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Paul Buijs: Passionately Opposing Gays Who Are Too Normal

by Gert Hekma in Media & entertainment , 14 februari 2012

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

During the Canal Parade there was an exhibition at three different locations with art by men and women showing different sexual or gender lives: transgender, gay, lesbian, kinky, public sex. These exhibitions also contained ceramics and drawings by the upcoming artist Paul Buijs (1982). The artist was present at the opening and showed something completely different to those who were interested.

These were books with photos of “Sex On Sunday” (SOS) in the Argos bar and of Deleyla, a she-male who offers sexual services to men, more often than not with an ethnic minority background, and curious about kinky sex. The photos from the SOS are particularly explicit. Raw images from usually dark cellars now lit up brightly. Details of bodies that would otherwise be totally invisible now jump out immediately; no shying away from the filth of the darkrooms afterwards. Rubbish, empty bottles, used condoms.

The owl of the Argos has a thick layer of dust. First impression is that the place just needs a thorough cleaning, but the bare walls, the filth and the rubble actually create just the right horny atmosphere necessary for sex parties. It’s not a place for perfume, crisp clothes or beautiful bodies.

The bright light however, turns the rooms into something totally different: it shows a shady underworld where certain kinds of sex thrive, but lit up the tension and horniness disappear. What remains is a cold scene.

There are also photos of still lives in the book, of the owl and of raisin bread sandwiches served at the SOS, of the flower arrangements and the dressing table of Deleyla. The table with her wigs is littered with the telephone numbers of her customers paired with their favorite hairpiece. The mix of things and people lend the book a special charm.

This world is the source of Paul Buijs’ inspiration. That’s what his characteristic work is about. By accident and fortune, but mainly because he is an inquisitive little queen, he stumbled upon this world.

While a lot of young gays nowadays shy away from the exclusively gay scene and are repulsed by “prejudice confirming” behavior, like effeminacy and overt sexuality, he’s really going for it. He lived in Arnhem but is no stranger in Reguliersdwarsstraat and Warmoesstraat either, he also found his way to sex club Church.

In these places he shot his first pictures and his teachers in Arnhem soon noticed he was on to something. They recognized his talent as a photographer in capturing the fringe and advised him to explore this further. He leans more toward Nan Golding’s and Wolfgang Tillmans’ work, and Madonna’s book “Sex,” than for example Erwin Olaf’s style.

A Philosophy Of Masks And Surfaces

An element he was advised to focus on was his own particular signature. Just like Johan Brouwer in his photo book “proud@nl” adds a Dutch flag in his compositions, Paul has opted for the ears and nose of Mickey Mouse, plus images of Hollywood celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Portraits and masks of Monroe pop up everywhere in his photos, as do the round nose and the ears of the Disney creation.

Part of Paul’s logic is that it’s always about half masks symbolizing gay life: queens sometimes hide their inner thoughts, sometimes not, and often show only half, especially in the dark sex caves of the Amsterdam nightlife. That’s why the masks are cut in half. Otherwise it would have become anonymous, not real.

The partial masks have a theatrical effect. Together with the bright lighting they give the photos a surreal touch. They break away from the familiar world of bars and darkrooms. Some people would perhaps prefer images of the raw world without the referral to Hollywood, without the overexposure to light.

But this is Paul, these noses and ears have been in all his drawings and ceramic work, and now also in his photos. They contribute to his philosophy of masks and surfaces.

He sometimes stages his photos and spends a lot of time on composition and lighting, other times he uses simple snapshots. But he always creates the opportunity; the moment is created through his preparations and through his choice for the exact image, the exact spot and his timing. In the book all photos together are a separate composition.

Too Superficial And Fake

Our young artist was born in Druten, the land of the rivers Maas and Waal. Between these rivers he was raised in a Catholic family. Served as a choirboy and acolyte, though not coveted by the local pastor – the heyday of pedophile priests was already gone. To his grandmother he was the grandson who would make for a perfect pastor, she picked him from amongst eighteen other nephews for this “feminine” calling. But he didn’t become a pastor. Via the MAVO and the MBO social cultural sector he arrived at ArteZ, the Art Academy of Arnhem. That’s where he started his career as a photographer.

He did the teacher’s college for Art & Design but started as an independent artist. He painted wild gay inspired work like Rachid Ben Ali used to, made ceramics too but has focused on photography since. His teachers told him to use the bright flashlight while portraying the dark underbelly of the Amsterdam gay scene so that his work gained a specific character; the half masks also lend the work his specific signature.

His refusal to compromise sometimes complicates his professional life. One school fired him as a teacher, they thought him too dangerous for the innocent children. A class of ladies wanted to get rid of him because of the photos of the gay scene he used in his lessons. With a big effort he managed to convince them and now he has turned into their favorite: they now know everything about staging, lighting, and kinky desires.

Paul is a passionate young man, who aims his criticism mainly at the gay community, which he thinks is much too adjusted, much too normal. It’s all too superficial and fake, with codes that are stuck to much too rigidly.

He portrays the men with masks on, behind which they hide from their daily lives. His referrals to Hollywood basically make the same point: a brittle layer of glamour with nothing under it. Still, they also are the clichés he loves from his childhood: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mickey, Bambi. They’re all sweet and candy-like, a dream world for young queens who didn’t want to wake up in a straight world every day.

At the same time Hollywood offers frumpy entertainment with lots of pretense and fashion. Very Reguliersdwarsstraat, where the main issue is whether you’re wearing the right Dolce & Gabbana sweater.

Before people go out they change their clothes, they become someone else, they adapt to the codes of the places they are going to visit. This goes for all gay places at Zeedijk and Amstelstraat and as much for the Trut disco as for the sports boys of Ladz.

Maybe it’s even worse amongst straight people, but that doesn’t interest him as much. Perhaps Warmoesstraat and Church are a bit more raw and authentic, but even there the norms of shaved head, leather clothes and the right boots are compelling.

Going out is a tug between real and fake. People want to be who they are in their own environment, but as soon as they are familiar in a scene they become as fake as all the others and start enforcing their ways and rules onto newcomers.

Breaking Through Gay Insights

Paul hates that. With his long blond hair, skinny jeans and sweaters that are fashionable perhaps in the arty scene of Arnhem but not amongst gays, he stands out in most scenes. He states clearly he doesn’t want to conform – a great ideal. His body seems to bulge with protest against standards and codes.
To a certain group of men, who think wildness is a promising sign, his boisterous attitude is probably attractive and infectious. But most queens will be too scared he’ll ruffle up their cloths and tidy lives too much.

Perhaps he can thrive on the fringe of the gay universe because of his enthusiasm, but even now he’s already frustrated by the “act normal and that’s weird enough” philosophy. He misses an ironic distance amongst the queers from different scenes.

When asked whether certain standards can be helpful in order to have good sex he squarely replies with a no. Is distant irony better than an ironic distance? Talking and laughing is fun, but whether that works in a darkroom? It’s hot to act masculine but when you make a joke about it any excitement just dissipates.

Still, Paul is dedicated to break through these gay insights. There are too many standards and codes and he doesn’t want any of it, without wanting to put down the people who do accept and abide by them. Queens are the lubricant in many work situations, like the hospitality industry, they are skilled in making situations relaxed and smooth, it just comes naturally. The artist prefers to oppose this smoothness, the adaptation, and opts for the contrariness of queers in his brave fight against the über-normal.

The resistance against standardizing and normalizing has, as so often, a reverse side: a fascination for it. That what you fight against, you’re also attracted to it. Paul loves the strict organization and the smooth bodies in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries.

He’s very attached to the movie “The Nightporter” by Liliana Cavani about a sadomasochist affair between a female prisoner and an officer of the SS, an affair that started in a concentration camp and later flares up again in freedom. Like Riefenstahl, Cavani uses shiny polished shoes and strict uniforms. Cavani’s music is from Marlene Dietrich however, the antipode of Nazi culture and gay icon.

The ambiguity of these artists has spread to Paul, who resists the strict codes but is knocked down by it. Struggle with standards but still be bound to them. He prefers the Warmoesstraat scene but ridicules its codes.He’s searching for authenticity but the rawness and masculinity here are but a game, a theater play. He also frequents the exuberant London nightlife, where people dress up more carnivalesque than kinky.

This exuberance might be seductive, the artist’s photos for now show the leather / kinky scene. He plans to continue this: his next project is not focused on bouncy dancing fags in seductive outfits but on naked men in the Arnhem sauna “Steamworks.” Not on lives off their anchor but on the regulated treadmill of sexual adventures.

Gert Hekma interviewed Paul Buijs in Amsterdam on the 6th of November 2011.

Photo: Paul Buijs at a New Year’s Eve Party in London

Check out: Paul Buijs’ books are produced on demand; further information and prizes can be requested via The artist is also available to quote prices for the drawings; the ceramics are € 425,00 a piece.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 328, December 2018

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