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The Obscene Brilliance of Queer Thread Artist Sal Salandra

The 75-year-old retired hairdresser Sal Salandra makes large-scale, embroidered canvases—he calls them “thread paintings”—that are intricate, ambitious, subtly crafted, and inventively, incandescently filthy. Men fuck each other in every possible configuration; gagged and mummified men hang from cords; men bind each other with chains, they whip each other; disembodied hands flick cigar ash into drooling mouths. The accoutrements of a certain kind of gay male libidinal exuberance—bottles of poppers, Crisco cans—populate his scenes, as do icons of the gay sexual imagination: the leather daddy, the cowboy; characters from comic books: Superman, Batman, and Robin. And also, most provocatively and powerfully, figures from the Catholicism in which Salandra was raised: orgiastic priests and altar boys, devils and angels, Satan and the crucified Christ.

A consummate outsider artist invigorating a traditional medium with decidedly nontraditional subject matter, Salandra is entirely self-taught, without any formal training in art. Yet he’s quickly gaining acclaim: Inclusion in the January 2020 Outsider Art Fair in New York, just before the Covid lockdown, brought new attention to his work, and the past months have seen his paintings exhibited (sometimes in person, sometimes online) by the Folsom Street Fair, France’s Villa Noailles Hyères, the Tom of Finland Foundation, and galleries in New York, East Hampton, and Nashville.

“I’ll whip you beat you love you”Courtesy of Sal Salandra

I became aware of Salandra early in the pandemic, and his Instagram page quickly became one of my few reliable joys in lockdown. Earlier this month, he spoke with me about his life and work via FaceTime from outside his home in East Hampton, where he lives with his husband of 43 years. Salandra is handsome and energetic, and looks much younger than his age, with a full beard and handlebar mustache that frequently lifts with his smile. In photos on his Instagram page he often sports a leather jacket, but when we spoke he was in a T-shirt and jeans, a crucifix hanging from a thick chain at his neck. He began sewing in 1980, he told me, when a relative gave him a six-inch needlepoint set while he was bed-ridden with the flu. His subject matter was conventional at first—birds and flowers, elements that sometimes appear in his more transgressive work—but Salandra, who is dyslexic, found following patterns difficult and soon began working from his own designs. After Salandra sold a few of these works, a storeowner put in a request for erotic paintings; Salandra painted his first about a decade ago. The figuration in his early erotic paintings is gestural, a far cry from the intricacy of his more recent work. “The bodies didn’t really look so perfect,” he told me of those early paintings, “because I never took art. But people had the idea. And people started loving seeing these bodies. They knew what was going on.”


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