In The Mood

by Stuart Horodner

Lingering glances and sweaty palms.  Unzipping your dress.  Taking your pants off.  You have your memories, I have mine.  And the participating artists have theirs.  For Sex Drive I have selected photographs, drawings, paintings, videos, sculptures, and installations to shape a multi-voiced story about desire, power, and difference.  The exhibition title suggests that sex has a momentum, a propulsive and attractive force.  “Sex drive” is here understood as the compulsion to sex and the compulsion to come to terms with one’s own identity, orientations, and affiliations through sex.

David Wojnarowicz
Untitled (One Day This Kid….)
1990, Photostat, edition of 10
The work included in this exhibition is a 4 x 6 feet vinyl reproduction of the original
Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

Two recent socio-political events frame this exhibition, events that occurred after the show was scheduled and works selected—all but one.  First, on December 22nd President Barack Obama signed legislation that repeals “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the seventeen-year-old law barring gays and lesbians from openly serving in the U.S. military.  Second, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, under pressure from prominent religious and political figures, removed a four-minute excerpt from David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, which was included in their exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.  This film expressed the artist’s grief and rage when his mentor and former lover Peter Hujar fell ill with AIDS in 1987.  The simultaneity of a watershed moment in the evolution of civil rights and an act of censorship over an 11-second film sequence showing a crucifix besieged by ants, tells us that matters of the flesh remain contentious and timely.

We’re never simply alone with ourselves or others when driven to sex: our desires touched by the state, by religious edicts, family rites, and favorite stories: Inspired by Joe Brainard’s classic 1975 memoir, I Remember (which includes the entry, “I remember playing doctor with Joyce Vantries.  I remember her soft white belly.  Her large navel.  And her little slit between her legs.  I remember rubbing my ear against it.”), I am including a partial list of my own influences:

Fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields staring out from Calvin Klein jean ads in 1980, and saying, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”  Listening to Teddy Pendergrass’s Turn Off The Lights, Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, and Starland Vocal Band’s Afternoon Delight, with the lyric, “Rubbing sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite / And the thought of rubbin’ you is getting so exciting.”  Reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and George Bataille’s The Story of The Eye.  Watching a nervous adolescent Hermie trying to buy condoms in The Summer of ’42, and a middle-aged Marlon Brando asking Maria Schneider to get the butter in Last Tango in Paris. Standing in museums and galleries, looking at Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series, and the Sue Williams painting, Are You Porn or Anti-Porn?

Along with ongoing emotional and legal battles over gay marriage and the steady media coverage of various sex scandals, these were the images, moods, and other artifacts I had in mind when considering works for Sex Drive.

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Even seemingly straightforward images and texts encountered in childhood cultivate and constrain our drives, and so it is not surprising to find artists mining the storybooks and comics of their youth.  Larry Jens Anderson’s illustrative drawings borrow the iconic boy from Dick and Jane readers as a surrogate for his young self, trying to make sense of his predilections for art, fashion, and sports in the rural community of Randall, Kansas, population 250.  He uses gender-coded colors of blue and pink, places his protagonists amidst constellations of fruit, and renders droopy phallus-like shower nozzles in the locker-room of his imagination.  Steve Gianakos’s painting Schlong is typical of the canvases and collages that make up his playfully vulgar oeuvre.  For decades, the artist has wreaked havoc with ideas of innocence and propriety, showing prepubescent boys and girls in ribald situations that seem perfectly natural to them but embarrassing or disturbing to viewers.  His work has a distinct, polymorphously perverse spirit, as well as something of the entertaining/instructive aspect of classic limericks like this one:

There was a young man with a fiddle
Who asked of his girl, “Do you diddle?”
She replied, “Yes, I do,
But prefer it with two—
It’s twice as much fun in the middle.”

David Wojnarowicz’s One Day This Kid… is a black and white Photostat collage from 1990, featuring a portrait of the artist as a smiling 1950s boy surrounded by alarming words that outline a life of suffering.  Wojnarowicz uses the refrain of “One day this kid,” to build tension and gain sympathy for the vulnerable soul who “discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.”  With the permission of the artist’s estate and his gallery representation, this work is reproduced as a graphic applied to a free-standing wall.  It is the first image one sees upon entering the gallery and was the last work added to the checklist.  Its inclusion aligns the exhibition with the many arts professionals, institutions, and funding agencies who issued swift and strong responses denouncing the Smithsonian’s troubling curatorial decision.

If youth is one prism through which artists scrutinize the subject of sex, then age is another.  After turning 60, John Coplans began taking self-portrait photographs, showing his naked body in various poses at close range.  Never including his face, Coplans focuses on the formal attributes of his weighty torso, bent hands and feet, and sagging skin. His work offers a meditation on male beauty, and how we might accept or deny a recalibrated sexuality informed by maturation and mortality.  Entertaining his fantasies and recognizing his diminished energies, Leon Golub’s drawings in oil stick and ink are populated by lascivious women and satyrs on the prowl.  They reveal a sardonic artist in his 80s, playfully examining power and mixing references to mythology and modernity.  A student of masculinity and art history, Golub would invariably see himself in lock-step with Pablo Picasso, whose lusty late etchings reveal a self-aware master with eros (and loss) on the brain.

In the pre-computer era, adolescents might have had their first encounters with naked bodies in print via National Geographic, with the breasts and penises of indigenous peoples documented on its pages.  It was this magazine that sat out in the open on living room tables across America, while soft-core publications created by Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione were hidden in closets or basements for the private pleasures of older brothers or fathers.  This scenario reverberates in Anissa Mack’s untitled sculpture featuring a small painted bronze Jack O’ Lantern (based on a child’s paper-mâché original) sitting on top of a stack of vintage Playboys.  The open mouth of the pumpkin is both a scream of horror and a cartoon vagina dentata.

I can recall the magic moment in my teens when I discovered the The Joy of Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex in the Health and Human Sexuality section at Barnes & Noble.  I poured over these books for hours, but not before relocating them to the much less populated Military section, where I hid them inside larger books about ships and historical battles.  The illustrations in these classic manuals are tame when compared to Patricia Cronin’s candid watercolors that offer cropped views of lesbian love-making seen from intimate angles; and Ion Birch’s pencil drawings of alfresco orgies with clean cut teenagers wielding engorged phalluses and eager orifices.

Erotic art arouses us at various speeds and by utilizing distinct strategies of seduction.  Melanie Manchot’s video Kiss presents a teenage couple consumed in a ten-minute lip-lock, their intense focus making them oblivious to other passengers on a moving bus.  Lynn Cazabon weaves together film stock from various pornographic sources (bought, found, and made) to create large photograms that pulse with saturated colors and crisscrossing elements.  From a distance, they seem to be benign tartan fabrics, but upon closer inspection they reveal lustful acts and aroused body parts.  Duncan Grant’s tender figure studies show priapic male nudes dancing and hugging each other, expressing a joyful esprit de corpsPeter Hujar’s portrait of Daniel Shook sucking his big toe reveals a solitary man in the process of pleasuring himself.  His legs and arms are contorted to make this oral act possible, and the photograph expresses both tension and trust. It is this combination that informs Hujar’s pictures of his vulnerable or celebrated friends and colleagues and influenced the photographers that followed his example, including Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin.  Leigh Ledare has explored intimacy and Oedipal issues in photographs featuring his mother, Tina Peterson, shown pulling her panties down or reclining with boyfriends in various states of undress.  His contribution to Sex Drive is his re-edit of a soft-core spanking film she attempted to make with family friends.  The artist received the footage as a gift with instructions to “make something out if it.”  Ledare exploits expectations about family values and taboo, and his work has some of the shock value of surprising confessions made by public figures: Woody Allen justified his affair with wife Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, saying, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

“Practice makes perfect” is a mantra applied to many creative pursuits, and it certainly is relevant to sexual experimentation.  Andres Serrano is a photographer who has investigated subjects including religion, death, racial hatred, and homelessness.  His A History of Sex series documents diverse sexual practices including bondage, bestiality, urination, and fisting.  In Heaven and Hell, he pairs a bound and blood-splattered female nude and a poised Catholic cardinal in vibrant red vestments.  That the clergyman is “played” by painter Leon Golub is an inspired act of casting and an art world inside joke.  Forest McMullin also juxtaposes contradictory figures, and his Day/Night diptychs present men and women in decidedly different poses.  One side shows them dressed for work or public interactions, and the other has them sporting the outfits and brandishing the whips, chains, ball gags, and masks necessary to realize their private predilections.

“Sex is the biggest nothing of all time,” said Andy Warhol.  Transforming oneself through make-up, dress, body sculpting, and role-playing are ways that we can test sexual identities, live out our fantasies, and make something of this nothing.  Claude Cahun (born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob) began making self-portraits in 1912, and her photographs show a sexually ambiguous figure, elaborately costumed and playing to the camera with knowing glances.  Christopher Makos was a friend and collaborator of Andy Warhol, photographing him extensively for many years.  His Altered Image shows the enigmatic artist in drag, inspired by Man Ray’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp dressed as his alter-ego Rrose Sélavy.  Clarissa Sligh‘s photo essay, Jake in transition from female to male, chronicles the physical and psychological stages of a gender reassignment, and links the transsexual state to African-American narratives of “passing” for white.

Governmental rules and religious orthodoxies regarding sex and love put the latter at risk and provoke practical as well as artistic invention.  Mira Schor’s multi-paneled painting War Frieze incorporates images of breasts, penises, and veils, as well as language appropriated from political discourse.  The phrase “area of denial,” rendered in a hairy cursive script, references a particular land mine developed by the United States and sold to Iraq before the first Gulf War.  “Area of denial,” applied here to male and female forms, aptly redescribes the body as a battlefield. Patricia Cronin, inspired by 19th-century war memorials and mortuary sculpture and incensed by the prohibition of gay marriage in the United States, produced Memorial To A Marriage, a three-ton Carrara marble monument depicting Cronin and her partner (the artist Deborah Kass) in a loving horizontal embrace.  Installed at the couple’s plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, the piece remains on view through eternity, addressing the officialdom of love and loss.  Michael Patterson-Carver‘s drawings are filled with colorful figures protesting various injustices.  Holding home-made signs and smiling, they gather together in solidarity.

Public figures including politicians, athletes, movie stars, religious leaders, and teachers have consistently been embroiled in fascinating sexual narratives.  With this in mind, artists Vertna Bradley and Nancy VanDevender were each commissioned to create works for Sex Drive, using open source materials gathered from the Internet.  Working in consort with Haverford’s Hurford Humanities Center student-run seminar Digital Fame, as well as other students at the Center, Bradley created a video compilation; VanDevender, a wallpaper design.  Both feature accumulations of images and information from the now familiar order of scandals in process: accusation, denial, evidence, apology, forgiveness, redemption.

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Sex Drive asks us to consider the conventions that govern sexuality, as well as its unruly power.  Though but one possible collection of historical and contemporary artworks dealing with sex, this exhibition gets some satisfaction by examining a subject that is inextricably bound up with everyday life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.