There are too many surprises about erotic artist Harry Bush to pick just one as the most astounding. Despite his prodigious talent and his association with Physique Pictorial and Drummer magazines, Bob Mizer and AMG, his work is relatively unknown. His images are joyful and unabashedly exuberant yet Bush was an embittered recluse, derisive of gay culture. Largely self-taught, he was proficient in a number of styles. Plus, he once worked at the Pentagon and, amazingly, Harry Bush is his real name.
Bush is my hands-down favourite erotic scribbler. For me, Blade is too coarse and ungainly, Steve Masters too cold, Etienne too sadistic. Tom of Finland is pretty great but he gets too self-important in his later years.
My love of Bush’s finely tuned and flawlessly polished drawing was only intensified by how rare it was to come across any examples — I came to know his work by the occasional grainy, pixilated jpeg floating on random websites. Art collector Robert Mainardi, in collaboration with publisher Green Candy Press, has remedied Bush’s obscurity with a sumptuous new collection of Bush’s drawings entitled Hard Boys.
Catalogues devoted to homoerotic art are rarely this wonderful; local wunderkind Ian Phillips’s design is a paragon of clear organization and understated taste, a perfect silent partner for the work. The gorgeous reproductions are faithfully precise, revealing every detail of Bush’s painstaking pencil-shadings. Many of these images have never been published before. The collection includes numerous sketches and doodles from Bush’s sketchbook. These images flesh out our understanding of Bush’s work, giving us a sense of his process and methods that, in a way, finished drawings never could.
In the interest of context (and for Bush, there is context aplenty), there are two introductions: an appreciative critical foreword by Montrealer Tom Waugh who, by now, thanks to his volumes on pre-Stonewall erotica (Hard to Imagine, Out/Lines and its sequel Lust Unearthed) has become the go-to academic for gay porn appraisal, and an introduction proper by Mainardi detailing his friendship with Bush and how this vast treasure came to be in his care.
Bush started out as a military man, first in the navy then in the air force and finally landing behind a desk at the Pentagon. His first gay sex occurred while he was stationed in Europe. For whatever reason Bush’s experiences in Europe enabled him to come out to himself. In the introduction, Bush is quoted as saying that, had he never been across the pond, he doubts he would have ever pursued an out-of-the-closet lifestyle at all.
At 40 he retired from his military career and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s There, physique photographer Bob Mizer discovered his drawings and began publishing them in Physique Pictorial magazine, earning Bush another income besides his military pension. It was Mizer who introduced Bush to the LA gay scene; it wasn’t a happy meeting. After spending his entire career in the closet Bush failed to find his liberated utopia among the queers of LA and was instead revolted by his new circumstances. His ultramacho, ultracloseted army life made too deep an impression. Mainardi quotes a letter from Bush to fellow illustrator Tom Jones: “‘Those people’ were every hideous thing I had ever heard about them! All the things that I had (mentally) kept at arm’s length became a part of my life. And I was ‘one of them.'”
Hardly the model of the happy, horny homo — if anything, it sounds like something out of The Boys in the Band.
Things never got easier. Throughout the rest of his 20-odd-year career, he continually fought with publishers over the reproduction quality of his drawings, prompting him to withdraw from publishing time and again. His internalized homophobia kept him tethered to his home and, after a life of chain smoking, emphysema eventually tethered him to an oxygen tank. He never took proper care of his drawings. Mainardi had to rescue them from under dunes of cigarette ash in Bush’s studio. Moreover Bush had, in fits of paranoia over copyright infringement, ripped up countless other images. His fear of being outed — especially to the military which he worried would cut off his pension — hounded him all his life.
You would be hard-pressed to find any evidence whatsoever of Bush’s anxieties in his drawings. The surfer-boy type obsessed him and his drawings are aglow with a jaunty, affable joie de vivre and bathed in sunny, crisp California light. A gentle, randy humour pervades all. Among my favourites is the teenybopper magazine parody “Teen MeatBeat” where Bush hijacks early ’80s hunks for his wank fantasies — an elephant-schlonged Scott Baio makes repeat appearances (clearly, Bush was a Joanie Loves Chachi fan). Another fave is the nerd series, a progression of horny geeks narrating their conquests (“I was the nerd who got to tutor the captain of the high-school football team” or “I was the nerd who hung around the latrine all day waiting for something to happen”) juxtaposed with the appropriate illustration (the lucky nerd getting reamed by the football captain, the patient nerd rewarded by a glimpse of a fit hunk with a towering erection letting a graceful stream of pee arc into the urinal).
He worked mostly with graphite and coloured pencils, with occasional forays into ink, paint and watercolour. His techniques are wide and promiscuous, ranging from a looser, quicker line drawing and finely hatched photorealism to the flat cartoon rendering of his “Ratman and Wobin” dirty comic strip. Still, they are all unified by Bush’s remarkably fluent contour line, a wiry thing that can convey the firm buoyancy of a tight ass, the pendulous meatiness of a thick cock and the gentle curve of a pillowed lip with equal grace and ease.
Waugh, in his foreword, makes comparisons to Caravaggio and Michelangelo, and it’s easy to let fly with the hyperbole when leafing through Hard Boys. Bush needs no high-art comparisons to redeem his drawings and Waugh knows this perfectly well. These superlatives indicate the stellar standard Bush has set for erotic drawing and his place in its pantheon.
What makes this collection such a find, what sets Bush apart from the dross, what earns him his place along Tom and Steve and Blade is how flawlessly his talent is made manifest. Bush laboured over these drawings, sometimes for weeks and months, to translate his fantasies into some kind of reality and he succeeded with an abundance of both aesthetic refinement and hardcore raunch. After all, let us never forget: Whatever else these drawings might be, they are hella hot.