Advertisement

Keep Your Timber Limber

timberlimber.jpg

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
Advertisement

Most Read

Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst charts the artist’s career from the 1980s to the present, from ‘fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to...
In further news: Angela Gulbenkian sued over Kusama pumpkin; and Pussy Riot re-arrested immediately after release from...
With Art Week in town, a guide to the best exhibitions to see, from sonic surveillance to Ronnie van Hout’s showdown...
Moving between figuration and abstraction, the New York-based painter and teacher made work about in-between spaces and...
Trump’s State Department is more than 3 months late in announcing its national pavilion – testament to the chaos...
The continued dominance of UK-US writers makes a mockery of the Man Booker’s ‘global outlook’
The fashion photographer has been accused on Twitter of ripping off another artist – with both represented by the same...
Katharina Cibulka has stitched ‘As long as the art market is a boys’ club, I will be a feminist,’ across her alma mater...
The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018