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Queer flesh, with feeling

We last heard of Gary Sollars in 1995, when his portrait of the death of his lover was shortlisted for a major award. Now Jay Merrick finds his witty, tender paintings - and the queer realist himself - on show in Brighton
Sometimes they bang on his window late at night, those mothy wanderers who've over-necked the Stella or the Harveys down at the Free Butt or the crusty Kenny, or God knows where else. They see the light in his grungy Brighton studio, feel the heartbeat systole-and-diastole of ghetto-blasted techno pulsing through the smudgy glass. And there he is, standing at a giant canvas; stocky, bristle-pated, a fistful of snapshots in his left hand and the brush in his right, laying down a precise layer of flesh tone on to the gleaming head of a slightly tumescent penis.

They're looking at Gary Sollars, who re-staged his lover's death so that he could paint an elegy, a long and excruciatingly elegant goodbye that took him nine months of cathartic work on a 7ft-wide canvas.

Sollars is trying to put graphic gay male portraiture on the map in Britain; Walt Whitman might have called his studies "romanzas". For this isn't the lubricious, red-veloured world of abdomens like six-packs, rough trade and slaves to the rhythm.

As far as Sollars is concerned, lube-rich visions and porn are out; paint mixed with walnut oil ("It was good enough for Rembrandt, so it's good enough for me and I can get it from Sainsbury's") is the kicking thing, the classical alchemy he needs to deliver something well-hung - on walls.

It's a solitary business. Late at night, when he does much of his best work, Sollars, like a solitary figure in a Hopper diner, likes the accidental attention of nighthawks; it's a stimulating connective tissue and it's free. The headlamps and brake lights smearing past, the floating heads, the whup and moan of wind gusting up Lewes Road past the crazed cluster of stage-lit magic mushrooms otherwise known as the Royal Pavilion, the treasured picture of his Mum and Nan on the wall behind him and the rash of pinned-up art postcards: this is the broth that feeds him and keeps the ideas coming.

Tenderness, wickedly ironic humour and, in particular, that exquisitely composed vision of death are the facets that mark his work to date. Here is a man who has paid his dues: besotted with the Renaissance masters, and a few moderns including Patrick Heron, he was forced into graphic design at Middlesex Polytechnic "because they said my work was too tight". After Middlesex, he drifted into illustration jobs - "stuff for TV Times for Home and Away, Bull's Eye, pictures of the Queen. "They just wanted really lifelike stuff. I was kind of selling out."

But Sollars wanted to be something else: a Holbein, Van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden, a queer realist sticking it to the flaky Nineties. Heaven, for him, is the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery. "That's me," he mused. "There's this Bellini, some Pope or other. I can just stand there for ages and look at that stuff."

His paintings are sexually loaded, yet it's plain that the work is driven by sentiment and a longing for meaningful relationships, the L-O-V-E trip rather than penile dementia or the high-turnover comfort of strangers in a town with soaring male gonorrhoea rates and Britain's highest HIV infection levels.

The titles of his works give him away, and rather charmingly: Another No, for example, is surely Norman Rockwell meets the Village People: a tableau of hearty building workers sitting round a table, seen from a low viewpoint. One of them has his trousers round his ankles, his penis and testicles bunched in his crotch. The workmen are laughing about a dead fish that one of them's holding up. It's Sollars's way of portraying a personal defeat, a chat-up failure that nevertheless produced a painting free of rancour.

Even at his angriest, in the self-portrait Out of It, with its blood- smeared torso and clenched penis, the vibe is of cathartic release rather than revenge. The dark, prone body with the dead shark-eye in the background passes for an ex-lover who'd trashed him. The blood on Sollars's torso represents his wounds, the fist round the penis a literally blunt reclamation of being. "That's weaponry," he said of the image. "I was just angry at being fucked about, and everybody's been through that. It's raw. I could do it better now. It's fine for getting rid of something. "

The remark is typical: Sollars's relationship to his work is pretty straightforward; it's personal stuff and if there are subtexts they're obvious because they relate to his daily life, which revolves around 10-hour shifts in his tiny workroom at Brighton's ramshackle Phoenix Gallery.

His obsession with portraiture began in 1991, five years after the death from Aids of Philip Munro, his partner of 13 years. And he marked that shattering loss in an extraordinary way. He borrowed a bed from the local Beacon hospice and set it up on the stage of a town centre church hall. A girl posed in the bed as the dying Munro. Sollars's mother and Munro's sister sat on chairs on the far side. Two male friends posed naked, frozen in the act of stepping away from the anguish, hand in hand. Sollars lit the scene with Anglepoise lamps.

"I directed it," he said. "They were sitting, holding hands. The women were crying. It all came back." A photographer recorded the scene and Sollars worked with the prints in his hand - his normal modus operandi - to produce a work that was exhibited in the 1995 BP Portraits awards. It also won an open competition for artists run by Brighton Arts Club.

Since then he has worked in a near-void, with little recognition apart from a single blip of praise for the Munro portrait from the critic, John Russell Taylor. The BP competition rejected his 1996 entry, the bloody self-portrait. His work has since been hung at Surfers Paradise, a local restaurant and Internet bar.

And so he keeps his "romanzas" stacked around him in his studio because "they're like little treasures and I like to have them around".

Sollars's latest work is showing signs of stylistic change. He is planning a portrait of his family which will have an abstract background - "some strange shapes I'm thinking about". He has also painted women: an ethereal composition of two naked l esbians asleep on the shingle, which reveals an acute ability to achieve subtle transitions in the palest of skin and pebble tones. But its title, A Blockage in the U-bend of Love, is typically sardonic.

His current work in progress portrays two men, one naked from the waist down, lying on grass; but the grass isn't grass, it's a thickly combed palette of blues and deep greens - interrupted only by a pair of Nike trainers, seen as if through an acid vision - that owe more to Van Gogh than straight representation. He glanced at it and scratched his head. "If it jumps out at the end, I'll know I'm on the right track. I want the figures to have a sort of cut-out and bounce - punching out. It's kind of murmuring to me at the moment."

There are also signs that his sentimental and emotional motivations are developing an edge, if not an agenda. His biggest work, If It Moves, is an anti-gay porn and phone-sex tableau packed with a posse of outre local gay clubbers, a queenly magnificent seven packing spray-paint cans, with a mission to blast away sex-contact ads ("Boys with bottoms like melons", "Hunky nipple-clamped traffic warden"). Even in this spoofy canvas, the composition is controlled perfectly.

Sollars peered out of his studio window. "I can paint when I like and I don't mind having no money," he mused. He's even picky about accepting commissions unless he feels he can do them justice. "I just resign myself to the fact that I have low cash and that's fine. As long as I can eat and play my music, I'm happy. That's where my massive patience comes in! And I can really blast my music full-on after six o'clock, with all the people going past outside. And they look in like they think my room is a giant TV."

Showing me out, he paused by his door and gazed at the postcards pinned by the jamb. "Look at this," he said, nodding at Holbein's Edward VI as a child. "I love the colours. So clear. It's all so still."

He reached out distractedly and touched the edge of the deathbed canvas, the pearl among his "little treasures". It is the calling card of a strange and solitary talent, and an image that could put gay male art into the wider public domain. For Sollars, it's a fight to highlight emotion and romance and a blow against the cliche that gay relationships are just cock-and-pull stories

Gary Sollars's paintings can be seen at the Phoenix Gallery, Lewes Road, Brighton (01273 603700)