2 min

The Hard Question

Why does Tom Of Finland never date?

TALK ABOUT A UNITY PARTY. Tom brings all the types together in 1975's Pleasure Park. Credit: Tom Of Finland

My friend Henry was off to the baths one night, and at the doorway, I asked what he hoped to experience, there. A far-off look came into his eyes before he answered, with a slow-growing smile: “A fantasy of… masculinity!”

Just what he meant escaped me until recently, when I revisited the work of Tom Of Finland. It was at a birthday party; the guest of honour merely glanced at a page or two of his Tom gift-book before discreetly tucking it from view, saying, mildly, “I’ll study these later, when I’m alone.” “Study, yeah, sure,” came the chorus. “With one hand, you’ll study!”

For what are these images of big-dicked, hyper-muscular males but fantasies of a masculinity that never was, except in the blood of those who love maleness? And those who love maleness can revisit with Tom, too, when a touring show of 85 original drawings borrowed from the permanent collection of the LA-based Tom Of Finland Foundation, stop at the YYZ Artists’ Outlet next week.

Tom – the word can apply to both the artist (Touko Laaksonen, who lived from 1927 to 1991) and to any of the figures he drew – is like Barbie. In either case, a human being made to their proportions isn’t remotely thinkable – they’d be frightening. Yet each icon, inside his and her own universe, is perfect.

The rare woman to appear in the oversexed world of Tom has always been sexualized herself and, as you might expect, she heightens the guy-ness of it all, if only by a little useful contrast. When in 1990 Toronto artist GB Jones exhibited her cover versions of Tom, using females in dikey situations, her hommage captured almost the exact same note of brutality, cockiness and rude, good health.

A clue to the glory of Tom’s men is their specificity. They always retain something of what moved the young artist to first set pencil to paper – a fascination with a certain class and build of man, the embodiment of what turned him on. That model still has currency today, in the chisled jaw and those sideburns, which have been passed down from the rough-trade chic popular in Tom’s work of the 1950s, to something dated, to chic again, without ever losing the fetishistic power which facial hair carries.

Then there is “the gaze,” that look that passes from one male in the picture to another -frank, arrogant and, above all, direct. It is mirrored in our gaze at Tom.

While these drawings have always been a tool for arousal and release, they’ve been something else, too – icons we can worship, symbols of a masculine ideal, a fantasy that promises attainable toughness, beauty and romance.

The opening reception for Tom Of Finland at YYZ is from 2pm to 6pm on Sat, Jun 26.

Tom Of Finland: Five Decades Of Work.

Sat, Jun 26-Jul 17.

YYZ Artists’ Outlet.

401 Richmond St W, suite 140.

(416) 598-4546.