I worked as security staff at Frieze Art Fair in New York last year, and one day while pacing the sprawling tent on my short lunch break, I caught the work of Tom of Finland in one of the booths. Ugh, I thought. Even as a gay male, this stuff gives me dysphoria. Tom of Finland’s men, engorged at the hips and muscle-bound, ignore me. Or worse, they make it very clear that I am not welcome. His work is the most concentrated form of the gay male gaze, which, in his work, pushes fantasy to its limits. And there is an audience for that, of course. But everything has an audience. Sexual imagery appears in art all the time, but art, unlike pornography, leans heavily on context.
Earlier this week, an exhibition titled Queer Me Now: The Queer Body & Gaze opened at 500X in Dallas to one of the youngest crowds I’ve seen there. 500X, by floor space, is large. It’s an old industrial building whose public spaces host exhibitions organized by the artist collective named 500X, after the building. It’s also a residential building with apartments both up and downstairs. Doors to the apartments share wall space with exhibitions. There are wide open spaces and high ceilings where work is installed, and there are project rooms on both of the floors. The residents of the building don’t play a part in what art is put on display. As a courtesy, the lights have to be out by 10 pm on opening night of exhibitions.
The Queer Me Now exhibition, curated by UTD alum Narong Tintamusik, features work by Joshua Bryant, Jer’lisa Devezin, Steven Hector Gonzalez, Christian Roman, and Gem You. Most of the work is the abstract, theoretical approach of image-making that one might expect to find in a show focused on “fresh talent of queer artists making queer art in our local community.” The title of the show is taken from a blog of the same name that proliferates hardcore gay scenes produced in the adult industry. The work in the show that evokes this most directly is by Roman. Roman’s contribution is a series of illustrations done in marker, colored pencil, micron pens and other touches, which feature graphic scenes of hardcore, fantastical gay sex.
Among the works, there are scenes of anal penetration and anthropomorphic devils gagging their subjects. As is customary for the genre, many of the bottoms, or penetrative partners, have distressed or ecstatic expressions on their faces. The sexually graphic nature of some of the material is something we could label ‘hardcore’. There are elements of violence, sadism and masochism, cartoonishly heightened. One panel features a figure that may be Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise, choking his victim with one hand and holding a knife above him in the other, all during penetration. A woman in the background sits lifeless, covered in blood. These are graphic sexual fantasies illustrated with great finesse and precision. Technically, they are beautiful. These are in the vein of fetish art, a la Tom of Finland, which borders on pornography while maintaining an air that it is meaningful somehow, as well as arousing.
The show opened on December 7, and the show was taken down by its organizers on December 9, following an alleged complaint from the building’s owner, the Gibson Company.
An outcry on social channels followed (including @the500X on Instagram, which announced the de-install); the gist is that censoring art is wrong. That is a satisfying ultimatum, but it flattens some of the circumstances around this show. During the opening, I saw no posted warning to the graphic nature of the content in the show. If it was there, it failed to grab my attention before I saw the work. There was no door, curtain, or sign to indicate that a viewer may need to make a decision before they proceed. Again, the building is a mix of public and private space, and the artists do not live in the building. Tenants could feel uncomfortable about the kind of art that is on view, and children could easily wander into the space installed with Roman’s work without having to do so much as turn a doorknob.
A curator or gallerist is usually thoughtful about how to exhibit work; even museums and commercial galleries given over to only showing art post helpful signs when content ahead is decidedly adult. It’s a standard practice in exhibiting art.
The orders to take the entire show down come from the Gibson Company, which owns a lot of property in Expo Park. On social media, the cry of censorship in this case is directed at the landlord, specifically for shutting out queer art. But does anyone like their landlord? Find a Dallas artist with good rapport with their property manager and I’ll gladly buy them a coffee. Queer Me Now’s curator, Tintamusik, has a personal website (at the time of this writing) that features a disclaimer that they are working with 500X to find another space to place the show. Would the shutting-down outcome at 500X be the same if there had been a curtain in front of the work in question? The censorship argument would be different then, and far more valid. And that’s not something to overlook.
Scandal and outrage have a way of washing away all other conversation, for the sake of headlines and polemics. Anger is an intoxicating emotion. That’s unfortunate, because art can be a tool for understanding what events and images mean. Not just to us, but as signifiers of the progress we want in the world.