Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stripped, Uncensored

“Between the disco balls and the purple crepe paper lining the walls as an unconventional backdrop for artwork, it felt like this was the prom these gay men never had.”

“Just half a glass,” I cautioned. Only a trickle came out.

I can’t remember when the bartender winked at me. Maybe it was immediately before he turned away from me and revealed his Speedo, bent over to pick up a new bottle of wine, and flexed his biceps while uncorking the bottle. Or it could have been after he saw me awkwardly try to look away.

No, you haven’t stumbled onto a romantic fiction site. This is my account of Tuesday night’s release for Bruno Gmuender Books’ Stripped, Uncensored that I attended with our LGBTQ librarian, Sarah Van Gundy. When we arrived to the packed room at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Chelsea, we were the only women there.

I realize that I don’t represent the target audience for the evening, but for what it’s worth, these are my impressions of the exhibition and party that showcased artists from the book.

The tone for the evening was established when each guest received an editioned postcard-size reproduction of a couple having a very good time, courtesy of the Center and NEXT magazine. The x-rated portions of the beautifully rendered work were covered with a paper slip. The work in general was heavy on sex, treading the line between art and porn. Clearly, it appealed to the gay male crowd (case in point: I had to move out of the way so an admirer could photograph an artist in front of his work). I won’t lie—the work made me blush, even though I volunteered to do two days of research in Canada last week on gay pornography and art for a colleague (one day was spent looking at no-holds-barred gay artists at the library and archives of the National Gallery and the other was spent perusing pornography at the Sexual Representation Collection at the University of Toronto).

Interestingly, although all of the work in Stripped, Uncensored was figurative, not all of the work was homoerotic. There were also quite a few facial portraits of men, such as haunting paintings by Michail Tsakountakis. Being privy to the sexual orientation of the artists caused me to see these works as equalizing in some way, as if purposefully deemphasizing sexuality and proclaiming ‘we’re all people.’ Or maybe they are more a celebration of pretty boys and I’ve missed the point. At any rate, it does raise the thorny issue of whether an artist’s sexual orientation (or biographical details in general) should be read into artwork.

All in all, the show didn’t take itself too seriously. Rather than coming off as thumbing its nose at the gallery world, it seemed to be about gay and artistic pride. Sales people wearing big ribbons made their way through the crowd, placing oversized red dots on the works that had sold. Bins of artwork were poured over by visitors in flea market fashion. Between the disco balls and the purple crepe paper lining the walls as an unconventional backdrop for artwork, it felt like this was the prom these gay men never had. (I am projecting because my prom date was Rick Telfer, who hadn’t yet come out. Although we had a grand time, I imagine he might have preferred to bring someone else. He went on to lobby for others to have that same right for high school prom: to read more about his activism, click here and for extensive background information, click here.)

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