Aaron Zulpo, No Swimming After Dark, 2018, Oil on polyester canvas stretched over board, 46 x 36 inches

I wasn’t expecting to say this, but heterosexual coupling looks like it might be a lot of fun. At least that’s what I started to think after a recent visit to Aaron Zulpo’s show, Up & Up at 1969 Gallery in New York. The gallery had seven oil paintings accompanied by a selection of brilliantly colored and expressively rendered small-scale oil pastel drawings on paper, all dated 2018. Gallery goers were treated to views capturing the escapades of a man in love with a woman, the two of them romping across the various indoor or outdoor scenes, dressed or undressed, pictured at all hours of the day or night. Mountain climbing, exploring jungles, skinny-dipping, dancing at home, attending the opera, kissing at the aquarium, doing it in the hot tub. I was told the reappearing couple is in fact meant to portray the artist and his girlfriend. They do seem to have fun and I daresay they probably love each other.

The glowing, high-chroma color schemes and complex narrative structures craftily built into each composition lend credibility and substance to the romance. Zulpo knows how to put a convincing story together using paint-on-canvas or pastels-on-paper. I suspect he’s a big fan of sequential art in general, and of the comic book format. Playboy Magazine cartoons stood out in my mind as a possibly relevant influence, art by Buck Brown, Eldon Dedini, Doug Sneyd and the like, supported by studious appreciations for Balthus, James Bond, Paul Gaugin, Karen Kilimnik, and Jansson Stegner. Although apparent and somewhat rehearsed, these influences coalesce and vanish behind a set of strengths all his own, raising the stakes and evincing a distinct point of view. I believed what I was looking at. As in, the evidence of his happiness made me happy, and for that I was grateful.

Consider the medium sized canvas, No Swimming After Dark, a scene caught breaking the rules of its own title. Viewers play witness to a little midnight scandal on the grounds of a tropical island resort, as our naked heroes crouch hidden behind an enormous ornamental poolside boulder. They are hiding from the hotel security guard, who may or may not be about to catch the pair in the midst of an intimate dip after dark. The uniformed man wields his flashlight, the world’s most effective weapon against illicit public sex. Overhead, the navy blue nighttime sky is gently lit up by a friendly full moon as intense chartreuse light emanates from the glass-walled twelve-story hotel. Save for the partly cloudy sky and sea, the picture is all greens on greens on greens, trending across the spectrum from dark blue-green to hotter electrics, as close to yellow as you can get while still being green. Tensions arise via optical effect, i.e. hot versus cool, as well as by narrative conflict, i.e. narcs versus love. I found myself rooting for Aaron and his girlfriend because I hate cops, but also because I enjoy swimming with friends in the nude.

Aaron Zulpo, She is Always the First One In, 2018, Oil on canvas stretched over board, 30 x 28 inches

My favorite painting in the show featured quite another kind of skinny-dipping adventure. She is Always the First One In finds the pair enjoying a secluded mountain lake on a nice sunny day. A mansard-roofed hotel arises out of the distant evergreen forest, foreboding at the base of a snowcapped peak. Some kind of alpine ski resort, I’m sure, like the one in Kubrick’s The Shining. Aaron is totally nude save for the white shirt he’s pulling up over his head, shoulders, and elbows, flexed and standing on top of a boulder jutting up from the middle of the lake like the tip of an iceberg. Freshly exposed to the clean mountain air and the sunshine, his exultant pose echoes that of the Barberini Faun, but looks more like one of Eakins’s boys at The Swimming Hole. The girlfriend is already wet (hence the title), half submerged and gliding through the glassy pond like a Waterhouse nymph.

All this activity is extremely pleasant to spend time with, imagining how it would feel to swim in a hole like that with somebody you love, free from harassment by the authorities. But what really sets this thing off is Zulpo’s funky, sex-crazed compositional strategy, combining single-point and atmospheric perspectives together at once, the better to nestle himself and his girl into a wilderness organized by foreground, middle and background. A ridiculous tree trunk butts into Zulpo’s picture at left, running along top to bottom, with a skinnier branch near the top stretching diagonally up, cutting out and over toward center. This jarring interruption does more than just look stupid. I don’t think it’s stupid at all, obviously, but “dumb on purpose,” and to great effect.

The first thing to note is how the red hot bark of the tree slices the otherwise cool, tranquil scene into three disjointed, unequal pieces. Secondly, it draws the eye down to the immediate foreground, placing we voyeurs on land, near camp, and therefore separate from the two lovers at play. This leaves them necessarily alone and apart, safe from intrusion, in order that they may enjoy their romance more perfectly, or so it should seem.

Thirdly, the trunk and its branch form two sides of a triangle completed by the canvas’s top edge. Another, smaller triangle is formed by an even tinier branch sprouting up at center. This smaller triangle acts as an arrow pointing the viewer’s gaze back toward the picture’s interior, in the direction of Aaron’s naked body. Then you start noticing triangles everywhere, such as the area formed between mountain slopes, or the dozens of conical pine trees, or the narrow space between Aaron’s legs leading up to his crotch, met there in opposition by the abdominal V, the funneling shape of which sends my gaze right back down to his dick. Zulpo hides these triangular shapes within the composition to help move the eye around the natural swirl of the picture, always redirecting back toward his pendulant member, smack dab in the middle of his own damn painting.

I think this is hilarious in a naughty way but it might be ironic. Notice Aaron’s penis aimed in the direction of yet another triangular arrow. The rock upon which he stands is indeed a right triangle, its lower right corner pointing at the girl as she swims away from him. Why would she be doing that? Is she making an escape? Her right hand is raised and stretched out toward land. What if she’s actually the first one out, breaking the rules of this picture’s title? We may never know, but if she were to bolt, this would be the time to do it. He’s got his shirt up over his face, covering his eyes. If love is blind, so, also, at this precise moment, is Aaron. He’d never see it coming.

Sam McKinniss, Ellie Sattler, 2017, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

Sam McKinniss is an artist in New York. His work is part of “Cliche,” organized with Bill Powers, running June 20 to July 28 at Almine Rech Gallery, 39 East 78th Street, second floor, New York, alminerech.com. His work is also part of “Safe,” running June 21 to July 27 at Gladstone 64, 130 East 64th Street, New York, gladstone64.com.