If you’re watching the somewhat iffy Tales of the City reboot, you might be struck by its tone of defiant innocence. The show’s optimistic portrait of an almost idyllic Barbary Lane seems to run afoul of everything we cynics know to be axiomatic about San Francisco in 2019. Starry-eyed idealists can’t move here now — unless they’re also moving into the crypto space.
Well, nuts to that. Joset Medina, a painter originally from Venezuela, moved to San Francisco two years ago and speaks of the city with a genuine affection that is neither naive nor tainted by defeat.
“The first time I held hands and kissed a guy on the street was in San Francisco,” he says. “One of the reasons I wanted to move here was I wanted to feel more free. I lived in Madrid for a year and Madrid is really open, but … the Castro is where you can feel comfortable being yourself, and you don’t feel like someone is going to tell you anything. I love this city.”
After an initial visit here, Medina returned to Panama, where he’d been living after his period in Spain and some time in Southeast Asia. Thriving, commercial Panama City has grown more cosmopolitan with time, he says, comparing it to Miami. But the influence of the Church remains strong, and he had several off-putting encounters, like a doctor who told him he “didn’t look gay.”
Having been sponsored by his employer, an interior designer, Medina eventually got a visa and came to the U.S. more or less permanently — first to Irvine and then to S.F. (Irvine is “terrible,” he says.) These days, he lives in a pleasant, shoes-off apartment with his American husband, Robert, and while their floor plan has character, some of the rooms’ angles would make furnishing it a challenge.
Good thing he’s a painter, then. But as working artist studios go, it might be the neatest one in the known universe.
“I have most of my pieces here,” Medina says of the walls. Then, pointing to one spotless area of the living room, he adds, “This is the place I like to be messy. I have to be careful here with the paint. I sometimes cover the table, and when I make the more detailed drawings, I go there — and when I paint, I go to this area.”
Thematically, his work is quite unified. Balancing a flowy, Art Nouveau quality against a restrained psychedelia, the same tropes reappear throughout: butterflies, eyes, beaded droplets that may be tears or condensation, lines that resemble Morse Code, of twisty trees like the ones in Golden Gate Park, and plants growing out of human forms. Some of the eyes have a mysterious, pyramid-on-the-back-of-the-$1 aura, while others could almost be naturalistic, like the eyespots on certain moths’ wings. Medina uses coffee and tea to lend a patina of age, and apart from a few images of him and Robert, most of the human figures are women.
“I grew up with women,” he says. “I was always surrounded by women: my mom, I have a lot of sisters, my cousins and my aunt, my grandmother. When I was a little kid, I was overprotected.”
His engineer father, although “macho,” has always been a strong supporter of his work, however. The other constant in Medina’s oeuvre is transformation, whether it’s a torso with an anthurium flowering out of it or a butterfly just out of metamorphosis. (A lot of the flowers’ real-life versions can be found throughout Medina’s home. At least two are Valentine’s Day gifts between him and Robert.)
Some of the trippier pieces speak to a certain inner turmoil. Medina says he made one painting, of a butterfly caught in a beam of light that accentuates the proportions of its shadow, while “screaming from the inside.” Several caught the eye of curator Joseph Abbati, which led to an invitation to contribute to Queer Eyes: An Exhibit of Bay Area LGBTQ Artists, at the office of state Sen. Scott Wiener on Sunday, June 30, from noon until 3 p.m. (or immediately after Wiener’s contingent in the Pride parade wraps up). Medina has also mounted work at the International Art Museum of America on Market Street, which has made notable curatorial strides away from its cult-like devotion to a single, kitschy sculptor with grandiose ideas.
In the aggregate, Medina’s paintings have an autobiographical element, of someone finding their way in life through their art and using a symbolic visual language to record the changes. But one piece doesn’t fit in with the rest.
“Robert got this one,” Medina admits. “It was a print from this artist, because he loves doughnuts. I forgot her name.”
Queer Eyes: An Exhibit of Bay Area LGBTQ Artists, Sunday, June 30, noon-3 p.m., at the Office of state Sen. Scott Wiener, 455 Golden Gate Ave., Suite 14800. Free (advance registration required), sfpride.org.