‘Painting is a high-wire act’: Olivia Laing on sitting for the artist Chantal Joffe

While being painted, author Olivia Laing pens her own portrait of Chantal Joffe and hears why painting is like hairdressing

Every time I go to Chantal’s studio we eat cupcakes from Hummingbird Bakery, get hopped up on sugar and talk very fast. We met because she read my book The Lonely City and asked if I’d come and sit for her. I feel like we made friends as soon as I walked through the door. She says she’s shy, but she’s one of the most open, engrossing talkers I know. It feels like we both use portraiture to get at something deeper, and that I get a better sense of what that might be by way of our sprawling, rapid-fire conversations.

How do you catch reality, the actual minute? I wanted to see what would happen if I wrote about her while she was painting me, if we could survey ...

Olivia Laing: ‘There’s no book I love more than Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature’

Wild, honest, riotous, the film-maker’s diary showed me what it meant to be an artist, to be political – and how to plant a garden

There’s no book I love more than Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature. There’s nothing I’ve read as often, or that has shaped me so deeply. I first came to it a year or two after its publication in 1991, certainly before Jarman’s death in 1994. It was my sister Kitty who introduced me to his work. She was 10 or 11 then and I was 12, maybe 13.

Strange kids. My mother was gay, and we lived on an ugly new development in a village near Portsmouth, where all the culs-de-sac were named after the fields they had destroyed. We were happy together, but the world outside felt flimsy, inhospitable, permanently grey. I hated my girls’ school, with its prying teachers. This was the era of ...

Afterglow: A Dog Memoir by Eileen Myles review – for the love of dog

An elegy for a lost pet by a rock star of the spoken word takes in love, death and animal vision

Eileen Myles is a New York poet, maybe the New York poet, a swaggering troubadour of casually roving brilliance. Born in 1949, a third-generation participant in the New York School of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, they (“they” is Myles’s preferred pronoun) have written more than 20 books, which rollick between novel, memoir, poetry and art criticism. Like I Love Dick, by Myles’s friend Chris Kraus, these loping experiments in autofiction have hit new audiences in the last few years. Myles’s 1994 non-fiction novel Chelsea Girls was republished in 2015 to ecstatic reviews and round-the-block queues at readings. That same winter, the television series Transparent featured a lesbian poet modelled on the author. “My shirts are tighter,” Myles observed.

Afterglow is Myles’s dog book, a work of ...

Sex, jealousy and gender: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca 80 years on

Du Maurier’s bestselling novel reveals much about the author’s fluid sexuality – her ‘Venetian tendencies’ – and about being a boy stuck in the wrong body, writes Olivia Laing

In 1937, a young army wife sat at her typewriter in a rented house in Alexandria, Egypt. She wasn’t happy. Despite coming from an ebullient theatrical family, she was reclusive and agonisingly shy. The social demands that came with being married to the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards were far beyond her. It was too hot and she missed England bitterly, though not the small daughter and new baby she’d left behind.

At the age of 30, she had already published four novels and two biographies. Yet 15,000 words of her new book were torn up in the wastepaper basket, a “literary miscarriage”. She knew the title but not what would constitute the “crash! bang!” of its ...

Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker review – the story of women’s art

She worked at fever pitch, producing 80 pictures in a year, and was dead by 31 – an intense and fragmentary account of a unique artist by Marie Darrieussecq

Paula Modersohn-Becker was the first woman to paint a naked self-portrait – and while apparently pregnant, at that – in 1906. She worked at fever pitch, bemoaning the waste of her first two decades and producing in her penultimate summer a painting every four or five days. Regularly described as an expressionist, her portraits don’t look like anything or anyone else. Her women are crude and exact, glowing with strange colours: Balthus as a feminist, Gauguin by way of The Dark Crystal. She died in 1907 at the age of 31, having sold three paintings in her lifetime, leaving behind a forest of letters and diaries.

Marie Darrieussecq, a French writer best known in the UK for her startling 1996 debut novel ...

Refuge and rebellion: how queer artists worked in the shadow of the law

Fifty years after homosexuality was decriminalised, a new Tate Britain exhibition uncovers the stories of the LGBT artists who were branded criminals You might think they were three Hoorays on a spree, caught by a paparazzo’s bulb in the fishbowl of a cab. Michael Pitt-Rivers almost appears to be smiling, hair slicked back, collar jacked up. Lord Montagu has turned towards him. Only Peter Wildeblood is looking out, jaw jutting forward, some unreadable emotion – fury, defiance, disgust – passing across his face. The photograph was taken outside Winchester Crown Court on 24 March 1954. The men were on their way to prison, not a party; sentenced for homosexual offences including gross indecency and buggery, after two RAF servicemen with whom they had spent a larky weekend in a Hampshire beach hut were coerced into turning queen’s evidence against them. Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers had also been found guilty of “conspiracy ...

Christodora by Tim Murphy review – solidarity in the shadow of Aids

New York’s East Village is the setting for this brilliantly kaleidoscopic story about the city’s haves and have‑nots, both brought together and torn apart by an epidemic The Christodora skews the skyline of the East Village, hulking over a once-bohemian neighbourhood of New York City. Built in the 1920s as a settlement house for low-income immigrants, it fell into dereliction in the 1960s, the ruined apartments colonised by heroin addicts, before being reborn in the 1980s as luxury condominiums. A controversial symbol of the neighbourhood’s increasing gentrification, it’s an ideal setting for this sprawling, seething, sumptuous tale of the city’s haves and have-nots under the long shadow of Aids. Cities isolate, but they also connect, sweeping strangers into temporary, precarious intimacies and dependencies. The urban novel has always been fascinated with mapping these invisible ties, tracing encounter and fallout with all the assiduity of an epidemic model. Infectious diseases likewise, ...

Christodora by Tim Murphy review – solidarity in the shadow of Aids

New York’s East Village is the setting for this brilliantly kaleidoscopic story about the city’s haves and have‑nots, both brought together and torn apart by an epidemic The Christodora skews the skyline of the East Village, hulking over a once-bohemian neighbourhood of New York City. Built in the 1920s as a settlement house for low-income immigrants, it fell into dereliction in the 1960s, the ruined apartments colonised by heroin addicts, before being reborn in the 1980s as luxury condominiums. A controversial symbol of the neighbourhood’s increasing gentrification, it’s an ideal setting for this sprawling, seething, sumptuous tale of the city’s haves and have-nots under the long shadow of Aids. Cities isolate, but they also connect, sweeping strangers into temporary, precarious intimacies and dependencies. The urban novel has always been fascinated with mapping these invisible ties, tracing encounter and fallout with all the assiduity of an epidemic model. Infectious diseases likewise, ...

Black Wave by Michelle Tea review – a rollicking apocalypse fantasy

A cult US author investigates addiction and apocalypse in a hallucinatory tale that’s as sobering as a blast of cold air Michelle is in the Albion, the last dive bar in the neighbourhood to resist gentrification. She’s a lesbian poet, with chemically fried blue hair and homemade tattoos, dressed in an orange slip and biker boots. Tonight she might smoke crack cocaine in a van with a newly released convict, or persuade her gender-indeterminate crush to score a bag of heroin for her. It’s San Francisco, 1999: the pursuit of pleasure, whatever the cost. At first, Black Wave seems pleasantly familiar, a messy, lightly fictionalised beat memoir of hangovers survived and conquests made. The frenetic parties and poetry slams of the pre-millennial Mission district are precisely rendered, while Michelle bears more than a passing resemblance to her creator, the queer novelist and memoirist Michelle Tea. But there are disconcerting cracks in ...

Future Sex by Emily Witt review – is another era of free love over?

Single female, 30, seeks pornography, hook-ups and sex online … a curious participant-observer finds a new age of sexual liberation under threat For the last few years, Emily Witt has been dispatching gripping, keenly strange field reports from the frontiers of contemporary desire. A curious, if cautious participant-observer, she has attended orgies, inhaled nitrous oxide with polyamorists and watched college students in the midwest broadcast their fantasies via webcams, painstakingly assembling a luminous, flickering portrait of human (hetero)sexuality in the age of the internet. Witt’s desire to chart new species of sexual behaviour followed hard on the heels of a breakup, an alarming rupture in what she’d previously conceived to be a natural, seamless progression from monogamous dating to the permanent station of marriage. Abruptly and unhappily single at the age of 30, she was forced to confront the troubling possibility that love is not something you can ordain or ...

Orlando shooting and a sense of erasure

Watching coverage of the murder of 49 people in an LGBT club in Orlando, Olivia Laing experienced familiar feelings of shame and paralysis. She reflects on growing up in a climate of intolerance and the many ways queer people have been silenced through history I woke up this morning to a video of Owen Jones repeatedly being told by two straight people that the murder of 49 queer people in a gay club in Orlando was not about homophobia. There is a particular feeling that comes with erasure: a kind of paralysis, a kind of shame. Don’t be silly: what you’re seeing is not about you, what you’re seeing is an attack on western freedoms – clubbing! – and not part and parcel of the everyday viciousness of homophobia, a climate of hate enacted in everything from casual comments on street corners and in school playgrounds to violence, to the ...

David Wojnarowicz: still fighting prejudice 24 years after his death

Best known for an image on a U2 album cover, the painter and photographer was was also an Aids activist whose message of defiance from the late 80s reverberates in American politics today You might not be familiar with the American artist and activist David Wojnarowicz’s name, but if you’re of a certain age, you have probably seen at least one image by him. His photograph of buffalo tumbling off a cliff was used as the cover of U2’s One, taking his art to a global audience a few months before his death in 1992 of Aids-related complications. Wojnarowicz was only 37 when he died, but he left behind an extraordinary body of work, particularly considering the uncongenial circumstances of much of his short life. A refugee from a violent family, a former street kid and teen hustler, he grew up to become one of the stars of ...

How art helped me see the beauty in loneliness

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City explores the connection between isolation and creativity. In this extract she examines its role in the work of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and others, and suggests we should all be a little less frightened of being alone… Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or 17th or 43rd floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, ...

Two lives of Lou Reed: Notes from the Velvet Underground by Howard Sounes and Dirty Blvd by Aidan Levy review

He was an angry, heroin-taking, gender-fluid nonconformist, but it was Reed’s restless, vulnerable music that made him stand out

A few years back, I went to a 75th anniversary party for the venerable independent publisher New Directions. A series of authors took to the stage to read. Among the company was an elderly man in a leather jacket, whose relentlessly monotone rendition of the poet Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” numbers among the more gruelling performances I’ve ever seen.

It was Lou Reed, of course. Who else has been so willing to make art painful, to smash it over the threshold of enjoyment? Who else has possessed a career-long knack for pulling the rug out from under critics and audiences alike, thwarting expectations and spurning demands? Play “Sweet Jane”, they cried for decades, and in return he handed over Metal Machine Music, 63 minutes and 31 densely cacophonous seconds of guitar feedback unleavened by ...

@heaven edited by Kim Hastreiter review – the story of an online death

This intimate history of an early web community and a man’s choice to die in public shows that the internet can be a place where social bonds are formed as well as worn away

Before Twitter, before Facebook, before Wi-Fi, before even the widespread use of email, back in the dark ages of dial up, there was the WELL. An acronym for Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, it was one of the very first online communities, founded in 1985 and run for many years out of a dingy office on the Sausalito waterfront.

As the name suggests, the WELL arose out of a fertile coupling between techno-visionaries and the California hippy scene. One of the founders was Stewart Brand, the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture bible with a readership already primed to grasp the benefits of online discussion and idea-exchange. These early WELL-dwellers, as ...