Drawing In A Straight Line Recording
Bob Nickas: I've never been down here—I did not know that Artists Space had a basement private sex room that also functions as an auditorium. Maybe later people can come back.
I'm.. I'm looking at you...
Collier Schorr: If this was a sex club there be no sneakers allowed.
Nickas: sneakers? I… Ok, ok. On the chairs, on a lot of the chairs there are these great brochure for the exhibition. There are a lot of images that could have been chosen for the cover and this one was chosen for the cover. You know people who write about art have all these bizarre ways of reading into images. You don't even know where do we get these ideas—just make them up our of thin air most of the time? But I think just look at an image and it tells you what it means.
I think Tom of Finland for a long time would say he was not a political artist, he was not a message artist, but then later he thought oh well I was kidding myself because it turned out that I was. That this work had an influence, which is part of what we'll talk about tonight. So when I, as one of those people involved in the business of bizarre readings of images, I would say this just says, you know, fuck the world. But, not in that kind of aggressive, nasty way, because like a lot of Tom’s work it's about pleasure. It's about joy, there's a lot of humor. It looks kind of wholesome if you think about - I mean I didn’t mean wholesome but you know what I’m saying. It could be like the most natural thing in the world, and I think it says a lot about—because I don't think his work is actually pornographic, and most people who like it don't, but it still arouses a lot of—it inspires people. Which is something else we will talk about tonight, because it's about how artists are inspired or continue to be inspired by Tom of Finland’s work.
Who did we decide was willing to go first? Okay, no one has to answer this question; I just thought a good general opening gambit for everybody was to ask people how they first encountered these drawings, because you know a lot of times with artists you encounter their work in galleries, museums and Tom of Finland was an artist who people encountered through other. you know, pathways. Okay: Nayland Blake.
Nayland Blake: Thanks Bob and thanks for the great lead in because that's exactly what I was going to talk about.
I’m glad to see that there are some other folks here who are around my age. Trying to think about Tom, I wanted to talk a little about my own personal history with him but then also to try to wrap my head around this idea of. if we want to talk about his influence, what that is. And I actually want to start off disagreeing with you Bob. I actually think his work is pornographic and I think that the problem that we often come up against is that we're so indoctrinated with the idea of talking about pornography as if it's a problem, or a lessening of something. That when we find that something is good or that something appeals to us we try to rescue it from the pornographic, and I don't think that we need to do that with Tom. I think that Tom’s work is actually a great corrective to that idea.
The first times I encountered his drawings were in editions of books that I can see right now that had like a black and white image on the cover and a sort of colored band around them. I forget the press that did the imprint, but they were basically reprinting Physique Pictorials. We’re talking like late 70's, early 80's really. I remember quite specifically going to you the porn store—how many guys here remember it?—on Christopher Street, past Bleecker, like past where the Lucy Lortel picture is. I’m some people nodding, some thumbs up. So that particular porn store—I can't remember the name of it, on the south side of the street, south east corner, had clearly also a little bit of a publishing thing. And they printed and were distributing a lot of these drawings. I would go down there and pick those up. Through that I started to look around for those drawings, and started to look for copies of Physique Pictorial and found those at places like Gay Treasures on Hudson, and then shortly after that I went up to San Francisco. There's a store out there called The Magazine that carried a lot of backdates of things.
The point I want to make with that is that you had to be a researcher and an archivist to find these things. They were not readily available to you. First you had to feel okay going into the very specifically gendered space of a porn store on Christopher Street, but secondly you also had to know about this work, because it was not always readily available. They weren't always in print. So I was always on the lookout for them, and after some time in San Francisco I got in touch with some of the other porn artists who were out there, a guy named Mark Chester and through him a guy named Rex, who were people who were drawing, you know, who were taking photographs and drawing and contributing to the sort of leather community. And they were coming out of the legacy of Tom.
And it turned out that Tom was coming to town, and some people in town knew about it and I was commissioned by Outlook magazine to interview Tom and write about him. This is an issue from 1988. Outlook is a really, really interesting publication because it is an outgrowth of some people who were working at Socialist Review who wanted to specifically write about gay and lesbian issues. It was not a scholarly journal and it wasn't attached to any specific educational organization.
So I had the opportunity to interview Tom and then to meet him when he came out to town and also to think about the work in the writing of this. There's a couple of things that I sort of draw from it in terms of influence.
One of the reasons why I was a little cranky about the pornography thing is that one of the things the Tom said to me is that he basically would sit down and draw, like he would think of something and get a hard on and draw. And if he lost the hard on he would chuck the drawing. So these drawings were made to arouse. They were made to arouse Tom. Think about him in the wake of World War Two, basically drawing the men that he thought were attractive, the men who were around and the men that he had crushes on and putting them into fantasy scenarios that were meaningful for him, and then that work starting to find its way into these very small-run magazines that were distributed through the mail.
Those magazines then became this really interesting network of feedback, where people who subscribed to those magazines would write to Tom through those magazines and be like “I find your men incredibly hot, I would love to see them dressed in this. Here's a photograph of a California motorcycle cop, I'd love to see what have you guys in that outfit”. And his willingness to adopt those stylistic ideas, those garb ideas - basically what we think of as a Tom of Finland man is something that evolved in a kind of consensual feedback loop between him and the men who were jerking off to his drawings. And I think that’s an interesting and powerful and unalienated relationship to art making, that stands in a real kind of opposition to what we tend to think about as contemporary art making.
And it's one of the reasons why, as much as I love the show that's upstairs, it is odd to encounter those things in a public space, in a contemporary art space. Because they are in many ways about a kind of privacy. They depict public situations but they depict them in a way that is aimed at a private encounter. That I think is something that we have tended to lose in thinking about a lot of contemporary art. So I want to talk about that sort of influence of developing an aesthetic and an approach in a kind of feedback loop with the public and the way that that allowed a community to come into being. Guys not only wanted to encounter those man in Tom’s drawings, but also wanted to transform themselves into those men. I think there would be no Village People if it weren't for Tom of Finland, quite literally.
And there's an interesting way that in a particular pocket of the queer world, that style has remained fixed since practically 1955. It has not budged. The type of motorcycle jacket you wear, the type of boots you wear, the type of jeans you wear. What gets tucked into what. What type cap you wear. All those really codified outfits and appearances have had an amazing impact because they've been a forum for any number of people—gay, straight, male-identified, female-identified—to project their own scaffolding of identity through. That is an amazingly powerful and interesting achievement to think about for an artist.
I see that playing out these days not in the contemporary art world with all of its constant anxiety about social interaction and its to my mind pointless elaboration and museum affectation of social interaction, but rather in places like deviantART and Fur Affinity online communities where what are particularly underground fan communities have a kind of commissioning feedback relationship with artists creators, and who are developing consensual notions of identity and self-presentation back and forth in collaboration with artists. I think that's a really interesting thing that's going on right now.