“I didn’t know that Artists Space had a private sex room that also functions as an auditorium,” the writer and curator Bob Nickas observed last night, speaking in the basement of the alternative space’s Walker Street bookstore.
“If this was a sex club,” the artist Collier Schorr chimed in, “there would be no sneakers allowed.”
The exchange, followed by a round of nervous laughter from the audience, was an appropriate start for a panel discussion on the legacy of Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, whose graphically sexual drawings are currently the subject of an Artists Space show titled “The Pleasure of Play.” He died in 1991, in his early seventies. His works, which feature muscular, leather-jacketed men engaging in orgiastic sex acts, provided inspiration to the three artists discussing him—Schorr, Carlos Motta and Nayland Blake—and to Nickas, who noted that the art was “kind of wholesome, if you think of that as being wholesome. It could be the most natural thing in the world.” He continued, “It arouses, inspires a lot of people,” adding that he doesn’t think of the work as being pornographic.
Where Tom—as everyone on the panel affectionately referred to him—is concerned, pornography is the elephant in the room. “The problem that we often come up against,” Blake said, “is that we are so indoctrinated in the whole idea of talking about pornography as a problem or a lessening of something that, when we find that something is good or appeals to us, we try to rescue it from the pornographic. I don’t think we need to do that with Tom.”
Blake recalled going to the porn store on Christopher Street (“How many guys here remember it?” he asked) in the late ’70s. It was there that he first saw reprints of Tom of Finland’s work for Physique Pictorial. “You had to be a researcher and an archivist to find these things,” Blake said. “They were not readily available.”
In 1988, Blake interviewed Tom of Finland for Outlook and learned about his artistic process. “If he lost his hard-on, he would chuck the drawing,” Blake said. “They were meant to arouse.” His admirers’ fantasies made their way into this work via fan mail. It was, as Blake put it, “an unalienated relationship to art-making.”
Tom maintained a utopian view of the gay community, even when he was exploited by it. (The late art dealer known as Hudson, and Tom of Finland Foundation president Durk Dehner, were the only two people who didn’t in some way rip him off, Blake noted.)
When it was Motta’s turn to speak, the conversation took a turn for the academic. The Colombian-born artist started out by showing Mayan sculptures and colonialist drawings of homosexual orgies. The colonialist work was implicitly political—it was meant to make these scenes seem depraved or violent. “The way that we think about sexuality and these orgiastic scenes is ultimately tied to an act of erasure and repression,” Motta said.
Motta pointed to the veiled Nazi, police, sailor, and authority imagery in Tom’s work, arguing that he “used these types and turned agents of authority into agents of pleasure,” Motta said.
For her part, Schorr recalled a shoot she did in the ’90s for Honcho, a porn magazine that ran artist commissions. After the shoot, she decided to make a video with the same model, and set it on the Intrepid. The plan was that he would don a leather jacket and she would pretend to have sex with him. Instead, he went rogue, and started masturbating in public, and the two were promptly arrested. (They were never charged for making pornography, though; as it happened, in the resulting video, a railing on the boat acted as a fig leaf.)
It was Tom’s work that allowed her to even mentally stage works like this. His drawings, she said, were “nostalgic” and “a complete reminder of a separate world, and not necessarily an accommodating world.” Tom’s work, she noted, gave many gay men access to a fantasy they could never have had without it. “Maybe, for a lot of gay men, that’s their Diary of Anne Frank,” she said. “Every Jewish girl has to read Diary of Anne Frank, right? You see yourself in a character, even though that character is from another period.”