Tag Archives: erotic

Los Angeles Short & Sweet

Forms & Flavors of Love

It is time for the obligatory post of thankfulness. So who better to talk about than Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin? These two artists may not be the first who come to mind when you gather around the table and think about your blessings—hopefully some combination of love, good health and family—but if I move deeper, towards the central theme of those blessings, I think that an open eyed appreciation of the physical body, the pleasures and pains it can bring and the connection it affords us, are actually the perfect themes for a thanksgiving. Today, I am thankful for daring artists, for troublemakers, for people who refused shame or false piety and intertwined visual and physical pleasure. This is art that makes me thankful to be alive, in all my flawed and messy glory.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Rose, NYC (Y Portfolio), 1977, Gelatin Silver Print. (c) The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Rose, NYC (Y Portfolio), 1977, Gelatin Silver Print. (c) The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Currently on display at LACMA are Mapplehorpe’s X,Y and Z Portfolios, hung staggered above one another, like lines of free verse. Augmenting the literary sense of the work, the photographs are displayed with their portfolio cases and the original writings that were published with them: poems by Patti Smith and Paul Schmidt, and an essay by Edmund White. In this installation, beyond marveling at his formal skills, I understood the depth of Mapplethorpe’s classicism and the continuity between his darkly sexual still lives, the fragility of the body engaged in S&M rituals and the well-loved surface and forms of the black male nudes. Each portfolio tells a compelling story of it’s own, but together they are a  revelation.


Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim, Sausilito. X Portfolio, 1977. Gelatin Silver Print. (c) The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

I am in Seattle for Thanksgiving, and have had the chance to visit the Seattle Art Museum’s survey show Elles:Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris which is accompanied by Elles:SAM, a major reinstallation of the museum’s own collections of modern and contemporary art that highlights the work of women artists. I’m going to save the feminist polemic for another day, but LA take note: your REI wearing sister to the north is ahead of you on this one.

Still from Heartbeat, 2000-2001 by Nan Goldin. Projection of 245 color slides in sequences of 4 plates accompanied by soundtrack of “Prayer of the Heart” by John Tavener, played by Björk and the Brodsky Quartet; duration 15’08″. Image courtesy of Seattle Art Museum and Centre Georges Pompidou.

Still from Heartbeat, 2000-2001 by Nan Goldin. Projection of 245 color slides in sequences of 4 plates accompanied by soundtrack of “Prayer of the Heart” by John Tavener, played by Björk and the Brodsky Quartet; duration 15’08″. Image courtesy of Seattle Art Museum and Centre Georges Pompidou.

Nan Goldin’s Heartbeat installation took me by surprise, not so much because it contains daringly explicit images of sex and nudity, but because I was so enraptured by a subject that, in the hands of a less sensitive photographer, could easily have been sleazy or dull. Bjork’s soundtrack seduced me into sitting down, but the unfolding stories of different couples kept me engaged. Without idealizing, air-brushing or simplifying, she shows the viewer the casual choreography of intimacy and the way people’s bodies and lives interlock. Yes, there is an aspect of voyeurism, but Goldin’s photos are a lesson in the forms and flavors of love–a lesson at least as old as Plato’s Symposium and still a relevant one. Especially at Thanksgiving.

Los Angeles

The Origin of the Universe

Mickalene Thomas, Origin of the Universe 2, 2012, Rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 60 x 48 inches, Collection of the Hudgins Family, New York, NY, Courtesy of the Artist, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects © Mickalene Thomas, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Photo: Christopher Burke Studio

We are all of us self-inaccessible and can, for example, touch parts of one another in ways that we could not even dream of touching our own bodies.

–David Foster Wallace, Backbone

Currently on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is Mickalene Thomas’s show Origin of the Universe.  The most talked about piece, and the namesake of the show, is Thomas’s appropriation of Gustave Courbet’s LOrigin du Monde—an explicit cropped composition focused on a woman’s spread thighs and vagina. Thomas used herself as the model for the image, pushing her identity as a black gay woman up against the history of Western oil painting. I like the piece from an intellectual stand point, but found it less confrontational or personal than I expected. It was Origin 2 (shown above) that  grabbed my attention.

In a traditional self-portrait an artist is generally painting their face from a photo or a mirror. It is an image that they have seen probably everyday for their entire life. They are intimately aware of its flaws and gestures, and of the emotions hidden behind. In creating a portrait of someone else, the artist uses their own self as a reference, and the resulting painting is a result of the artist’s subjective view of the sitter, inevitably refracted through the lens of their own image and ideas of self-hood. But with a portrait aimed between the legs the rules of engagement are slightly different. Most women don’t spend much of their life looking at their own genitals. Partially this is because as a culture, we are incredibly uncomfortable with the vagina, as demonstrated by the recent ridiculousness over Senator Lisa Brown’s use of the word when discussing an abortion bill. But also, it is not that practical to investigate. We can be intimately familiar with the body of someone else in a way that we simply can’t  know ourselves, and as a gay woman I suspect that this holds particularly true for Thomas and her vagina. Whether the model for Origin 2 is Thomas’s lover (as the security guard informed me) or a friend, the case remains that she paints (and bedazzles) this woman with bold tenderness and sensual fascination, making a more personal feeling piece than the work that is explicitly a self-portrait. Maybe it is the distance from her own vulnerability or maybe it was the choice to move away from Courbet’s original composition, either way it allowed her to relax and reveal herself.

Thomas also quoted Le Sommeil, Courbet’s image of two sleeping women. In Thomas’s version, Sleep : Deux Femmes Noires, the two women unselfconsciously embrace in a forested landscape that also pays homage to Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbeanother problematic though beautiful painting, in which the woman is inexplicably naked while her male companions are fully clothed. Where in the 19th century white women were presented as submissive sensual objects and black women were simply invisible, Thomas presents a vision of two suggestively post-coital black women, celebrated and displayed but not pandering to any particular outside viewer or standards of beauty. This was the strongest piece of the show, bringing together the fractured vibrant landscapes, confident portraits and unabashed sexuality of the various other pieces. I could stand in awe of it for hours.

The show is up until August 19th, when it will move to the Brooklyn Museum.

Los Angeles Short & Sweet

I’ll Shout What You Have Done

"Philomela" (2012) by Jacob Yanes. Cardboard, wood putty, asphalt primer, acrylic eyes and pleated wool (68 x 27 x 16 inches) and cotton jacquard-woven tapestry (80 x 54 inches)

As told in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Philomela was a Greek princess who was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus. Rather than slink away and suffer silently, Philomela screamed that she would shed her shame, and shout to the world what Tereus had done. Horrified by this thought, he cut out her tongue, imprisoned her and raped her again for good measure. Not to be so easily silenced, Philomela managed to communicate her story by weaving a tapestry which she sent to her sister (and Tereus’ wife) Procne.  Revenge — in the form of infanticide– ensues, and the story ends with all three adults being turned into birds by the Gods.

From this gruesome story, artist Jacob Yanes teases out the themes of power, violation and communication. Installed in the upstairs gallery of Steve Turner Contemporary, the striking figure of Philomela stands in front of a tapestry that weaves together Ovid’s text with slave narratives and Yanes’ own words.

The sculpture is smooth, shiny and slick, her eyes staring with an intriguing mix of innocence and removal. Like Yanes’ Soldier, 2010 there is an undercurrent of socially inappropriate eroticism. Is she removing her clothes, numbly participating, or pulling them back on? There is nothing disheveled about her appearance, yet she has already woven the damning tapestry, suggesting that we are coming upon her after her imprisonment. So why the suggestive unbuttoning? To show us her scars? Because, having been abused by Tereus she now mistakes her own vulnerability for love?

As noted in the LA Times review, the blackness of the sculpture smartly inverts the classical Greek tradition.  It also further connects the piece with the slave narratives that intertwine beautifully with Philomela’s story on the tapestry. Her silencing and abuse become tools for thinking about a wealth of abuses, and art (both visual and verbal) becomes a coded method of voicing abuse in a hostile environment.

Alone in the small room with Philomela, I felt uneasy. With her disconcertingly large eyes blazing out of the intense darkness, I thought of a bird emerging from an oil slick. As I tried to combine my thoughts and feeling into a cohesive experience, I didn’t know where I was in relationship to her: fellow victim, potential perpetrator or silent witness?

The piece is on display at Steve Turner until May 26th.


Los Angeles

Nature and Free Animals

In Nature and Free Animals, English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) imagines God berating her for the domestication of dogs, for teaching them “the sicknesses of your mind and the sicknesses of your body.”  She responds petulantly that “it’s all very well to talk like this” and to complain about the way humans treat animals, but reminds God that he created humans and if he doesn’t like the way we act then he only has himself to blame. The poem ends: “What with Nature and Free Animals on the one side/And you on the other,/I hardly know I’m alive.”

Smith’s poem weaves together her anger at the subjugation of animals and her own struggle to find meaning as a human. Though not explicitly stated, I interpret her long struggle with God (he occurs frequently throughout her oeuvre) as a tool for discussing her struggles with patriarchy. In Nature and Free Animals she expresses her paralysis as a woman: not completely free, as she imagines wild animals to be, yet also denied the full agency of a man. Her disgust at the weak servility of dogs is a thinly veiled expression of her feelings towards the role of a wife in the early 20th century.

But Smith is nothing if not ambivalent, and she doesn’t let herself or others of her gender off the hook. By shifting the identity of the speaker in the middle of the poem, the accusation is directed first at the reader, then at herself, then at “God.” No one, even the animals, is blameless and the unequal distribution of power causes unease and dissatisfaction for all parties.

This poem came to mind as I was trying to make sense of the recent works of artists Erin Payne and Amber Hawk Swanson. Though quite different in tone and intention–Payne’s surrogates provide tentative comfort, while Swanson’s is an unnerving reminder of abuse–both artists have created animal surrogates to tackle the messy web of relationships in which they find themselves.

Western Burrowing Owl

Western Burrowing Owl

For the collaborative endeavor In a Landscape where Nothing Officially Exists, a performance/installation that took place at this year’s CAA in Los Angeles, Erin Payne created ragdoll versions of five Californian species that are facing extinction, and then painted portraits of the dolls. The puppets were inspired by the surrogate puppets used to feed the California Condor chicks that are raised in captivity. Simultaneously quiet memorials and loosely rendered playthings, the paintings straddle the childish fantasy of connection with nature and the rational adult, human-centric perspective.

We have a strong imaginative and instinctive attraction to nature and Payne’s pieces capture the primitive desire to connect, understand and represent our natural surroundings.  Dai Toyofuku, one of the artists who organized In a Landscape, suggested that ever since the cave paintings of Chauvet we have been attempting to understand what it means to be human and our own role in the ecosystem by depicting animals. He believes that a deeper engagement with other species as equals would lead to a richer understanding of our own humanity. In creating portraits of the dolls, (what could be more representative of our individualistic, human centered perspective than a portrait?) Payne draws attention to our inability to see animals outside of our own human paradigm and the gaping cultural gap that exists between us and other species.

Yosemite Toad

Yosemite Toad

The Yosemite Toad feels like a familiar storybook character laid out ready for dissection or accidentally suffocated by a curious child (yes, I did that and clearly I still feel guilty), reminding the viewer that our desire to interact with nature often causes more harm than good. Even our attempts at sustainable living can end up making matters worse.

Playing with the flattened perspective of childhood (a world in which dodos and flamingos and talking mice are equally real) Payne brings us forward in time to the point where more familiar creatures (owls, frogs, song birds) start to exist only as fantasies. When our lives are already so removed from nature, does it really make a difference whether these species exist or not?

Tilikum, in progress.

Tilikum, in progress.

Where Payne focuses on the psychology of human responsibility in specific relationship to animals, Amber Hawk Swanson’s Amber Doll->Tilikum transformation highlights the aggressive potential of the oppressed and the destructiveness of captivity in both human-animal and human-human relationships. Over the course of ten days Swanson dismantled the RealDoll Amber (a sex doll made in her likeness, to whom she was married) and resurrected her as a human scale version of  Tilikum, a bull orca whale held in captivity at Sea World. Tilikum is a year younger than Swanson and has been in captivity for almost his entire life. During that time he has killed three people.

Through To Have and To Hold and To Violate: Amber and Doll, Swanson explored issues of agency, power and culpability, witnessing and allowing her Doll self/partner to be violated by strangers. In transforming that same doll into Tilikum, she suggestively ties together the narrative of an aggressive animal in captivity and her own treatment of Amber Doll. Two of the human’s that Tilikum has killed have been his trainers, people with whom he has worked for many years.  In both those instances he did so during performances, implicating the audience in his attacks: if no one paid to see those shows, Tilikum wouldn’t be in captivity and wouldn’t be acting out. The human scale and homemade quality of Swanson’s Tilikum further emphasize our readiness to consume Tilikum and our inability to see him on his own terms.

Seeing the flotsam and jetsam of a human reconstructed as a slightly cartoonish, DIY killer whale is both humorous and disturbing. The fake breasts flopping at the end of the whale’s tail scream of artifice and objectification, tying the physical damage inflicted upon Tilikum by the limitations of his captive existence to the psychological damage of women in a misogynist society.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

But the beauty of Swanson’s work is that, like Smith, she is not making a simple victim out of Tilikum or herself. If the goal of the Amber Doll project was to have victim and victimizer exist simultaneously, Tilikum is the way for them to merge into one contradictory object. Swanson directly inserts herself back into the frame as both sexual aggressor and sexual object, her stiletto jauntily echoing Tilikum’s tail fin, reminding us of the erotic frisson created by a power imbalance.  Where Smith looked with jealous unease at “wild” animals, Swanson comfortably aligns herself with that wildness.

Los Angeles

Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Fantastic Heliotherapy, Dorothea Tanning
Fantastic Heliotherapy, 1944, ink on paper.

Dorothea Tanning passed away on Tuesday. She was 101.

As I read through various articles and obituaries, then roamed the archives of her life’s work, I stumbled across the drawing Fantastic Heliotherapy and immediately settled on that as the title for this blog. Though Tanning was very definitely a Paris/New York artist, the image of a figure struggling to find shelter from the ocean winds in an overgrown sunflower, seems a fitting image for my life as an artist in Los Angeles.  The concept of heliotherapy encapsulates many of the stereotypes about Angelinos (superficial sun worshippers, health and image obsessed, way too relaxed to be serious), and the art produced here (feel good, color field art), whilst, I hope, alluding to the emotionally and intellectually complex work that undercuts those stereotypes, and thrives in this environment.

Certainly, taking Tanning as my patron saint couldn’t hurt. This fiercely creative woman was a prolific painter, who went on to explore sculpture, poetry and prose. She has been a part of my artistic vocabulary since I was an undergraduate, and paintings such as Death and the Maiden, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik transformed my understanding of Surrealism. I had thought of it as a macho movement, full of clever mental twists, but emotionally distant. Not so with Tanning. Her works use absurdity and whimsy as a method for communicating something dark and personal. In Death and the Maiden the classical theme of death/rape is retold in a deadpan and non glamorous fashion, simultaneously funny, sad and uncomfortable, not that unlike a Miranda July movie.

Though she is best known for her paintings, it was her visceral soft sculptures that grabbed my imagination in recent years. Edward Goldman described the one currently on view in LACMA’s In Wonderland show, as “nasty, very nasty”. Tanning herself described the process of making these writhing masses as “very close to lust” and I can believe it. Forty years after their completion, they still pulse with raw erotic energy.

Fingers crossed, some of that seductive daring will rub off on my writing.