In 1990, museum director Dennis Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio were put on trial for displaying obscene photographs. At issue were seven sadomasochistic photos from a retrospective show of the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
Barrie was eventually acquitted but the after-effects of the what is art/what is obscenity debate linger on.
It was this pivotal event in art history that inspired Jean-Francois Renaud to put together the new exhibit Beyond Redemption: Gay Erotic Art, currently showing at Vancouver’s Belkin Satellite Gallery.
The title of the show is most important, Renaud says, because in the ensuing Mapplethorpe trial there was much discussion of notions of form, framing, photographic surfaces and the like. It was all very academic.
“They [the lawyers] tried to redeem it by analyzing [its artistic merit]. They decided not to deal with the homoerotic content of the work.”
While this may have been necessary to win the case, Renaud says Beyond Redemption is “about looking at [eroticism] for what it is — not trying to redeem it by formalizing it.”
Seven artists contribute to the show, which includes work in a variety of media.
There are eight mixed-media collages from Attila Richard Lukacs fusing pornographic images of guys fucking and sucking that are then layered with medical drawings of bones and skulls.
New York artist Donald Moffett has loaned the exhibition two very traditional-looking graphite sketches of decidedly non-traditional subjects: a scrotum and a heavily veined cock.
An entire wall of the gallery is taken up with Stephen Andrews’ QuickTime Interruptus, which he completed last year. Dozens of coloured pencil drawings on animation cells depict a blowjob scene lifted off the Internet. In the centre of the drawings, a video screen displays the finished product on DVD-a recreation of the porn surfing experience complete with pop-up ads and the all-too-familiar computer crash.
The late Felix Gonzalez-Torres weighs in with Untitled which is, purely and simply, a go-go dancing platform. During the run of the show, at odd times and completely at random, a dancer will show up and shake his booty on the brightly coloured box.
The platform symbolizes “the loss of that kind of joy in gay sexuality because of AIDS,” explains Renaud. In fact, he believes, the AIDS crisis has irrevocably changed how gays experience sex and intimacy. It has “created a kind of discomfort about sexuality; a kind of heaviness and weight to it.”
Montreal photographer Evergon premieres two pieces. One of the life-size prints captures a fully-clothed, late middle-aged Evergon (looking a little like a southern gentleman in his all-white suit and full beard) sucking off a much younger male who is standing up on a schoolroom-type desk. In the other, the young man and Evergon switch places.
When questioned on whether he is deliberately pushing the envelope and sparking the is-this-pornography-or-is-it-art debate, Evergon laughs lustfully. “I give you art and you question me on pornography!”
In the past, curators have lost their positions and funding has been withheld for supporting his photos. Evergon, who will be displaying his work in Lyons, France as part of a Quebec/Lyons arts exchange next month, shrugs it off: “Some people want to perceive it as pornography. For me it’s purely a manifestation of what I do…. Every once in a while there’s a controversy on something but it seems to be much ado about nothing.”
Beyond Redemption was conceived of about a year ago when Renaud first sent out his thesis to the various artists hoping they would participate. For Renaud, who has a BA in art history from University of British Columbia, it is a requirement of his masters program for the Critical Curatorial Studies program.
He states emphatically: “My aim is not to shock. My aim is to open up doors of thought towards other kinds of thinking towards pornography. Sexuality is at the heart of the social contract… at the heart of the way we organize societal processes.”
But we’re not dealing with sex, Renaud continues. Mostly we avoid it. And when faced with explicit sexual images in art, we try to legitimize them by taking on scholarly tones when discussing it rather than taking it for what it is.
Perhaps the seriousness of the Mapplethorpe trial missed the point altogether: maybe sometimes a blowjob is just a blowjob, a finger up the ass only a finger up the ass.
“There’s a place for pornography, a whole history [of it]. It’s a really important realm of human activity,” Renaud concludes.
Important enough, he thinks, to base a master’s thesis and art exhibition on it.