibit from private collectors and friends of Jerome.
The first thing you see as you approach the alcove containing Jerome’s art is a two-feet-tall statue of The Virgin Bozo, the Virgin Mary with the face of Bozo the Clown. The image is shocking, intentionally blasphemous and disrespectful, and very funny—the perfect representation of Jerome’s disdain for his Catholic upbringing and the Church’s moralizing about AIDS. It is the largest piece in the exhibition but hardly the most shocking. Shroud of Curad is a portrait of Christ painted on the skin side of a Band-Aid, using a mixture of his own HIV-positive blood and eyeliner. Jerome used these “shroud” paintings as part of a three-night skag-drag “Passion of Christ” performance piece over Easter weekend in 1990 at three different clubs; at the end of the performance of the Resurrection at Club Screw, he ripped the Band-Aids off his “stigmata” and hurled them into the crowd. Jerome’s anti-religion attitude is also there in his paintings of demonic nuns and vulgar saints. Another piece features a rough nail-polish portrait of Christ on the cross, his arms spread wide; it’s called, I Love You This Much.
Another recurring image in Jerome’s work is fellow artist Charles Sexton. Sexton and Caja attended the San Francisco Art Institute together and became friends. Since both artists were living with HIV, they entered into a pact: whoever was the “Loser in Life” had to bequeath his ashes to the survivor to be used for art. Charles died first, in 1992. Jerome then spent two years mixing nail polish with Charles’ ashes and created a large body of artwork. Jerome gave many of these pieces to Charles’ family and friends as personal reliquaries.
One such piece is Charles Devouring Himself. After mixing nail polish and resin with some of Sexton’s cremated ashes, Jerome painted a portrait of Sexton eating a smaller version of himself, feet first, in the center of a round aluminum tray. The painting, which references Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, depicts Sexton in a sickly yellow green against a rough black background, eating his own bloody effigy. It’s a violent, disturbing image, only slightly softened by the wistful look in Sexton’s eyes.
Another piece in the exhibition, Untitled (Charley’s Ashtray), consists of an old round filigreed pewter ashtray containing some of Sexton’s ashes. In the cigarette rest, there is a cigarette butt with a white filter on which Jerome painted a tiny portrait of Sexton. It is a deceptively simple sculpture——an ashtray, ashes, a cigarette butt——but extremely powerful and moving upon closer examination. (A funny story, indicative of Jerome’s offbeat sense of humor. Michael Johnstone told me that he attended a party at Jerome’s apartment one night. Jerome began pointing out pieces of his art to the party goers. “This is The Virgin Bozo, and this is Venus in Cleveland, and THAT—” he said, pointing to the ashtray—“is Charley.”) In many ways, this sculpture is one of the “quintessentially Caja” pieces in the exhibit—the irreverent humor, the use of found objects (the ashtray, the cigarette butt), the somewhat creepy-but-loving use of Sexton’s ashes, the miniature portrait on the cigarette filter, and the unflinching look at death are all hallmarks of Jerome’s work.
I wish we could show you some of the more risqué, explicit images on display in this exhibition because they capture Jerome at his most irreverent and playful. One, entitled Goldilocks, depicts Jerome himself engaged in his favorite sexual fantasy with three bears. As for other pieces, well, with NSFW titles like Bozo F*cks Death, you’ll forgive us for not publishing them.
“Jerome will always be relevant,” said Cianciolo. “He resonates with outsiders and speaks the language of outsider artists, but he is an insider. He was classically trained, went to art school and graduated with an MFA. Jerome [made] powerful art that still challenges the viewer…to confront us about uncomfortable, taboo subjects…provoking and stimulating the viewer to explore their own narrow-mindedness around racism, sexism, and homophobia. Jerome was dismissed, excluded and marginalized in his life. So many of us experience that pain for reasons—the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, our class, our immigration status, or our personal beliefs. For these reasons, his art is as relevant today as the day he made it.”
Since 2021 marks the fortieth anniversary of the first reports of what became known as HIV/AIDS, this exhibition of Jerome Caja’s artwork takes on extra significance. It reminds us that, during the bleakest years of the pandemic, artists of the AIDS Generation fought back against the government that ignored us and the churches that condemned us. Necessarily resourceful with materials at hand, they created art despite their physical pain and emotional torment. And they did so with righteous anger and, often, macabre humor. Their art, especially Jerome Caja’s, not only speaks to us of suffering and resilience, it speaks for us of our own anguish and fears.
Furthering its mission of preserving Caja’s work, The Jerome Project is looking for personal photos, film clips, paintings, and most of all, stories related to Jerome and his art. If you knew Jerome or if you know of anybody who did, or if you ran in similar circles with him, please share your stories. If you would like to participate in this resurrection of Jerome Caja’s work, please contact Anthony Cianciolo at www.thejeromeproject.com/contact.html.
Anthony Cianciolo wishes to express his gratitude to the Anglim/Trimble Gallery (www.anglimtrimble.com) for the opportunity to mount this exhibition and the GLBT Historical Society (www.glbthistory.org) for allowing him to exhibit (for the first time) the Caja art in their archives. The exhibition, “FOUND: The Lost Art of Jerome Caja,” will run through June 26, 2021, at the Anglim/Trimble Gallery, 1275 Minnesota Street, San Francisco, CA 94107; 415-433-2710.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-one-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.