MEL ODOM Hard Stuff, 1985 Pencil, dyes and gouache on paper 16 x 13" Collection of the artist
DARK RIDE: A Nocturnal Journey into the World of Erotic Desire
May 08 - Jun 30, 2007
by Jim Eigo
FRom THE ARCHIVE: No. 23: Spring 2007
All our notions of the erotic are rooted in the human body. Corpuscles, muscle fiber, skin cells, nerve endings: for human beings it doesn’t get any realer. Even when the cells in question are not our own, we can readily empathize. And yet, for us humans, sex is always more complicated than the simply physical. For the blissfully oblivious dogs, going at it down on the corner, sex may be unencumbered, itself and nothing else. For Homo sapiens, freighted with an active mind, sex is always contaminated with what it’s not. Of the varied precincts of human endeavor, none seem more exquisitely susceptible to the slightest flicker of the psyche. Sex starts with a deep, gut-tugging physical want that already sets it apart from everything else in human experience. The erotic is infused as well with all that extra-physical stuff that makes up human desire. Maybe that’s why we call it longing: want over a distance we can never hope to bridge.
Erotic art brings to matters of sex, in a formal capacity, the ever-scrutinizing human eye, first the artist’s and then the spectator’s, and introduces a particular kind of mental distance between observer and observed: the aesthetic. And yet, from first sighting, the observed is liable to become the desired as well. Aesthetic distance, when the topic is sex and the subject is sexualized, is inclined to quick and profound erosion. Are we pointing yet? Well then, let’s follow our, uh, bliss on a trip to subterranean realms where those practiced lovers, the physical and the psychological, intermingle like light and shadow.
Memorable erotic artists, in the course of creating a body of work, lay claim to a very particular realm. Every artist’s domain has its own quality of darkness, a flavor, odor, texture, and aura by which we come to know the artist we love (or don’t), a complete sensory world and all its extrasensory spillover. Strong erotic work feels as primal and as deeply shadowed as a Grimm’s fairy tale—all grown up and rated X. The world of the artist is undeniably narrower than the real world, but who’s complaining? Because the work is as focused on its needs as a hard-on, it offers the promise of an aesthetic equivalent to climax.
From May 15 through June 30, 2007, the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation is hosting the exhibition DARK RIDE: a Nocturnal Journey into the World of Erotic Desire in its Gallery at 26 Wooster Street in the SoHo section of New York City. The show exhibits some 150 works, photographs, drawings, and paintings, by dozens of artists, known and new, famous and obscure, each a master of those damp, dimly lit recesses where sex meets psyche. With those credentials, each artist makes a perfect candidate to take you on a unique, memorable Dark Ride. So saddle up.
Rooted in the male body, the work in Dark Ride often pivots around the male organ, either in its palpating presence or, more provocatively, its palpable absence. In Ralph Modica’s sequence of four digital color photographs, extravagant sensuousness seduces even as subject matter unsettles.
A theme and variations on a few basic elements (naked man, rubber gloves, bathtub, and water), it sets up rich textural clashes (creamy flesh, stark white porcelain, dark rubber glove). As the man shifts position from frame to frame, it tells a story as well. When the water reddens for the final shot, things darken both visually and thematically. The man, lying back in the tub, holds his head in his naked hand. One long black glove, removed and placed over his sex, becomes its feminine, fetishized echo, at once caressing and blotting it out. The index finger of his still-gloved hand, little phallus and umbilicus both, pokes his navel like the barrel of a pistol till it issues blood. The partially submerged figure seems poised for a deeper going under.
Brian Riley’s work in Dark Ride makes a sequence as well. It presents seven stations in the progress of a lean naked young guy in bed. In several shots, he seems to be pleasuring himself. But crucial information is denied us, taking place out of focus or out of frame. Though embarked on his own dark ride, once or twice the subject seems to look at us. Are we his fantasy as much as he is ours? Nothing is sure. Blacks and whites interpenetrate in masturbatory blur. The subject swims into focus and then off again into his private land of Eros.
Joe Oppedisano plays dark against light as well, but with the hyperreal precision of a fashion photographer. In one of his photographs in Dark Ride, a man’s meaty ass glows and floats like a moon over a darker landscape. Posed on his hands and knees on a pool table, this muscled guy, naked but for a few leather accouterments, turns his hooded head to invite the viewer (we have to guess) to go for a ride. (In a visual joke, the lamp that hangs just above the man is clearly not the source of his upper hemisphere’s intense luminescence.) In another Oppedisano piece, the anus, centered above the subject’s boots, cock and balls, leaks what in fact is saliva.
In an age of protected sex, the audience, confronted with the image, is liable to be thinking of another bodily fluid. The shot toys with a broken taboo, but also delivers its subject, front and center, into our laps and forces us to confront its implications.
Like Oppedisano, Karl Giant, a make-up artist turned photographer, comes from the world of fashion. It’s fitting then that his subjects, beautiful naked guys, confront their own images. One Narcissus, lost in his reflection, coated in metallic body paint, seems himself more reflection than solid body. Another shot presents a proliferation of images, self and other, mirrored and in superimposition. Giant’s guys are denizens of contemporary night spots. Stanley Stellar’s photo in Dark Ride documents “gay space” of an earlier era, a pier on the Hudson. Photographer Peter Hujar is resident stud of these hunting grounds. His cock, bared but shielded, points one way; a cock in graffito dwarfs him and points in the other. Artist Keith Haring has augmented the background scrawl: two of his “radiating babies” scale the impossibly formidable organ. Stellar’s photo honors the claims of those twin pillars of the Erotic, flesh and fantasy. That Hujar and Haring would both die of AIDS, the disease that would alter this world utterly, lends this sexually charged shot an elegiac cast.
In the 1990s, Pork was a popular gay night spot. In a single venue a needy guy could score a hot man and hot art—made on the premises. When Pork, after a glorious run at the LURE and the Eagle, went under, LLGAF gave its remaining artwork, which otherwise would have been trashed, a home (courtesy of Pork’s John Lovett and the artists themselves). Among this remarkable cache are several works by Boyway, rougher in technique and subject matter than his well-known illustrations. I’m partial to a piece by Pork artist M.L. Scott in which cops line up (instead of perps) behind the ass of a hot young guy to which one of their number is applying rough justice.
A group of nocturnal works by pioneering homoerotic artist Neel Bate (Blade) seems to unfold in a gay establishment of yet another era, post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS. Almost gothic in feel, the drawings plumb dark subject matter with a darkness of means not typical of Bate’s earlier, sunnier mid-century Americana. Employing colored pencil on black paper, their coupling figures seem apparitions, phantoms that only extreme hunger has been able to wrest from the universal black of this back room. Bate was never a cock-tease. In each drawing a male organ, big, swollen and angry, provides a fulcrum—or a few do. In one, on an oval of black, a trinity of erections comes together over the head of a kneeling supplicant, his highlighted face beatific with the calm that can only come between bouts of uncontrollable lust.
Lust also transfigures the face of a man in a David Livingston drawing—with very different results. Bent over, ready to receive what the man standing behind him is poised to deliver, his ravening want has pushed him back a rung or several on the evolutionary ladder. The subhuman articulation of his face recalls parallels in the work of Francis Bacon, or the Pablo Picasso of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and in African masks. Masks of all cultures have influenced the work of Mel Odom. The hero of Odom’s piece in Dark Ride, leather jacket open and erection waving in the narcotic air, poses with his evolutionary forbearer, a white monkey, right there on his back. Is sex his addiction? With his dark wavy hair, pale skin, hooded eyes, exotic tattoos, and the smoke curling up from the end of his cigarette, this seducer wouldn’t be out of place in an opium den. But his hard-on seems to be pointing him in the same general direction that all the other studs of Dark Ride are headed. Follow them if you dare.