Toronto-based illustrator Maurice Vellekoop is something of a throwback. He loves Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Oscar Wilde, and his cable channel of choice is Turner Classic Movies. He’s only recently joined the wired world after buying a new computer — the old one had been gathering dust for five years.
“I guess I am a kind of anachronism,” laughs Vellekoop. “To me all of those old things are so central. They’re much more interesting than this new digital world.”
For an anachronism Vellekoop is doing quite well in the here and now. He’s a successful commercial illustrator with clients as diverse as The New Yorker, Out, Wallpaper, Time and Drawn and Quarterly. Many queers will be familiar with his books, which include A Nut at the Opera, Vellevision and Maurice Vellekoop’s ABC Book: A Homoerotic Primer. His latest work, Maurice Vellekoop’s Pin-ups, recently released by Green Candy Press, is a fresh, gay take on an old high-school locker staple.
Pin-ups came out of The Men’s Room Reader, an unfinished series of narrative erotic illustrations that were to be an homage to Tom of Finland, whose influence permeates Vellekoop’s work. But Vellekoop was unhappy with the way The Men’s Room Reader was progressing and ultimately shelved it.
“I realize now that it was the drawing of the figures,” he says. “I was trying to rely on my imagination. I was able to get a certain degree of gesture in the drawings, but it wasn’t what I saw in my head.”
Still owing his publisher a book, Vellekoop dedicated himself to Pin-ups. This time, instead of relying entirely on imagination, he turned to his porn collection for inspiration. Pin-ups features some 60 campy but tantalizingly lifelike illustrations of drool-inducing men in warm, vibrant hues. They’re organized into eight thematic sections: Calendar Boys, Music, Sports, Fantasy, Art, History and Literature, Men Hard at Work and Ne’er-do-Wells. Vellekoop says he enjoyed the freedom of focusing on individual illustrations instead of a serial with narrative constraints.
“When I make a picture for something like the Pin-ups book there is an implied narrative, but the reader can take it up,” he says, “so it’s a different kind of communication of fantasy I think.”
Vellekoop is not entirely retro. Classic Hollywood cinema is often criticized for its lack of cultural and racial diversity, but Pin-ups has it in spades. The men come in a variety of shapes, sizes, ages, colours and contexts. As with most gay erotica, bulging muscles, booty and improbable penises abound, but they aren’t the only things on display.
“I love men of all shapes and sizes,” says Vellekoop. “It’s a lifelong project of mine in commercial illustration too because it reflects a reality that’s around us, especially in Canada with so much diversity. I always have tried to reflect that in my illustrations. In a sense it’s not even trying to be socially responsible, it’s more observation.”
Vellekoop’s work also screams diversity in the influences he draws on. For example “Elf Quest” evoked Lord of The Rings for me (or perhaps Lord of the Nipple Ring), but the elf’s cape and the castle are a bit Walt Disney too. Throughout Pin-ups, Vellekoop seamlessly fuses elements from history, literature, classic cinema, animation, illustration and other forms of popular and serious culture with wit and levity. Once you notice a few cultural references you’ll start to question what you might be missing. It’ll keep me coming back to this book and it’s what makes it that much more delicious than transparent porn with little frame of reference.
Vellekoop maintains deft control of his strokes in Pin-ups. While there are occasionally body parts that aren’t quite proportional (besides the cocks that is) he achieves greater realism than in his past work without losing the endearing comic strip humour. Many of the individual illustrations are exceptional, particularly in their use of colour. I’d love to see the originals, some of which will be on sale at the book’s launch on Tue, Nov 25 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Older works are already available in Toronto and on the internet from The Beguiling comic shop.
I’d have liked to see more text in Pin-ups, but that may simply reflect my own obsession with the written word.
“The concept of the Pin-ups book didn’t seem to involve text,” counters Vellekoop, “although I think the titles do add a little saucy something. We have [Vellekoop’s partner and Xtra’s arts and entertainment editor, Gordon Bowness] to thank for a lot of them too.”
The titles definitely add some camp. I especially appreciated “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Bottom of the Garden,” “Sure Wood” (think Robin Hood) and “Daisy Duke.” It’s not every day that someone illustrates my Luke-Duke-hitchhiking-in-Daisy’s-cut-offs fantasy for me.
Pin-ups will no doubt show up on queer coffee tables everywhere this holiday season, and deservedly so. It showcases a strong body of work from an accomplished artist.
Toronto launch of Maurice Vellekoop’s Pin-ups takes place at Buddies in Bad Times on Tue, Nov 25 from 6:30pm to 9pm, with go-go boys and music by DJ Johnny Wacker. Original Vellekoop paintings and prints will be available for sale.