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Rob Perrée: Sexuality in Art ICA London

Sexuality in Art ICA London

Very well hung: the ICA’s Keep Your Timber Limber exhibition

With its bulging bikers and its penises waving flags, the ICA’s Keep Your Timber Limber show takes an unblushing look at sexuality in art. Welcome to beefcake world

Adrian Searle
The Guardian, Wednesday 19 June 2013

Judith Bernstein’s Fuck By Number at the Keep Your Timber Limber exhibition at the ICA, London ‘A strangely impotent explosion of energy’ … Judith Bernstein’s Fucked By Number at the Keep Your Timber Limber exhibition at the ICA, London. Photograph: Mark Blower/ICA

There are a lot of cocks and balls here. You can’t miss them. They bulge out of tight jeans, they fill walls, they poke you in the eye, they keep on coming. You can’t avoid the flying fluids. Yes, this is a family newspaper, but what is one to do? “Please be aware that this exhibition contains challenging imagery,” says a sign, downplaying all the penile dramas filling the ICA. Keep Your Timber Limber is a seminal and well-hung exhibition in every sense – except for the making-sense part.

The first thing you see is gigantic and erect, with bulging, hairy balls. It’s so big it has to turn a corner on to a second wall. This penis, drawn in black chalk, has the words “MORAL INJURY” written along its shaft. This is US artist Judith Bernstein’s Fucked By Number, which reworks a smaller anti-Vietnam-war drawing she made in 1967, updated and upscaled to account for US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Engorged with outrage, it’s a strangely impotent explosion of energy.

Bernstein’s work has long been obsessed with the male organ and male power. Her most famous work, shown at The Historical Box show in London last year, equated the penis with the screw, the dick with the drill. This was always very obvious and a bit lame, but it got up the nose of Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, who in 1974 succeeded in having it removed from an exhibition in the city. The flagging power of the penis may be her subject (and her two Fucked By Number drawings both have the US flag dangling from poles stuck down the urethra) but their shouty, expressionist intensity wearies me. I long for Nancy Spero, whose work, which often shared the same anti-war sentiments and feminist certitude, was much more subtle in its sexual politics – and better drawn, too.

A corseted, high-heeled and big-breasted Captain America fiddles with his garter strap in one of Margaret Harrison’s delicate watercolours. Her takes on the cliches of rugged masculinity are amusing, but a bit meek. Why shouldn’t men, even superheroes and footballers, slip on the heels and stockings? Superhero costumes are a daft sort of drag to begin with: all that Lycra and tight-fitting spandex looks like it wants to be rubberwear; and superhero garb is often one of the more childish features of fetish clubs. And as for footballers in drag: well, why not?

Harrison’s watercolours don’t work for me. Whatever subversiveness they had once has faded. Even Good Enough to Eat, the 1971 painting of a naked woman as a sandwich-filler, has lost its bite. Sexism and sexual stereotyping may be as rampant as ever, but our awareness of them has largely made Harrison’s work feel redundant, telling us things we already know.
Mike Kuchar’s Prehistoric Pets A detail of a drawing from Mike Kuchar’s Prehistoric Pets (1980-90). Photograph: Mike Kuchar/François Ghebaly Gallery
For real illustrative oomph and pizzazz, Mike Kuchar’s he-man naked hunks – cavorting with dinosaurs and each other – are much more fun. He and his twin brother, George, also made ultra-camp underground movies in the 1950s and 60s, which were a major influence on director John Waters. It’s a surprise any of Kuchar’s gladiators and Thor-type beefcakes can even walk, let alone slay brontosauruses, given the bulging impedimenta they drag about between their legs.

Drawing, of course, can be for fun as well as profit. It can be a way of creating your own pornography and giving vent to unactable desire. There’s something about the directness and private nature of the act that allows artists to give free reign to fantasy, as well as making us feel that we are looking over their shoulders, privy to their private thoughts. But the drawings here were made to be seen – they’re not simply a way for artists to play with, and for, themselves.

Cary Kwok’s images are all of solitary men ejaculating. Carefully drawn in blue ballpoint, London and Beijing-based Kwok homes in on ecstatic faces, concentrated expressions, and looks of surprise, as orgasm hits and unbelievably copious emissions spatter across the paper: there’s a Jew with his peyot ringlets, a dog-collared priest, a Buddhist monk having a temporary nirvana. The one I like most shows a young man cuffed and chained to a wall, having a hands-free orgasm. Never mind the drawing: it is the fact that he can do it at all that’s impressive.
A detail from an untitled 1963 drawing by Tom of Finland A detail from an untitled 1963 drawing by Tom of Finland
Tom of Finland’s musclebound blond bikers, men in uniform and a whole closet full of leatherwear not only illustrated a sexual style, but partly invented and glamorised the look: caps, moustaches, chaps in chaps – the overt, often parodic masculinity. The fantasies of Touko Laaksonen, as the Finn was originally known, migrated into a kind of near-universal default clone-wear, and celebrated cruising and casual sexual encounters in a way that appears almost wholesome. Everyone is ludicrously hunky. His drawings, like Kuchar’s, are as funny as they are erotic. Like most pornography, most sexual fantasies, and even sex itself, their work is deeply repetitive, playing again and again on the same tropes.

In the end, I don’t understand this exhibition. The lone example of American Marlene McCarty’s work depicts a gorilla snuggled up with two young, bare-breasted women. It is not quite zoophilia, but is meant to make us think of primatologists who have transgressed, we are told, “the ethical distance appropriate to their field of scientific research”. I am more interested in following the argument about this than I am in McCarty’s drawing. Also – and to no great purpose a single 1946 drawing by Germany’s George Grosz has been included, showing a well-fed fat man, full of beer and meat and dumplings, being assailed by some very thin stick-men. What does it have to do with anything else here? Nothing. Its inclusion feels like name-dropping.

Nor can I see what Antonio Lopez, the fashion illustrator and denizen of the New York club scene who died of Aids in 1987, adds to the show. His exercises in 1980s style have period flavour – with their portrayals of Grace Jones and Divine, as well as fashion campaigns for Gianni Versace – but they feel misplaced. There is an exhibition to be made about drawing and sexual politics, pornography and protest, and the boundaries between private acts and public display. But this flaccid exhibition isn’t it.