Paul Peng at BOOM Concepts

“I knew, right off the bat, that if I openly associated myself with these people, even though I was really into what they were doing, everyone would drag me through the dirt for it.”

Paul Peng tells me this as we discuss his art practice while sitting in BOOM Concepts, where his solo exhibition BODY 2017 is on view. As he speaks about fears, finding his style and online communities, I can’t help but rest on quotes like these and recall my own experiences of coming out. I don’t outright identify with the furry-like boys he draws, (and neither does he) but I do relate to the feelings of otherness they evoke and the process of embracing that.

“My work definitely comes from the work on sites like DeviantArt in the mid 2000s,” says Peng.

“I’m specifically thinking about the closeted queer youth that found communities on this site through the furry, anime, and cartoon fandoms and how those sources combined into something really weird and indescribable.”

DeviantArt, touting itself as “the world’s largest online art community,” launched in 2000, and for many millennials and early Gen Zers, served as a place to upload and critique their first attempts at art making. Styles and themes began to emerge within the community leading to fan art of anime and cartoons, and anthropomorphic creatures called furries to define the artwork associated with the site.

“I wanted to be able to take myself seriously and consider myself an artist but at the same time, I’m liking all of this stuff,” Paul says in reflection. “Something had to give– this was the stuff that gave. I was still drawing it, but I wasn’t really associating myself with it. The closet, basically.”

In the 1990s, contemporary painter Elizabeth Peyton rose to commercial success for her depictions of soft-boy celebrities like Kurt Cobain, Leonardo DiCaprio, and later Justin Bieber. Copied from photos found in magazines, her blunt paint strokes clunkily crash down onto canvas to create paintings that draw similarities to fan art in their approach. Peng’s drawings evoke a similar sentiment, but instead of paint, he wields pen, ink, graphite, and charcoal. His imagery shares an equally fanatic gaze but his marks are precise and confident in the way a child might write their crush’s name over and over again in their notebook.

By recognizing and allowing himself to believe that his work truly is artwork, Peng reclaims fan art imagery and fully leans into it. Equal parts rebellion against art world standards and implementation of critical theory, his arsenal of figures, lines, and shapes now play out in endless combination.

In 2017 Body, Peng’s figures are swallowed up and spit out of murky clouds (or are they waves?) while in American Evening, an impressive dragon-humanoid creature appears to steam as he slinks into a Hockney-esque backyard swimming pool. In Peng’s blobby-er works, his shapes feel simultaneously like caverns, viscera, and greyed-out SMS text messages. These ideas of melting, merging, and unraveling can be seen in almost every work in BODY 2017 and get at a larger concept of coming into oneself.

If J. D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is a tale about coming-of-age, then Paul Peng’s “demon boys” live in a post-coming-of-age world. They have survived first crushes, high school/college melodramas, and awkward haircuts. Now sure of themselves in structure, they live out abstract and deconstructed narratives that are complicated to pin down and speak to the notion of navigating the world, not just surviving in it.

“I’m really aiming to make the furry and anime influences in my work–basically all of the stuff that I consider DeviantArt to be DeviantArt–feel incidental. It’s that way because it just happens to be that way. Like, you don’t question it. When you’re in a world of queer people, you don’t even take a second glance at, say, two women holding hands and kissing on the street in broad daylight. I think that’s the type of queerness that I want in my work. Something that forces the viewer to just go with it.”

2017 BODY closes Saturday, January 27th at BOOM Concepts (5139 Penn Ave) with a closing reception and drawing party from 6pm-12am. Facebook event. Once the show is down, you can follow Paul’s work at paulpengdotcom.com or on Instagram at @pppaulpeng.

This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.