Tom of Finland / #RAWHIDE

Tom of Finland
Artists Space
New York
June 14 – August 23, 2015

Venus Over Manhattan
New York
May 9 – June 27, 2015


George Hanson: They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to them.

Billy: Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.

George Hanson: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.

—Easy Rider (1969)

Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play at Artists Space is the most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of Touko Laaksonen (aka Tom of Finland), who died in 1991. The exhibition starts with a bang (well, several bangs, really) with the storyboard for his publication Pleasure Park (1976), in which several buff men—sailors, cowboys, soldiers, construction workers—engage in a gleeful outdoor orgy, and then goes back in time to some of the artist’s earliest drawings from the 1940s, which feature slim-waisted, immaculately dressed and much coyer dandies. 

From the 1950s, when he was  pursuing a lucrative career in the ad world while also submitting erotic drawings to Bob Mizer’s “men’s health” publication Physique Pictorial in Los Angeles, through to the 1980s when he was making his living through his art, Tom of Finland’s representations of the male body reflected evolving physical ideals within the gay community. The physical changes in the men in his finely rendered and detailed drawings also seem to correspond to major milestones in gay culture, and the shifting mindsets within gay society that accompanied them. In the oppressive years of the 1950s, the men cruised each other in the most wholesome of ways—the erotic undercurrents there, but subdued. By the late 60s, on the eve of Stonewall, we often find clean-cut, all-American types being molested, if not physically dominated, by brawny biker-types. The bulging muscles, raging boners, clone moustaches and hard-core images of gay sex come to the fore by the 70s, when sexual liberation, free love and the Gay Rights Movement gained momentum. With the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early 90s also came the cult of the body, a fetishization of the “masculine” gay man, and a dread of the effeminate, which many would argue persists to this day. The men in Tom of Finland’s drawings from this period are the most butch of all. Even in those dark days, men in a Tom of Finland drawing are sexual renegades, free of the anxieties, fears and anger of their real-life counterparts, and a counterpoint to the responsibilities of ‘straight’ society. Their huge erections are like flipped middle fingers directed at the conservative faction of the era’s culture wars. 

Three preparatory sketches of cowboys from the 1960s by Tom of Finland appear in #RAWHIDE, a group show at Venus Over Manhattan that surveys images of cowboys in art. Though sometimes feeling like a puff piece of an exhibition (chalk that up to it being summer), several works cheekily subvert the image of the cowboy as a tough, independent and masculine American ideal. Cady Noland literally pokes holes in that image with Cowboy with Holes, Eating (1990), a silkscreened image of a cowboy on aluminum with holes cut out of his feet, a shoulder and, most provocatively, his groin. The sexual fetishizing of the cowboy figure is the subject of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Boot Fetish (1979), in which a man huffs the scent of a cowboy’s footwear. Leonard McCombe’s moody Portrait of Texas Cowboy Clarence Hailey Long (1949) hangs within a grouping of  images of ersatz cowboys. Long’s steely eyes and weathered skin sit in sharp contrast to a fresh-faced, wistful-looking Johnny Depp in a cowboy hat (1995), a mugging Pee Wee Herman on horseback (1987), Dennis Hopper’s shot of John Wayne and Dean Martin on the set of the movie The Sons of Katie Elder (1962) and five photographs by the aforementioned Mizer of a young man sporting a cowboy hat, boots, a holster and not much else (1963).

A selection of Mizer’s Physique Pictorial magazines from the late 60s and early 70s, with images of male models in cowboy gear on their covers, were housed on a display table. Adjacent were two Andy Warhol portraits of Hopper from 1970, produced shortly after his appearance in the film Easy Rider; his character, Billy, a new kind of cowboy roaming through a less idealistic, less free America.

Related exhibition: Peter Berlin: Wanted, a show of photographs by Peter Berlin, one of Tom of Finland’s muses in the 1970s, runs at CLAMPART in New York until October 10.