Artists Space

Drawing In A Straight Line

Nayland Blake, Carlos Motta, Collier Schorr, moderated by Bob Nickas

Artist Panel
July 16, 2015, 7pm

This discussion considers Tom of Finland’s influence upon and reception by artists, as preeminent postwar gay icon. Moderator Bob Nickas will be joined by New York artists Collier Schorr, Nayland Blake and Carlos Motta.

A black-and-white photograph of a man sitting down against a gray background wearing a Nazi uniform, holding a basket of apples.
Collier Schorr, Traitor, 2001-2004. Courtesy Modern Art, London. [A black-and-white photograph of a man sitting down against a gray background wearing a Nazi uniform, holding a basket of apples.]

With the rise of queer theory since Tom of Finland distributed his first drawings in the early 1940s, its assimilation into the art world and the academy, and a growing, though necessarily incomplete, queer awareness within mainstream culture, both queer subject matter and its representation and contestation by artists have shifted radically.

Tom of Finland’s drawings established an iconic, deviant masculinity, fundamentally playful and proud. They are formative to many artists’ understanding of the possibilities of representing a body. Yet their joyful projection of, and play upon, identity overlays an instinctive complexity: some of the drawings handle deep-seated taboos, including Nazi iconography unhinged as fetish symbols, whilst cops are guys to fuck and be fucked by, whether through prison bars or in public. The work is washed with a power play imbued within the process of representation itself. As queer art practice has been deconstructed through lines of multiplicity and intersectionality, so have historical understandings of power, and deviation from dominant power, been complexified. For this reason the relationship between Tom of Finland’s work and contemporary artists’ practice remains important.

An artist, writer, curator, and educator, Nayland Blake addresses issues of his own racially mixed background, sexual identity, and body identity. He is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, Fred, London and Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, and his work is included in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum, The Studio Museum of Harlem, LA MoCa, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the DeYoung Museum, among others. His writing has appeared in Interview magazine, Artforum, Out, and OutLook, in which he published a feature on Tom of Finland in 1988, and he is the author of numerous catalog essays. In 1994 he co-curated, with Lawrence Rinder, the exhibition In a Different Light, the first major museum exhibition to examine the impact of queer artists on contemporary art.

Carlos Motta (b. Bogotá, Colombia, 1978) is a multi-disciplinary artist and organizer whose work draws upon political history in an attempt to create counter narratives that recognize suppressed histories, communities, and identities. His work has been shown in solo exhibitions/projects at: Tate Modern, London; New Museum, New York; MoMA/PS1, New York; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Museo de Arte del Banco de la República, Bogotá; and Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, Mexico; and in biennials and festivals such as X Biennale de Lyon (2009); X Gwangju Biennale (2014); Gothenburg International Biennial of Contemporary Art (2015); International Film Festival Rotterdam (2014); and Toronto International Film Festival (2013). A survey exhibition of his work was presented at Röda Sten Konsthall, Gothenburg (2015). Motta won the Main Prize—Future Generation Art Prize in 2014. He teaches at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.

A critic and independent curator based in New York, Bob Nickas has organized more than ninety exhibitions since 1984, and earned a reputation for an individual style that transgresses the accepted. Nickas was Curatorial Advisor at P.S.1/MoMA in New York between 2004-07. He served on the team for the 2003 Biennale de Lyon, contributed a section to Aperto at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and collaborated with Cady Noland on her installation for Documenta IX in 1992. He is the author of several books, including Painting Abstraction, Theft Is Vision and Live Free or Die: Collected Writings 1985-1999. Two new collections— The Dept. of Corrections, and Komp-Laint Dept. —are forthcoming this fall from Karma. 30/130, a survey of his books, catalogs, 'zines, editions and records produced over the past thirty years, will be presented at White Columns In November.

Collier Schorr was born in New York City in 1963 and attended the School of the Visual Arts, New York. Known for her portraits of adolescent men and women, Schorr’s pictures often blend photographic realism with elements of fiction and youthful fantasy. Her work is represented in many public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Jewish Museum, and the Walker Art Center. Her imagery has been used in advertising campaigns for Comme Des Garcons, Topman, Y3 and Bottega Veneta, and most recently, Brioni. She has written for Frieze, Artforum and Parkett, and has taught at Columbia University, the School of Visual Arts, Sarah Lawrence College and Yale.

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.