The opening reception for Mark I. Chester's SEXART 3 exhibition proved to be as startling and outrageous a gathering as many of us were predicting. Some 500 people lined up down the stairs and down the block, waiting for their chance to tour the hundreds of photographs, sculptures, paintings, and friezes that literally covered the rooms, the halls, the doors, and even the entranceway of Mark's Folsom Gallery.
In addition to the wonderful variety of work being shown there was plenty of live entertainment to catalyze the energy of a remarkably diverse group of art enthusiasts, sexual explorers, and general curiosity seekers. Framed by the bay window in the front room, a masked and bound man in full leather regalia -- leathers that left only his midriff, his upper arms, and his nicely trussed cock and balls exposed - - was available for people to tease or torment as they chose. In the adjacent room, another man -- naked and blindfolded, raised arms shackled to hooks in the ceiling -- offered every inch of his body as a tableau for graffiti, and dozens of men and women of all ages and persuasions took turns adorning his front, his back, his arms his legs, his butt and his cock with pictures, comments, and random doodles. In a third room, photographer Will Roger encouraged individuals, couples, and groups of adventurous souls to cavort before his camera in various degrees of physical and emotional undress. Writers such as Spectator columnist Carol Queen punctuated the evening with enthusiastically received readings of their work.
During the four weeks of the show, over 2000 people took the opportunity to review the broad spectrum of sexual artwork on display, with 1300 people stopping by on the day of the Folsom Street Fair alone. Seems that finally, after years of tireless, imaginative, and loving curating, the word is out about Mark's shows of unusual and provocative sexual and sex-related art. It's good to see Mark getting some of the appreciation and response he so thoroughly deserves.
Cock Ring Ken
Maybe it's a marketing ploy, maybe it's a clever piece of queer subversion of the heartland, maybe it's even just a big old misunderstanding, as Mattel Toys's public relations people tirelessly and straight-facedly insist. But Mattel's new Earring Magic Ken Doll -- replete with two-tone hair, a lavender mesh body shirt, lavender vest, lavender-stitched jeans and -- yes, indeed -- a shiny chrome cock ring hanging on a chain around his neck, seems to be the hottest-selling addition to the Barbie-Ken family in quite some time.
Yes, that's right, little girls from coast to coast who live in the fantasmagoric world of Barbie and Ken are at this very minute playing with miniature cock rings, thanks to Mattel, and thanks to the wonderful ability of American culture to absorb any and everything in its path, no matter how theoretically offensive or subversive, as long as it adds something to the profit margin.
There is something truly heart-warming about the utter amorality of American greed. Thus, in the 70s, Abbie Hoffman could promote revolution with the backing of a major publishing house because protesters were a market and so everyone knew that Steal This Book would sell. If you want to make social change in America, all you have to do is become a market. Blacks did it; women did it; now gays have done it too. One dollar, one vote -- what could be more equitable?
So now, Mattel can validate and promote queer chic fashion even to the point of cock rings, because queer chic sells. And, no two ways about it, Earring Magic Ken is a hit. With all the not-so-little queer boys lining up with all the straight little girls to get an Earring Magic Ken of their very own, stores around the country are having trouble keeping up with the demand. Even the media are beginning to take notice, which is to say we have reached the critical mass of Phenomenon.
Mattel, of course, is demurring all the way to the bank. Making money by selling little girls miniature cock rings is one thing; copping to what's going on is something else again. According to Mattel, it's not a cock ring at all that's dangling from the chain around Ken's neck (with another hanging from a strap at the waist of his vest). It's just a necklace to hold the charm with Barbie's name that comes with the doll as an accessory earring. Educating little girls about the virtues of cock rings would be, Mattel protests, batting its corporate eyelashes offendedly, "entirely inappropriate." That chrome cock ring pendants and jacket adornments have been mainstays of gay style for years is, they say, just one big coincidence.
What are we to believe, dear readers? Did someone actually stand up and propose at a Mattel research and development meeting that the company actively seek a gay market with Earring Magic Ken? Did some mischievous art director, assigned the task of designing a more hip Ken variant to appeal to the girls who were finding traditional Ken more and more lame, slip the cock rings (and the lavender mesh shirt) past an unsuspecting review committee, then go home to his lover, chortling "You'll never guess what I pulled off at work today?"
No one will ever know, but the marketing success of Earring Magic Ken should guarantee at least a few imitations. And so the American Way incorporates with one hand what it reviles with the other. How perfectly ironic. Of course, as Dan Savage notes in City Pages, "while Ken now has a cock ring, he still doesn't have a cock," so when the girls and boys have Earring Magic Ken hump Barbie and alter-Ken the cock rings will, alas, add nothing to the experience. But with thousands of cock rings in the Barbie-Ken dollhouses of America, a major bastion of the white-picket-fence monolith has been breached. Now if we can just arrange for a future Miss America to reveal, the day after her coronation, that she's really not a miss at all.... Sweet dreams, Jesse Helms: We are everywhere. The times, as the curly-headed prophet once sang, they are a-changing.
Thou Shalt Not in London...
On the other hand, the rear guard (excuse the pun) of the retreating army of cultural dinosaurs is not without its ability to harass and destroy on the way out. Barbara Alper -- a delightful New York photographer whose skillful work deals with such subject matter as s/m, sexuality in general, male and female erotic dancers, and men masturbating -- called the other day to say that a package containing forty slides and one 11"x14" print of her work was seized by British customs September 1 en route to London's Akehurst Gallery. Akehurst was to begin to represent Barbara's work in London. The photographs, say the guardians of Britain's cultural propriety, is pornographic. This means that Barbara and/or Akehurst have thirty days to lay claim to the work and appeal the seizure, otherwise it will be destroyed. Akehurst, much to Barbara's disgust, has gone into a panic about the whole affair and is trying to wash its hands of the entire matter (and of Barbara, of course), lest they be prosecuted under British law for possession and promotion of pornography. After days of refusing to so much as return Barbara's frantic phone calls, the gallery has informed her that it would be far too costly to pursue anything like an appeal of the seizure. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Britain is one of those countries that make you want to tear your hair out when it comes to censorship. (New Zealand, Australia, and Canada are equally bad -- what is it about the Commonwealth? -- and Japan is not far behind.) Even my rather mild and (dare I say) wholesome book of erotic photography, Erotic by Nature, cannot be legally distributed in Britain since it too would be seized at the border by Her Majesty's most vigilant thought police. (We did manage to sneak a few books into Britain in packages of five copies each, small parcels apparently tiptoeing past the guards more invisibly than larger ones.) British photographer Ron Oliver recently had his studio raided in a manner reminiscent of the 1990 nightmare of San Francisco photographer Jock Sturges. Like Sturges, Oliver had his photographic equipment, his prints, and his negatives seized, prompting him to leave the country entirely.
While Barbara may lose her slides and her print, and has already lost, much more significantly, her opportunity to have her work represented by Akehurst, she is not about to go softly into the sweet night of oblivion. Anti-censorship groups such as Feminists for Free Expression in the U.S. and Article 19 in Britain have come to her defense, and she has contacted British freedom-of-expression lawyer Mark Stevens (who represented Robert Mapplethorpe when his work ran afoul of the squeaky cleans) to see what can be done to overturn the customs ruling and perhaps take the entire matter to court.
...But Thou Might in Fresno...
Meanwhile, in Fresno, a powerful and disturbing, if much less sexual exhibit at the Fresno Art Museum by Sexart 3 photographer Tom Millea (The Jennifer Desmond Series) has also ruffled more than a few feathers. Combining mystery, emotional intensity, unconventionality, body modification, and more than a little madness, the 52?-photo panorama took the art patrons of Fresno more than a little by surprise when it opened June 25th. "Disgusting!" said one woman, staring at a nude photo of Jennifer standing, her knees flexed powerfully, a silver ring adorning her labia. "I don't want to look," complained another, "I have better things to do with my eyes."
Curator/Executive Director Robert Barrett was more amused than disturbed by the troubled reactions of Fresno's art elite at the opening. The museum's board meeting to discuss the show was, he said, "one of the most interesting board meetings we've had. The board is so stimulated!" he exulted. "It's wonderful."
Barrett's amusement may have been a bit muted in the days that followed, when four board members threatened to resign in protest. When I called Barrett to ask him what had happened, he pooh-poohed the whole thing. It was, he said, "like when you have a teenager who's throwing a tantrum. You let the tantrum pass, then later you can talk reasonably. By the time we got through dinner two of the four were assuaged, and by the following week the others were fine, too."
How do you deal with wealthy patrons of the arts all in a flutter? Barrett says he explained how piercings would not be considered offensive if they were shown on non-European bodies, how female nudes and violent emotion are common in older more established art. He also made a point of listening carefully to their objections and of encouraging them to remember their own feelings of pleasure and excitement. Perhaps the bottom line was the deep respect given Barrett by the people on his board. "They would always, always respect me," Barrett insists. "There are just some situations where board members don't stop to remember that I curated this."
Nonetheless, five of the photos were removed for three weeks, until a modicum of peace could be restored to what Barrett describes as a closeknit family of people with deep respect for each other. The Fresno Bee came through with a respectful, if cautious, review, speaking of the series as "a dark and compelling body of work [with] a distinctly otherworldly quality [and] dream-like scenes that suggest echoes of the hallucinatory age."
As for the public, comments in the museum's "talk back book" ranged from "I am deeply moved, to the point of tears" and "oh my god, it makes me so horny" to "very sad and evil; life without Christ is life without love," "why explore the dark side and the evil of satanic, possessed people," and "I can't believe anyone would call this art."
Photographer Tom Millea was simultaneously surprised, overwhelmed, and saddened by the extreme reactions to his work. "I didn't expect it," he says quietly. "To have what I saw as beautiful be received in such negative ways, and seen as evil, was the last thing I expected. Originally, I was devastated at the negativity of the response. Over time I realized that, as much as I hate the negative comments when they're directed at me personally, they're still a very powerful response. Even in their denial, people are being affected, though certainly not in ways I hoped or envisioned. I wanted to touch people, not frighten them. But maybe that's my job, being out there to take the flak."
...And Thou Probably Canst Indeed in Santa Cruz
Even progressive Santa Cruz has its erotic nay-sayers, as artist Myra Dorn discovered when a collection of her evocative, sometimes erotic drawings and paintings went on display at the county administrative building. Several disgruntled county employees, outraged it seems to see even mildly erotic representation (let alone, you know, women's... breasts and... nipples), vowed to organize a call-in campaign to have the work removed.
The Santa Cruz County Cultural Council, curator of county building art shows, keeps a phone on site so that irate people can vent their objections to various works of art. If a certain number of protest calls are received, the work on display is reviewed.
Despite a number of calls, the Cultural Council stood by Myra's work, allowing her drawings and paintings to stay up for the full six weeks of the show. (Undaunted, one objector pasted white tape over one of the offending nipples.) Now that the show is over, both Myra and the Cultural Council seem relieved. "I really don't like the idea of my work making other people uncomfortable," Myra says with a laugh. "It's just that there's no way to know what people are going to find objectionable and what they'll consider okay."