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Keep Your Timber Limber

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Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1963, graphite on paper

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1963, graphite on paper

In the opening seconds of Steven Soderbergh’s biopic of Liberace, Behind the Candelabra (2013), the camera pans around a bar to reveal a pair of drawings in the style of Tom of Finland. It’s an evocative detail, transporting us deftly into the Californian gay scene of the 1980s. ‘Tom’ is one of eight artists surveyed in the exhibition ‘Keep Your Timber Limber’, curated by Sarah McCrory, an assortment of drawings from the 1940s to the present which offer similarly vivid glimpses into diverse ways of seeing or modes of living. Each uses a particular stylistic footing – whether ballsy agitprop or the newspaper cartoon – to prick or promulgate the clichés which have defined class, gender and sexuality.

Pricks, in various shapes and sizes, are at the core of the exhibition. Installed at the entrance, Judith Bernstein’s Fucked By Number (1967/2013) provides a priapic overture: a vast penis scrawled in charcoal, with manically hatched testicles, bears at its tip an American flag. The allegory is as blunt and brute as the truncheon-like member. ‘MORAL INJURY’ is emblazoned along its shaft, while scrawled statistics above and below confirm how a militaristic US is doing the shafting.

As four early works from the 1960s show, Bernstein has long drawn upon toilet graffiti to indict the pig-headed militarism and boorishness of more mundane varieties. Embedded in one early drawing is the line ‘Keep Your Timber Limber’, scribbled beneath a cartoon in which a vagina-faced character refers to herself via a string of scabrous clichés, while her interlocutor quips: ‘The trouble with you Sally is you’re nothing but an old fuck head.’ The link between the cartoon and the catchphrase of the show’s title is less than clear. Perhaps we should simply infer that obscene banter and inane maxims alike are an unshakeable fact of human intercourse.

More faux-naïve and whimsical are Margaret Harrison’s delicately coloured hermaphroditic superheroes. Her subverted ‘types’ include a muscly Captain America with fake breasts and stars-and-stripes stockings and suspenders. In Good Enough to Eat (2) (1971), a comic-strip beauty resembling Modesty Blaise wriggles frolicsomely inside a lettuce and tomato sandwich. The verbal cliché of the title is revealed in all its feebleness and re pellence (like Bernstein, Harrison uses male jargon to impugn moronic men).

Clichés likewise proliferate in 11 works by Cary Kwok. His ‘money shots’ in fine ballpoint show men at point of orgasm: ropes of ejaculate flail in Rococo convolutions out of their engorged penises. In Blind Date Buffet (2008), a muscleman sits blindfolded, his hands and feet fettered, ejaculating profusely. It boldly sums up the powerlessness of the petit mort. The motif of burly Mars disarmed by Venus (or trapped in chains as he cavorts with her) also simmers away under the pa­tina of 1970s gay porn. Virtuosic as they are, Kwok’s images are pastiches of gay erotica. Those of Tom of Finland and the comic-book artist and filmmaker Mike Kuchar are bona fide examples, and all the more compelling for it. The contrast reflects what Sontag called the distinction ‘between naïve and deliberate Camp’: ‘Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.’

It’s easy to forget that Tom of Finland was instrumental in creating, rather than only peddling, the stereotype of the macho homosexual cast in the lineaments of the biker renegade. His illustrations, originally made solely for himself and friends, first appeared in 1957 in Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial magazine, and were subsequently published in a variety of beefcake periodicals. Colour drawings from the 1940s offer an insight into the gay life he discovered in postwar Helksinki (he later divided his time between Finland and California). Also on show are the drawings of orgies for which he became famous.

Kuchar’s fantastical scenes, spanning the 1980s and ’90s, include a bulbous ‘Adam and Steve’ encountering diplodocuses: a Jurassic-era Eden meets Fire Island. The dinosaurs and hulking He-Men perhaps say something about the atavism of male sexuality. Elsewhere, Marlene McCarty points luridly to the base drives that womankind might harbour: in a drawing from 2006, GROUP 8 (Karisoke, The Virungas, Rwanda. September 25, 1967. 4:30 pm.), she conjures a monstrous mutation of The Joy of Sex in which women scientists are cosying up to an amorous gorilla. The inclusion of McCarty – a central member of the New York-based Gran Fury collective, formed in response to the AIDS crisis – alongside Bernstein, whose early works viscerally denounce the Vietnam War, highlights two of the major explosions of political activism in postwar US history. ‘Keep Your Timber Limber’ reminds us that subtlety and good taste have their limits, that less is sometimes a bore. The show’s historical sweep casts light on the inevitable tendency for attitudes to date and clichés to take hold, in the face of certain constants (the sex drive, the need to express sexuality through a kind of masquerade). Even the vapid fashion-design sketches of Antonio Lopez, produced for Versace campaigns and magazines including Italian Vogue, are revelatory as historical snapshots, detailing the bizarre costumery and club kid posturing of the 1980s.

The exhibition’s main flaw, exacerbated by the absence of a catalogue, is the seeming arbitrariness of the selection. Why were these artists and not others – Jean Cocteau, David Hockney, Don Bachardy – included? Nor is it clear, at first glance, what a focus on drawing achieves, although this may have been a directive rather than a curatorial choice: the exhibition is one of an ongoing series of medium-specific displays at the ICA. But if, on the one hand, the show seems to reinforce an academic categorization, it ultimately works to dismantle it. While the drawings affront ‘good taste’, none is stylistically avant-garde or conceptually abstruse. Their figurative mode and (in many cases) stylized techniques serve to emphasize the intersection of drawing as a ‘Fine Art’ discipline with colloquial forms – commercial curios, cartoons, book illustrations, obscene scrawlings. ‘Keep Your Timber Limber’ therefore summons a demotic spirit and puts life before art; the logical conclusion might have been to display other genres entirely, including pornography, classifieds and erotic fiction. While restricted to drawing, the exhibition succeeds in demonstrating the medium’s extraordinary versatility.

James Chaill was runner-up in the Frieze Writer’s Prize 2011.

Issue 157

First published in Issue 157

September 2013
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