I've lived with the paintings of Bill Rangel for over 15 years and I distinctly remember my initial response: I'd never seen anything like them - and I wanted to see more. His deft use of primary colors, the irresistible sweep of his liquid lines, his intuition-propelled inner eye experiments - fantasy characters culled directly from his imagination, his joyously raucous sex images, his numerous portraits in a variety of styles each as forceful as the next and, topping everything, an awareness that disregarded the low easy road of ridicule and spleen (almost as fashionable then as it is now)... I was hooked.
In time, I'd become intimate with Bill's fractured realism and x-ray eye for essence, his utterly unique alternative world-on-canvas in which anything could (and often did!) happen: walls and ceilings not meeting at right angles; gravity holding no pull; people with the ability to be in various places at once. But never gratuitously; his permutations were always employed in the service of distilling his subjects - the mood of an object, a person, a landscape, a room - down to their emotional cores.
I was - and remain - fascinated by Bill's ability to never settle for defining things simply in terms of what they're not; in Rangel's world people, places, and things are often flirtatious combinations of their opposites - mysterious and explicit; turbulent and serene; innocent and experienced. A teasing surface calm is presented - lulling in the viewer with his adroit employment of color and line - that, once penetrated, unfolds into a meticulously articulated way of seeing that can be joyful, tender, disturbing, severe or (and most often) some unexpected combination of all of the above. And why not? In the world of Bill's paintings, reality ceaselessly cuts with a multiplicity of edges. Moreover, there's always something else taking place along with what's being presented, something you can't quite pin down but which nevertheless adheres you to the canvas, compelling you to keep looking.
And then came AIDS. It's difficult, if not impossible (and certainly beyond the scope of what I'm attempting here), to describe the rage, paranoia and anguish of the Plague's early years to those who didn't live through it themselves. Family, lovers, ex-lovers, friends, acquaintances were falling away left and right and nobody knew why (nor, for that matter - on the governmental level, did many care). And when that why was finally discovered, for thousands, it didn't matter - it was already too late. Bill and I witnessed those years together, losing lovers, friends and family, and through it all - the demonstrations, the nursing, the mourning - Bill, as ever, never stopped painting. And it's here, I think, that the work takes a profound turn; his sensibility, in effect, burnished through holocaust. Not for the darker - for the broader and the empathetic. Death begins to take a more active role, sometimes directly, other times indirectly, replacing that trademark pre-Plague playfulness. But not death merely in the context of AIDS (though a great deal of Bill's work addresses AIDS straight on); death in the context of mortality, death as part of this ticket called Life.
Through the unremitting torment of loss, Bill began chiseling his grief into a subtle and deeply personal understanding of temporality, of the passage of time: the realization that mortality, the impermanence of existence, though heartbreaking to accept, is the very thing that gives life its majesty and vitality. That is, if we lived forever there'd be no need to make choices because we'd have all the time in the world to do everything we wanted. As that's not the case, priorities have to be established. And from priorities come commitment, discipline, sacrifice, dignity - the inviolate ingredients of value and meaning.
Again and again this sensibility asserts itself throughout Bill's canvases (in the portraits, mainly - of which I'm especially fond) - never didactically, of course, but vibrantly present nonetheless. And it's his drive to explore these implications - what mortality means - that raises the work above the all too often banal confines of "gay art." As far as Bill's sexuality, it's certainly essential to his worldview, his personal metaphysic - the same as it would be for anyone, straight or gay. At the same time, it's also incidental - the central issues of his sensibility go far deeper than mere sexual preference. In the concentric circles that define Bill's vision, queerness is hardly its outermost orbit.
I've always contended that Bill's portraits are silent dialogues between the painter and the sitter, at a particular place, reflecting a particular moment, in which the stylistic elements referred to above are crystallized into the scrupulously honed transcript of the finished canvas. Never does he condescend to his sitters, censoring their uniqueness to make it easier on himself. He takes them in, all of them in, leaving nothing of emotional pertinence out. From the reticent to the garrulous, from the flamboyant to the reserved... The non-judgmental, compassionate listener. Nor, I hasten to add, does he censor himself - his perceptiveness, indefatigably, is never less than candid and panoramic.
Implicit throughout all the work, from the very beginning, is Bill's conviction that on the far side of the sleight-of-hand gimmickry of conceptual art and the idiotic infatuation with transgression for its own sake (irony reduced to gutless, malicious sarcasm), stands the heart: invincible, knowing, true. Comical and wistful, delicate and unrelenting, celebratory and elegiac... These components, I believe, comprise both the paradigm Bill has set for himself and the framework in which his vision flourishes - that miraculous voltage of the Singular Taste, where thankfulness and sorrow meld into one.
Michael Dylan Griffin is the author of Nationwide Butterpump, Kicks in the Eye, The Undertow Rose, and Measure of My Crazy. His prose has received the written praise of Allen Ginsberg, Kathy Acker, Richard Meltzer, and Lydia Lunch. He died in Berlin in 2010.