Art as turn-on

A new book, coauthored by John Waters, is like looking behind the scenes at a perverted gallery opening.


Glen Helfand
January 9, 2004 1:42AM (UTC)

It takes a special someone to find contemporary art sexy. It's not difficult to find someone who gets a little frisson of pleasure from a photo of the naked and nubile, or the unflinching documentation of a subversive act of penetration. But there's something rarer and more perverse about being turned on, both physically and mentally, by complex, perhaps obtuse works at the Museum of Modern Art or those crazy galleries in Chelsea.

That is one of the premises of the brain- and sometimes groin-titillating new volume by filmmaker-artist John Waters and critic-curator Bruce Hainley. In "Art: A Sex Book" the kind of contemporary artworks that usually lead unseasoned viewers to simply scratch their heads and dismiss the whole arena of hoity-toity galleries are sprayed with an alluring conceptual scent of musk. The authors give a new and often sexy spin to images that don't initially scream with sensuality, and they offer more serious consideration to images with uncloaked porno roots -- for example, Claude Wampler's indelible photograph titled "Scrotum Yarmulke," a wacky image of a guy pulling his balls over the head of his lapdog.

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Like beauty, the notion of sexiness is in the eye of the beholder, and here the eyes belong to a pair of art world denizens with well-articulated, somewhat exclusive tastes that careen from high to low and back again. It's fairly common knowledge that John Waters has a thing for the perverse as well as contemporary art -- passions that came together in his 1998 film "Pecker," wherein he satirizes both the making and the consumption of contemporary art. Besides making films, he's a noted collector and has some fun with gallery-world conventions by making his own photo pieces and clever sculptures (which will be the subject of an exhibition at New York's New Museum in February).

L.A.-based Bruce Hainley, who spearheaded this publishing project and invited Waters to collaborate, is one of the most interesting and opinionated voices in contemporary art criticism. His writing for Artforum offers a particularly queer eye for art and culture. (In his 2003 top 10 list in the current issue of the mag, he cites the So Cal soap "The O.C." as "Douglas Sirk on Ecstasy," a notion that deeply resonates in certain circles.)

"Art: A Sex Book" is a collaboratively organized group exhibition -- one with a perversely carnal theme -- in book form. The idea that the author-curators are creating a "sexual space" is made evident by titling the book's chapters "rooms." Each contains thematically or visually connected artworks that enhance an erotic reading. These spaces are simply numbered, and behind each "door" are provocative visual morsels that reveal the pleasure in curating, in pointing to unexpected connections between unlikely images. Given Waters' involvement, it's not surprising that the tone of the project is queer, as in peculiar.

How else can one term the inclusion of inherently unsexy works like a reproduction of a one-hour-photo receipt by "Kids"-meister Larry Clark or a deadpan color image of a generic airport tarmac by the Swiss art duo known as Fischli & Weiss? You'll have to read the transcripts of the often entertaining, sometimes pretentious conversation between the two authors to get the context, which is intermittently convincing. These interview-style texts, however, also point to the erotic allure of a good dialogue, one that meanders from the hipster sacred to the profane.

Waters and Hainley introduce the volume revealing their stance as collectors and critics:

"JW: Contemporary art is sex. The artists, the cute kids working in the galleries, the paperwork from the galleries, the crating and shipping, all the young 'hangers on' crashing the openings -- it's all about sex.

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"BH: Sex is a prime motivator for making contemporary work, even when the art doesn't seem to have anything to do with sex or nudity. Making art -- especially if it's interesting art -- is a sexy occupation."

But they're not above getting irreverent about things. Here they are discussing a thick, oozing 1992 painting:

"BH: What do you imagine the drips and stains in Carl Ostendarp's Pillow Talk to be?

"JW: Well, they're brown. So I always think it's what they used to call a 'log jam.' However, someone I know said 'cum.' I don't think anyone would ever say 'Jello.' Maybe it's 'skid marks.'"

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Of course, there are more graphic iterations of flesh and curious practices here. There are a few pop artifacts like the cover of the gay-for-pay Old Reliable video catalog, with its selection of naked, cigar-chomping str8 dudes brandishing hard-ons, and a good selection of male stripper snapshots by the infamous fan with an Instamatic, Gary Boas (who also offers a fantastic 1975 picture of thespian goddess Geraldine Page with truly scary hair).

But more often the carnality is filtered through more artistic eyes. Jeff Burton, who has created an interesting body of work by photographing from the sidelines of gay porn shoots, is represented here with more explicit imagery than he's published before. The pictures, most dated 1999 and scattered through the book, are shots that while graphic aren't necessarily erotic. One pinkish-hued photo shows two dicks docking (that is, one tucked into the other's foreskin); another depicts a side view of a formidable but limp penis dangling disembodied in a dark glory hole. The curved dick contrasts with a grid of chain that dominates the composition. In the parlance of contemporary art history, the picture evokes Eva Hesse's merging rigid modernist structure with the pliable uncertainty of genitalia.

A queer heterosexual viewpoint is represented by pervy images of women by Richard Kern, who contributes a memorable image of a voluptuous mother-daughter duo who fondle their large breasts and genitals on a couch. Waters aptly comments that it's difficult to tell which woman is which. Another of Kern's images, of a woman whose rope-bound breasts are reddening balls, is paired with a more enigmatic formalist sculpture by Vincent Fecteau -- an artist that Hainley fervently champions and Waters collects -- a piece that features two small wooden spheres set within a vaguely architectural space. This kind of unexpected juxtaposition is Waters and Hainley's more usual trope in this volume, and quite often it leads us in fascinating, eye-opening directions.

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That said, this Sex Book doesn't always transcend the chilliness of its art-world-insider position, even if the art-speak is peppered with references to funky things like camel toes and trade. But the authors aren't necessarily aiming for mass appeal. Waters has described his playful interest in equating a gallery's back room, that place with the secret stash of goodies that dealers reserve for special customers, with the similarly named grope chamber in a smoky gay bar. If those two locations have meaning for you, "Art: A Sex Book" will feel just like home.


Glen Helfand

Glen Helfand writes about art and culture for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and other publications.

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