5 min

Manifest beauty & love

Toronto the good just got better

HOGTOWN. Torontonians posed for famous US photographer Tom Bianchi for his upcoming sexy show, book and video. Credit: Xtra files

A beautifully muscled naked man, his hands bound behind his back, kneels on a couch in front of a mirror, looking at himself and at another naked man who is taking his picture.

That is the image advertising US photographer Tom Bianchi’s Canadian debut, an exhibition based on a forthcoming version of his On The Couch book featuring Toronto men. It opens at the O’Connor Gallery Thu, Apr 17 as part of the month-long photography festival Contact.

The show’s theme is explor-ation. “The title is metaphoric,” says Bianchi, “in the sense that being ‘on the couch’ is a term for self examination.”

The series of photographs used in the first On The Couch book were shot in San Francisco. Bianchi used the sofa in his own living room. “I’ve had so many people on pedestals, and I’ve been on a lot of rocks,” says Bianchi laughing, referring to the settings in much of his previous work. “I’ll never stop climbing rocks, but I can’t put one more sculpture there. I’m bored with that. I want to get into a deeper experience of ourselves.”

The recent work is clearly multi-dimensional. Bianchi gets his subjects to expose very intimate parts of themselves, to celebrate their fantasies with a sense of freedom and absolute joy, and he joins in with them as much as possible.

“None of these people stand as an anonymous object to worship at a distance,” he explains. “We want to be accessible, we want you to join us in the experience we are having.”

And you can hardly avoid looking at these photographs without wondering what it would feel like to participate.

Bianchi believes that our sexual energy is divine, but that it is all too often expressed at a base level. Too frequently we ask: “Am I worthy?”

“The sexual revolution,of course, is still taking place,” he says. “But for those of us who have already been through that, we are now in a state of sexual evolution.”

Bianchi is enjoying the fact that he is also finding some very young men who are coming to their sexual experiences with an incredible comfort zone. He believes that, at base, every human being wants to be acknowledged.

“People want to be heard, seen and felt. Sexual energy can connect us to each other, to our environment and certainly to deep places within ourselves.

“If we looked each other right in the eyes and told each other who we were and who we could be, how we were using this energy in our relationships and our lives, wouldn’t that be an enormously empowering and healing experience for a lot of people?”

Bianchi does not refer to the participants as models, and interviews people before they get involved, to make sure they’re doing it for the right reasons.

“If your fantasy is that I’m going to lift your life into a Calvin Klein underwear ad fantasy – that’s not where I am,” he says. “That’s definitely not what I’m about.”

The Toronto show, which will be the first time the artist’s work has been shown in Canada, will include photographs of local participants that Bianchi shot here last fall.

“It’s like taking On The Couch on the road,” he says.

The Toronto book is planned for next year and look out for a video on the Toronto shoot available this summer and playing the festival circuit.

Bianchi credits Toronto casting director and producer Ron Leach as one of the main reasons that the show is happening here. “Ron was the nexus,” says Bianchi. “He had always said we should come to Toronto. When we envisioned doing film versions of On The Couch, Ron took over to make Canada happen for us. He set up all the initial meetings.”

One of the Toronto participants is Peter Rex, who appears on the postcard with Bianchi (other Torontonians include our cover boys Marcelo Gomez and PrideVision’s Mathieu Chantelois). Rex started modelling for life drawing classes 14 years ago, and has never stopped. He also models on runways (for Fashion Cares and Northbound Leather) and has dabbled in photo work. Most recently he was featured on the cover of the January issue of Blue magazine.

“Posing for photos is relatively new to me,” says Rex. “I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Tom’s work, so when I was asked to consider modelling for him, I thought ‘Oh, boy! This is a great opportunity.'”

Rex was fully aware of the sexual nature of what he would be doing, but knew Bianchi was capable of creating very beautiful physique photography. Rex says he probably wouldn’t have done this kind of work for any other photographer.

“It’s something I’ve never done before, and haven’t done since,” he says. “You’ve got to be confident that the person you’re doing it with is going to respect your intimacy and vulnerability.”

The shoot, which was conducted mostly in silence, began with Rex fully clothed. With Bianchi’s subtle instruction, Rex felt comfortable enough to go to some very deep places of self-expression without being made to feel self-conscious about it.

“If you’re doing it for the camera it shows,” says Rex. “And it becomes something else, like the photography you see in jerk-off mags.”

He believes that Bianchi manages to capture moments that are real and honest. “At a certain point, the camera disappeared,” says Rex. “I was drawn so deeply inside I completely forgot. I think Tom became nude halfway through it, but I wasn’t even really fully aware of that.”

Bianchi feels that the strength of the book and this show comes from the fact that the shared experience is like an awakening for him, as well.

“I don’t think the book would have much power if I were convinced I knew everything,” he says, “particularly about sex.”

Bianchi, born in Illinois in 1945, has enjoyed several successful careers so far.

“I did the expected thing and became a lawyer. I felt that if the game was power and prestige, I could do it.”

And he did. With a degree from Northwestern University and experience doing corporate litigation, he moved to New York City and became senior council for Columbia Pictures by age 28.

“And after the mad dash to get there,” he says, “I suddenly thought ‘Oh, my god! This isn’t what I really wanted for myself.'”

He connected with his desire to express himself as an artist, and made it happen. With the help of some people closely connected to the top of New York’s art world, including Sam Wagstaff, who was also Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo editor, Bianchi got through the initial period of fear of starvation and built a career through the late 1970s and ’80s.

“There are a lot of famous people to whom I am very grateful,” he says, “There is something about me which is outrageously queer, and they liked that about me. They validated me and said ‘You can have a place at this table.'”

The AIDS crisis had a huge impact on Bianchi, when, at the time of his largest commission, his lover died and Bianchi tested positive.

“And suddenly I was looking at my life again and wondering what it was all about,” he says. “I decided that maybe I didn’t have much time left, certainly time had run out on my friends.”

Bianchi devoted seven years of his life to the development of a company called CytoDyn, a biotech firm engaged in HIV therapy development. He is currently vice president.

“The physical life is nothing but an endless opportunity to manifest beauty and love,” he says, recognizing that the mainstream may not understand the message he is trying to communicate in his art (case in point: Contact refused to run the ad for the show in the festival catalogue featuring the image of Rex and Bianchi).

“Our job is to help people understand how much power they have in expressing their joy. There isn’t anything wrong with having an absolutely sexy good time and doing good at the same time,” he laughs.

“That’s a concept a lot of people have trouble wrapping their minds around,” he says. “But they’ll be healthy when they do.”


Opening. 8pm-10pm. Thu, Apr 17.

Till Sat, May 10.

O’Connor Gallery.

97 Maitland St.

(416) 921-7149.