There are two places in Houston where you can find public images of Tom of Finland, the irreverent patriarch of homoerotic illustrations (although ‘daddy’ may be more apropos). His work has typically come in the form of murals and posters at gay leather bars or blazoned across the front of a t-shirt on the muscular chest of one of the bar’s regulars. Original works, however, are currently on view at Inman Gallery in “Tom of Finland: Drawings from the 70’s and 80’s.”
The Ripcord, Houston’s manliest gay watering hole, is home to an onslaught of furry leather-clad men, dark lighting, and a sea of well-manicured beards. It’s also home to a large mural of a man on all fours with an anus as large as a doorknob and whose swollen testicles swing below him like a giant pendulum. The imagery belongs to Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, the veritable father of male-on-male fantasy and gay male iconography as a whole, from the first widely distributed illustrated images of sodomy to the characters of the Village People.
Inman Gallery worked directly with the Tom of Finland Foundation and Western Project in Los Angeles to bring 28 preliminary sketches from the late Finnish-born illustrator to Houston. With the exhibition of Laaksonen’s work comes an invitation to see the iconic cartoonist as a bona fide artist. What is more surprising, however, are the subtle qualities of these drawings, created during the twenty-year period that saw some of the most ardent and sexually abrasive imagery of Laaksonen’s 50-year career.
Born in Kaarina, Finland in 1920, Laaksonen served in the Finnish Army, where his sexual encounters led to an emphasis on uniformed men in his homoerotic illustrations. In 1957, his comics made their mainstream debut in Physique Pictorial, an American beefcake magazine, immediately sparking a loyal and insatiable readership. With this first success, he left Finland and his position as head of the art department at the international advertising agency McCann Erickson, and moved to the United States.
"Drawings from the 70’s and 80’s” comprises studies and unfinished works by Laaksonen done during a period when his work was characterized by fetishized men at their loudest and most proud. Often referred to as the “Fetishist Years,” Laaksonen’s work from the 70’s and 80’s reveals his trademark hyper-masculine, cartoonicized men with erect nipples as three-dimensional as fingertips, phallic bulges the size of pitching mounds, and disproportionately giant penises that more closely resemble cock-shaped fire hydrants.
In the Inman exhibition, however, Tom’s fantasies are incomplete and devoid of color entirely, leaving us with shadow, subtle nuances, and detailed composition. Nearly invisible marks reveal erased hats, muscles, male companions and expose edited thoughts and subject matter. In many of the works, one figure is nearly completely sketched while others are gently outlined, leaving the viewer with an idea of the artist’s impressive skill with a pencil. Laaksonen kept a scrapbook of source material and often clipped photos from newspapers and magazines containing scenes of men, faces he liked, or physiques he could illustrate later. (Inman Gallery is fortunate enough to have a few pages from one of the scrapbooks.) Subtlety is not a word often used to describe the artist’s imagery, but it seems appropriate in these works which portray the cartoonist not only as a purveyor of explicit licentiousness, but as a man determined to refine his craft: an editor, a perfectionist, especially with regard to the exaggeration of the male form and the proliferation of gay male fantasy.
“Drawings from the 70’s and 80’s” is joined by “A Mixture of Catholicism, Pasta, and Pornography”, a solo exhibition of new work by Houstonian David Aylsworth, whose large scale painting in the main gallery shares the same name. Externally, Aylsworth seems an unlikely pairing for Tom of Finland, and the two shows seem to be a kind of antithesis to each other, which is mildly disappointing. Aylsworth’s bright palette, non-representational imagery, and three-dimensional texture offset Tom’s men without any tangible narrative that conjoins both shows. The only common link, apart from the artist’s personal fondness for Tom of Finland, is some vaguely suggestive imagery, despite the "Pornography" in the show's title. The curvy yellow line and chunky white block in the aforementioned painting vaguely resemble a penis and a hand, but the references pretty much end there. These paintings would do well on their own, without the help of another artist’s work. But instead they take a back seat, which raises the question: Whom do you show with Tom of Finland? The answer is a difficult one to find, but Inman Gallery’s programming choice, as well intended as it may be, is dull in the presence of the wonderfully forward drawings.
It can be said that if you’ve seen three or four Tom of Finland pieces, you’ve seen them all. It can also be suggested that they aren’t high art, but highly mature cartoons that belong to a specific culture. But you’d be cheating yourself if you felt either way. What sets these 28 pieces apart from the artist’s completed works is that they provide distinct and rare insight into the composition of Tom’s men, as well as reason to characterize Laaksonen as a genuine artist. You also get to enjoy more than 28 cocks at one time without being at the Ripcord.
Images courtesy Inman Gallery.
Evan J. Garza is a writer and Assistant Director of Deborah Colton Gallery in Houston.