Lewd 2: Erotic Art of the Masters

“Lewd” originated in Old English as a term to describe the laity [1]. Its pairing with the current usage as “offensive in a sexual way” leads back to the particular animosity ascribed to commoners, decrying them as “vulgar, worthless and vile.” The link is in the feeling of offense, in many instances a misdirection of shame and embarrassment.

At some point, shame and embarrassment became bound with sexuality. Perhaps through the act of confession– urging divulgence and repentance– shame, sexuality and perversion mix to form their abject cocktail.

‘All the nuns told me I’d go to hell if I watched sexploitation movies. So naturally I became obsessed.’

-John Waters

Dovetailing with religion, Western understandings of sexuality is bound (perhaps counterintuitively) with science. In demographics, sexual education, and statistical analysis, sexuality is understood along the lines of reproduction with a clinical sterility. Sexuality as a distanced, scientific knowledge places marriage and reproduction at the center (as it can be easily classified and categorized), and positions anything outside of that very specific norm at the margins, as deviant or perverse. [2]

Distinct from this is the ars erotica— a term coined by Foucault in his seminal (sorry I had to) History of Sexuality: Part One of 1978. This art of pleasure is based in a perceived, embodied knowledge of sex as an art form.

What Lewd 2: Erotic Art of the Masturbators, on view at Joy Gallery in San Francisco through Nov. 25, 2017, aims to achieve is a peepshow into the ars erotica. Both quite literally, as on view are works of erotic art, and as a mode of being, of accepting both sides of our sexuality– the shame and the joy, the pleasure and the pain, concealing and revealing.

The subtitle of the exhibition is riffed from a Taschen published book by Bradley Smith from 1974 titled Erotic Art of the Masters. Fitting, as many of the works in the exhibition display a lascivious re-articulation of art historical referents.

Screen shot 2017-11-14 at 8.53.38 PM
Jedediah Corwyn Voltz, Jacme Brand Scissor Oil, 2017, acrylic and ink on panel

Both a potter and a deft illustrator, Jedediah Corwyn Voltz’s two paintings of pots in the exhibition call on both skills. He articulates the geometry of the vase and illustrates the surface to recall the decorative amphoras of ancient Greece.

Screen shot 2017-11-14 at 8.50.49 PM
Nikosthenes, Vessel with erotic scenes, Greek, Archaic Period, about 520–510 B.C.

Though the illustration is rendered in bright neons and features monstrous folk with forked-dick noses and doubled eyes, it nods to ancient Greek pottery decoration, which as early as 520-510BC, emblazoned erotic orgy scenes onto plates, cups, and vessels.

Karen Thomas’ work in the exhibition features such classical allegory subjects as Narcissus and Leda and the Swan. The latter story follows Zeus, masquerading as a swan, as he seduces and impregnates Leda, an Aetolian princess. Often depicted in classical Renaissance paintings, the bestial fantasy provided something of a loophole to slip the censor in the 16th century. It created an oddly acceptable rift for painters to depict female sexuality.

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo (National Gallery, London)

Michelangelo produced a “cartoon”[3]  of Leda and the Swan in 1529 for a commission– the painting was never produced, but this sketch circulated for about a century, and allowed for copies to be made. Thomas’ version positions itself in this line, as the ink on paper lends itself to a “cartoon” or sketch. She breaks with the subject matter, as in her depiction it appears the swan is being seduced by Leda, who is fully in command of her sexuality.

Karen Thomas, Leda and the Swan, 2017, ink on paper

Jumping forward to contemporary art historical referents, Camille Mariet’s huge digital photograph prints (Clockwork, 2017, digital inkjet print, and Reclining Seminude, 2017, digital inkjet print) carry on the tradition of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills.
Though sexuality is rarely explicit in Cindy Sherman’s photographs, there is an implicit critique of the sexual objectification of women in Hollywood, and a questioning of the male gaze in cinema.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #153, 1985, color photograph

In Mariet’s photographs, subjects are styled and positioned to suggest the gorgeously gory cinematic auteurship of directors Herschell Gordon Lewis, Dario Argento and (more recently) Anna Biller. Thinking through photography and film as sister processes, Mariet’s photographs pack an entire narrative into a single “still”. Tropes of horror cinema and its historically exploitative treatment to female characters are embedded within the photograph, though the perspective is flipped and distorted. The viewer appears to be gazing up from a prone position to a standing woman hovering menacingly above– the blood covering her body not her own.

Screen Shot 2017-11-15 at 10.22.37 AM
Camille Mariet, Clockwork, 2017, digital inkjet print

The blood, hand-made merkins and labia prosthetics (made from sculpted Starbursts) cover and distance the subjects from a straightforward eroticism. In this way, the photographs carry on deeper art historical traditions, as an argument could be made to link the tough gazes and distorted perspectives in Mariet’s photographs to Manet’s Olympia (1865, oil on canvas). Olympia flipped the script on female subjectivity as it depicted the reclining nude with some agency, her hard stare directly at the viewer.

Bene Fabio’s quartet of small acrylic on vinyl paintings consist of tight linework on bright neon backgrounds. Fabio’s figures are boiled down to the smallest possible number of lines necessary to describe different sexual positions and acts (i.e.: Tea Bag, 2017, acrylic on vinyl and Face-Chair, 2017, acrylic on vinyl.) Much like Keith Haring’s work, the images have to be decoded first before they register, like hieroglyphics.

Screen Shot 2017-11-15 at 4.55.06 PM
Bene Fabio, Face Chair, 2017, acrylic on vinyl

Haring made work intensely and explicitly about sex. Gay in New York in the late 70s, he frequented backrooms and bathhouses and engaged that energy in his work. His seductive patterns and colors sometimes decorate (much like the Ancient Greek amphoras above) giant phalluses carved from wood, tarpaulin tapestries, his own nude body, and canvases, blasting them full of orgiastic writhing communes of geometric people.

Keith Haring, Untitled, 1984

Having traveled down a historic understanding of erotics in both philosophy and art history, it’s interesting now to position sexuality in the present. Many of the artists for Lewd 2 were found and asked to participate through Instagram, which, ironically, is puritanically censored and policed from within, as users can “report” sexually explicit content. Instagram’s bizarrely austere stance reaches to artists using it’s platform (I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s never-finished version of Leda and the Swan). Even so, Joy Gallery owner Heather Rosner curated 20+ artists into the exhibition. There are infinite ways to engage and experience sexuality, and as many ways to represent it.

Now that the internet has provided a community for every adult baby, puppy player, furry, shrimper, splosher, blossom hound, bear, otter,  dommy mommy, etc., and packaged them up into attendant forums and YouPorn categories and convention booths, I fear even our perversions are falling victim to Foucault’s scientia sexualis. Divided, categorized, classified up into little sections, fetishes are calculated and tabulated into the almighty algorithm.

In “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis”, Jacques Lacan defines jouissance as that which compels a person to go beyond the prohibitions and limitations placed on them, “beyond the pleasure principle.”[5] Now that the world of pleasures is open to us in easily searchable terms but closed in myriad other ways, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that we look back to see how to expand beyond.


[1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/lewd
[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Part One, 1976, Editions Gallimard.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leda_and_the_Swan
[4] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Part One, 1976, Editions Gallimard.
[5] Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1986, Routledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s