There's a thin line between art and porn -- or porn and art -- and Canadian filmmaker, photographer, columnist and former queer punk zine publisher Bruce LaBruce walks it like a tightrope. His photographs, films and writings traffic in queer sexual iconoclasm. At his best, his stuff arouses an audience of gay men (and others) -- igniting a fuse from the groin on up to the critical faculties.
"All of my work has been about that line," LaBruce tells me in a phone interview from his home base in Toronto. "You can situate yourself on either side of the line without really altering the work itself. I could take a picture for Honcho magazine, but can take the same image and put it in a frame in an art gallery, and it becomes art. For me that speaks to the arbitrary nature of those labels."
The labels get some working over as LaBruce puts together an exhibition of some 40 of his photographs and one of his films, the 1999 "Skin Gang," at San Francisco's new Peres Projects gallery. Timed to coincide with the pervy Folsom Street Fair, the show provides a good opportunity to check in with LaBruce's current interests. They're pictures that stem from the casting of his porn films, sexy rough-trade spreads for Honcho magazine, fashion shoots and the randy realm of personal expression.
The glossy color photos, hung on the wall salon style, depict well-endowed skinheads, the scowling Russian porn actor and poet Slava Mogutin in a pig mask, covered with blood while force-feeding his erect penis into a guy's mouth (an image taken from an art installation), amputees with erections, and even the subcultural diva Asia Argento, naked, very pregnant and puffing on a cigarette in the bathtub -- a snap that generates a frisson of health-conscious horror in crunchy Northern California.
In a similar politically incorrect vein, there's an image of a cute teen jerking off in a 1970s vintage McDonald's uniform, a picture that erotically confounds all the anti-burger-chain ideology imparted by "Fast Food Nation." The lush color images sometimes bring to mind Catherine Opie's formal portraits of the sexual underground while veering into territory that mines exploitation genres and a bit of wacky John Waters levity.
His pictures almost always manage to strike a balance between prurience and provocative criticism. LaBruce has concentrated on hot-button eroticism, not the least in his invocation of the racist skinhead as an object of desire.
"I do use all this imagery for more nefarious purposes, ideological reasons. It is insulting to me when people dismiss me as a pornographer or pervert," he says.
While one might get the impression that LaBruce is a wild man, in conversation he comes off as a porn egghead; he does, after all, have a degree in film theory from York University in Toronto. He cites Fassbinder, Antonioni, Warhol and '60s Godard among his influences. "And I'm a huge Jerry Lewis fan," he admits.
His own movies, like the cleverly titled "Super 8½" and "Hustler White," are sexy and brattily smart in their attempts to subvert the conventions of sex films as well as cinema studies. The first is a knowing tribute to failed celebrity and fleeting Warholian fame, while the other tracks a dying breed of gay hookers who work the seedier blocks of Santa Monica Boulevard. LaBruce often goes for shock value with these projects. "Hustler White," for example, features a famous scene of (simulated) "stumping" -- an amputee penetrating another man's anus with a protracted limb. The movie was recently shown on Canadian television, attesting to the slippery, expanding boundaries of taboo.
The movies can and do play the international film festival circuit, though they are just as apt to be kept in the adult section of the video store or to play on video monitors in gay sex clubs. LaBruce snaps pictures for raunchy gay magazines, including Honcho, but also brings out his camera for fashion and art mags such as Index and Dutch.
"I don't like to make a value judgment as to which context is more valuable -- art or porn," he says. "There's a great unwashed mass that looks at porn. It's a very popular form of expression. I like sneaking in subversive content. If you're just dealing with the art world, people are used to that kind of expression.
"People think I'm crazy to say this, but I'm against the mainstreaming of porn. The porn industry acts as a collective unconscious. It's a huge business but still a dirty secret, a place where people work things out. They explore dark stuff like rape, race fantasies; when it's mainstreamed, it's too conscious. It doesn't work [when it goes aboveground.]"
LaBruce's films are all about that dark stuff, though he treats it with dollops of goofy, button-pushing humor. The 1999 film "Skin Gang," which screens in a faux porno-theater installation in the exhibition, features a scene in which a neo-Nazi skinhead masturbates, and comes, on a copy of "Mein Kampf." Of course, it's not long before the willowy white guy is getting down in a gay orgy -- with other masculine skins who call him "faggot." This film, which exists in hardcore and softcore editions, has a loose Pasolini-ish plot that revolves around the skinheads sexually terrorizing a mixed-race bourgeois gay couple who eat sushi and listen to classical music. As is often the case in LaBruce's work, the film sets are filled with cultural-studies signifiers -- a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of a nude black man, for example, points to a knowing awareness of the thorny dynamic between homosexuality and race.
Identity and sex are, after all, perennially loaded topics. The gallery exhibition features guys that don't necessarily fit the usual gay porn-star mold. "At least 60 percent of my models are straight, which I find interesting," LaBruce says. "I did a lot of [straight] Puerto Rican guys for Honcho and Inches magazines. They have a pride for the body, or the cock, which seems very natural and uninhibited. I do like shooting those models because there is that element to it. It seems more relaxed, not sure why that is. One thing, though -- never allow them to bring their girlfriends and wives: They can't make them hard," he offers.
So how does he "style" the models that often proudly boast prison tattoos? "There are always ways," he answers coyly.
LaBruce says he's preparing another politically inflected porno film for the same German production company behind "Skin Gang," this time treading into the timely theme of terrorists and their forbidden sexual allure. It's called "Raspberry Reich" and, according to the filmmaker, follows the erotic adventures of a Bader-Meinhof-like group of quasi-Marxists lead by a woman who fervently believes heterosexuality to be a bourgeois construct -- and forces her all-male comrades to do each other. "I thought of the idea before 9/11," LaBruce says. "It's partly a comedy -- they're bumbling terrorists. But it's about terrorist chic and the point at which you become that which you are against and hate. It's the 'oppressed becoming the oppressor' thing, which is a recurring theme in my work."
While perceived as a gay artist, LaBruce quite consciously gets women into the mix -- he doesn't view his films as fitting a certain market. "I've really tried not to market my films towards a gay audience even if they're filled with gay sex," he says. "I make it a point to have strong female characters."
Asia Argento is definitely one, and at the Toronto Film Festival last year, publicly proclaimed she was a fan of LaBruce's work, though he thinks it was just to appease the Canadian audience. Still, he worked the connection and photographed and interviewed the subversive rising star for Index magazine, getting her in that defiant pregnant nicotine moment. "She's really the essence of the Italian star, in the tradition of Anna Magnani and Silvana Mangano," he says. "She's extremely sensual, sexual, intellectual aggressive and rebellious. She's a hard fucking man in reverse. That's daunting for some men, I suppose."
Such a stance is appealing to LaBruce, who really lives the idea that the personal is political. He reveals that about a year and a half ago, he began dating a devout Muslim, a pre-9/11 experience that has been rather eye-opening. "When 9/11 happened there was a lot of knee-jerk violence and suspicion towards Muslims. You could even feel it here in Toronto. To be in a loving relationship with him, I've learned the side of the religion about peace and sensuality, an appreciation of the gifts God has bestowed."
There are photographs of LaBruce's swarthy lover in the show and they do reveal a new direction, a more considered kind of iconoclasm that's perhaps even more of a tightrope walk -- one between spiritual belief and sex bombs.
This is not to suggest that LaBruce has gotten all mushy on us. As with his traversing of art and raunchy sex, he'll continue to make unexpected leaps. "I've been busy hopping back and forth across the lines," he says. It's a practice that ought to be interesting for a while.