How does an Orange County boy, a homosexual with a growing reputation as a painter in Paris, become one of Utah’s most known and venerated painters? By obeying the rules. These days, that is exactly what Randall Lake is not doing. Lake grew up in affluent circumstances. In the ’60s he delighted the French where his talent as a painter was recognized, but while there this young, homosexual man joined the Mormon Church. He married and had five children. He did everything a Mormon father was expected to do, except be honest, especially to himself. Why? To avoid familial catastrophe he says –“so I could encase myself like some toxic substance from Chernobyl, that I would protect myself from ever having to deal with this.” Lake’s days of pleasing others, playing by the rules, keeping up appearances, is long over and today he does not care whose toes he steps on.
The paintings Lake is working on now are angry pieces, far removed from the dainty teacups and colorful landscapes for which he is known. In a series of shocking symbolic narrative works, ones he knows will offend, he is dealing with his lifetime as a homosexual. He is angry. He is angry at the artifice of living in the closet. Angry at the rules that were placed on him, and that he placed on himself; and almost 25 years after his first love hung himself rather than disclose his homosexuality to the world, he is angry at the repression he feels has tempered his happiness. “I have always been ashamed of being gay because my family let me know in no uncertain terms that that was unacceptable. I joined the LDS Church initially because it held out the promise that I could be straight. You finally find your way to religion and it’s not because you want to go to heaven but it’s because you’ve been to hell.”
Lake grew up in a wealthy, non-religious family in Orange County. He says that he has known since he was 8 or 9 that he was gay. “I am a child of the ’40s and ’50s. The self-loathing, I fought my whole life against it. I was embarrassed by it. I was horrified.” His parents divorced when he was 11, and the following year when his mother took a trip abroad she brought him, the youngest, with her. He was placed in a Swiss boarding school, where he had his first homosexual experiences.
Knowing his homosexuality would never be accepted by his family, he continued to live a life in the closet. He went to college in Boulder, Colorado, where he studied English and began painting. He also had a relationship with a roommate that left him “heartbroken.” During college Lake had spent his junior year abroad in Paris, and after college he returned there — to get over his broken heart and also to get painting out of his system (before moving on to a more reputable career).
While in Europe he returned to the village in Switzerland where the now-defunct boarding school had been located. He ran into his old English professor, who invited him to join him at a Baptist commune in the area. Here Lake became a Christian.
After a month he returned to Paris to continue painting. At the request of a friend he accompanied her to a Mormon Church service. The friend left uninterested, but Lake stayed for the testimony meeting. He was moved by a woman who gave “a very personal and authentic testimony.” He kept going back. “I thought, ‘There’s something here. Either it’s the biggest bullshit you’ve ever heard or it’s true.’” He went for a long time as an investigator. Lake says the LDS Church was attractive to him because he instinctively felt it was very “homophobic” and he could use it to protect himself from ever “jumping the fence.” It would be his path to normalcy.
One of the LDS Church’s strategies for normalcy at the time included heterosexual marriage as a cure for homosexual behavior. Lake says he was influenced by Spencer W. Kimball’s book The Miracle of Forgiveness and the idea that if he put himself in a different environment he could change who he was. He renewed a relationship with a Mormon girl he had known when he was a teenager. He told her about his homosexuality and she believed it was something that could be overcome. They married in Paris in 1971.
In his student days, Lake had worked as a Pop artist, but after Paris he returned to the States to study classical figure painting with Al Gittens. So it was in Utah that he began building an international reputation creating landscapes, portraiture, and still lifes, mostly in a 19th-century vein. “Life and art go together as an evolution,” he says about his painting. “I have always been a well-mannered, well-behaved, conservative painter. I’m not a trail-blazer because if you’re gay all you want to be is to be normal. One of the appeals that Mormonism had for me was that it was normal. I could drive my station wagon and my wife could bake pies and we could have kids. They were offering you normalcy, something I could never be.”
In 1981 Lake’s father died. “I would never have come out had my father been living. By that time I realized it would never change, I would forever have dreams about men.” In 1984, inspired by the biographies of gay artists in the 19th century, he devised a plan where he could pursue his sexuality “abroad” while maintaining his life of normalcy. He joined a gallery in San Francisco, where he thought he could go on weekends for openings and pursue homosexual affairs. His plan was conceived too late, however. The AIDS epidemic was exploding and he found it difficult to initiate liasons.
In Salt Lake City he began attending an informal gathering of ex-Mormon and Mormon gays, a quiet affair designed as an alternative to the bar scene. At the first meeting he recognized someone: the organist in his LDS stake. Lake says the idea of “falling in love” was unexpected but he fell “like a ton of bricks.” The two managed to carry on an affair for a year. “Still the best year of my life,” he says. But in January of 1986 Lake’s lover committed suicide by hanging himself in his basement.
When the family buried him in his temple clothes, obliterating the memory of who he really was, Lake said he had had enough. It “turned me from tin to lead. . . I vowed that I would never lie ever again about being gay.”
Lake went through a Mormon Church court and was excommunicated, ending 16 years of living a lie. He remarks that the members of the ward treated him well. “I never had anyone spurn me,” and his career as an artist in the state continued to move forward. He has become one of the best known and well-respected painters in Utah.
With his new body of work, Lake may be putting that all at risk. The days of Mediterranean seashores are past, no more portraits, no more teacups. He is turning to dark, angry narrative work, but he says he has no choice. When he broke up with a lover in 2004 he says he entered a period of economic, emotional and spiritual decline — a slump he says he is only now getting out of with this new body of work. “I can’t get up in the morning and get excited about a teacup or a landscape anymore, I’ve been there, I’ve done that.” Now Lake is using his brush – “like a cudgel” — to express his personal self.
This new work is fueled by rage. Some of it is directed outward, toward issues like the war in Iraq, but most of it is about his personal experience. Of the six lovers Lake has had he says two have been devout Mormons and both have killed themselves. The new work, he says, is a “memorial” to these two. In one work Lake uses a Renaissance structured altarpiece and standard Latter-day Saint iconography to create a challenging composition that anyone familiar with the LDS Church will be able to decipher. A generic church authority speaks from the podium, counseling methods for “overcoming” homosexuality. A gay man hangs from a noose at each end of the lateral section of a cross, having hung themselves there, dressed in undergarments sacred to the LDS faith. Men who have shot themselves in the head lie in the foreground. In the framework of a traditional crucifixion painterly structure, Lake constructs visual metaphors that when seen in this context, are cacophonous and abrasive. The poetry usually found in his works is gone.
Lake says he is trying to depict the “casualties” of the church’s strategies to cure gays. “I am trying to call them [the LDS Church] on this and say ‘You people don’t have a clue.’” His art is directed at the power structures in the Mormon church. For the individuals he has known he still speaks with warmth and regard. “I will not sit through a lunch bashing the church. I love the Mormons I know . . . but I have to say what I have to say.”
This is not the first time Lake’s work has turned to the personal. In a 2003 exhibit at Art Access he exhibited a body of work dealing with his personal life. These could be poetical. Many featured one of his lover’s dying from AIDS, one painting showing him being lifted up to heaven by an angel. Others were angry and political. In one he portrayed Gayle Ruzika, head of the Eagle Forum, as the Medusa.
These latest works — still in progress — will likely be the most violent and visceral of Lake’s personal works. But it is unlikely this new body of work will be embraced by many. They are too deliberate, desperate even. They are ugly and offensive, but meant to be; but they can also seem contrived and plebian — a digression for a man of Lake’s aesthetic accomplishments. But the work is for the artist. How critics respond to it means little to him. This is a time to purge.
“This painting is 34 years of sitting on the bench. This painting is a product of rage. At 62, I have nothing to lose . . . this probably isn’t going to do anything but I’ve got to get it out of me. I told myself, ‘Exercise your right for free speech.’”
This is a mode of self-sacrifice, as Lake takes his celebrity and throws it in the faces of those he thinks this will cause offense to. Sadly these works will likely have little effect, as subtlety, especially in art, is far more effective. But Lake is the artist and this is his purge. Says Lake, “In his [Jesus’] earthly ministry he was against the exclusion of outcasts, he was against judgment. I am attacking their [LDS] sacred right to marginalize, scapegoat.” At one time he embraced the LDS church as a solution to his problems. But that solution was ineffective, and now he seems to be pointing the finger at those he sees as having caused so much pain to him and the men he loved.
The question that remains is where does Randall Lake go from here? “Can you imagine being a rock star and going around at 65 doing concerts of ‘The Best Of’ for songs you made famous during the Vietnam War?” he says about simply repeating his old work. “I didn’t learn that by being wise, I learned it by doing the 95th teacup and having it be a piece of shit. You cannot go back. You can’t go back.”
In his years of painting conservative paintings he says he has added nothing to the visual vocabulary except his subject matter. He says he is asking himself, “What’s Randall Lake about Randall Lake?” But his enormous body of work that runs like a river concurrent with the life of the artist is still great and will always be great.
For those who appreciate life, Randall Lake’s art is living, it has vibrated and pulsed with humanness for generations. His new work will please few, but after 62 years of self-repression, he’s earned his artistic license. Working through these paintings, though, may just be the cathartic experience he needs to move forward. A couple of weeks after we spoke Randall was in Coalville, braving the snow to paint en plein air. For those who do know Randall Lake, they know his passion and his inexhaustible energy in all things he does. “To go on you have to constantly reinvent yourself. If you stay with this you putrefy.” It cannot be guessed where this torrent will lead, but if he lives for one person now, lives by no rules other than his own, he has earned it. “All you have when the day is over is you, God, and your integrity,” he says. “You can’t have any life of quality if you don’t have integrity.”
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.