The Tom of Finland Foundation, a 20-year-old organization dedicated to preserving and promoting erotic art, held its fourth annual art fair at the LGBT Community Center this past weekend. The exhibition of the work of 40 artists transformed the ground floor meeting hall of the Center into a panorama of tumescent, uncircumcised penises and hirsute lumberjacks exposing their furry posteriors.
“This is more bear art than anything else,” said one visitor, referring to the gay subculture of men who define themselves as bears and whose erotic fixations center on beards, body hair, and, shall we say, the middle-age spread.
The visitor had perhaps not made it through the entire fair.
In addition to depictions of bears, there were also sketches and paintings glorifying young male bodies – the Greek Adonis archetype; photographic studies of the male nude as body builder, athlete, and “twink;” raunchy illustrations detailing multiple sex acts; collages of images torn from hard-core skin mags; and three-dimensional sculptures made of wood.
This kind of art recently took a step up the art industry’s ladder, from pornography to high art, with the acceptance of six Tom of Finland drawings into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
Touko Laaksonen, who died in 1991, was an artist who drew homoerotic images under the pseudonym Tom of Finland. The style and themes of his drawings became world famous for their expression of a fantasy sex world built around square-jawed blue collar and military men. Initially, Laaksonen founded the Tom of Finland organization with a Canadian, Durk Dehner, its current director, in order to ensure an archive for his artistic work. However, with the devastation wrought by AIDS in the erotic art community, the Tom of Finland Foundation extended its mission to encompass preservation of all erotic art. The permanent collection now includes over 1,500 original Tom of Finland works, and 1,500 works by other artists. The archive contains more than 500,000 images, documents and memorabilia, comprising the world’s largest collection of erotic art.
The foundation hosts an annual “Erotic Art Weekend” as a public program to further its mission.
Artists came from across the country and around the world to display and sell their creations, including artists from Canada, France, and Israel.
Toronto-based photographer Dale Bolivar showed figurative photographs of single models, to which he had added neon-bright outlines and patterned overlays. His style is notable for its aesthetic appeal, in part due to the fact that Bolivar produces series of images on individual models that allow for a extensive studies of each man’s body and expressions.
The illustrator Belasco, widely described as the modern-day Tom of Finland, creates graphic comic books of African American men bonding in not only homoerotic, but also racial solidarity. One strip in the collection “Brothers of New Essex: Afro Erotic Adventures” depicts a black man, exhausted by a day of racialized office politics, coming home to sex and comfort with his stay-at-home lover.
Photographer JD Dragan of Philadelphia sold classic black and white prints of black male nudes. His work is strongly reminiscent of Robert Mapplethorpe’s, but also of the African American artists Lyle Ashton and Thomas Allen Harris, whose nude self-portraits in the early 1990s destabilized the racist reading of Mapplethorpe’s mode of visual representation.
“Whether the image is classically reminiscent of another era or brashly modern in execution, I want the viewer to gain entry into what lies behind the eyes of the man,” said Dragan in an artist’s statement. “My ongoing challenge is to capture a male nude in a fashion that is not objectified.”
Another strong standout at this year’s fair was the work of New Jersey-based artist Will Hübscher. Starting with black and white photographs, some of them vintage, Hübscher adds color, texture and dimension. The artist showed erotic images of unexpected subjects, such as the portrait “Femme Arabe avec la Yachmak,” a portrait in gray and yellow of a woman in an Islamic burka, whose breasts are exposed. “It was a tourist photo from 1920 that I found,” said Hübscher. He reproduced the exposed breast several times in his piece, making a strong statement about sexual curiosity and what lies beneath.
The fair also included a corner where live nude models posed while artists sketched away.
Late in the day on Sunday, with collectors making last minute purchases, an organizer stood positioning a pair of models so that their penises overlapped just so. A photographer moved in close to capture the moment. “Please don’t stand in front of the models,” said the organizer. “It makes them nervous and they move.”