The Filth and the Profundity by Ana Finel Honigman
John Waters and Bruce Hainley, Art -- A Sex Book, Thames & Hudson, New York, 2003, 208 pp., $29.95
John Waters and Bruce Hainley rectify contemporary art's conservative bent at a time when Currin at the Whitney and Playboy at Christie's are big bust-out successes.
In Art -- A Sex Book, major members of the sex/art category, Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Thomas Ruff and Jeff Koons have been excluded in favor of a more esoteric, queer-centric and conceptual roster of nearly 70 artists.
Waters warns his readers, "If you bought this as a jerk-off book you might be confused. But of course, there are people who jerk off to all kinds of things. There are people who jerk off to Robert Ryman paintings." And if anyone could be a pimp for Ryman's monochrome canvases, it would be Waters.
The most tantalizing aspect of this brilliant book, aside from its bevy of erections and ribald humor, is Waters' and Hainley's ability to intellectually engage overtly sexual art while simultaneously articulating how chaste-seeming images can be as beguiling as their libertine counterparts. Anyone in the art-world can shamelessly claim that they love John Currin for his "Old Master technique," but perhaps only Waters could convincingly explain why Tom Friedman's 1,000 Hours of Staring (1992-97), a blank sheet of paper Friedman claims to have watched for 1,000 hours, is sexy.
Waters cryptically inquires, "What did [Friedman] have on when he was staring? Was he nude? What was he thinking? . . . To have it in your home, to live with it, is about imagining him staring all those hours: you're having a fantasy about his fantasy." It is as if Friedman was the man in the old joke who keeps seeing copulating couples in the inkblots of his Rorschach test, and when his psychiatrist proposes that he has a dirty mind, he counters, "What do you mean that I have a dirty mind? You're the one showing me the dirty pictures."
The images in Art -- A Sex Book range from the elliptical to the indisputably sexual, from Sturtevant's appropriated abstract Jasper Johns, Johns Painting with Two Balls (1987), to Untitled (The Vortex) (1999), a photograph by Jeff Burton of a flaccid, exhausted penis peeking out of a glory hole.
The "minimalist and maximalist sex" chapter harbors images such as Lilly van der Stokker's exuberant groupie homage to Bridget Bardot, a girly doodle flanking the star's name with hearts, blossoms and floating sprigs of pubic hair-like squiggles. Just as Bardot was the 60's pin-up supreme, if there was a Barely Legal for typographers, van der Stokker's kittenish lettering would be the centerfold.
Then on the minimalist side is Carl Ostendarp's Pillow Talk (1992), a clean white linen canvas topped with cartoony brown drips. Hainley asks, "What do you imagine the drips and stains in Pillow Talk to be?" Waters enthusiastically responds, "Well, they are brown. So I always think it's what they used to call a 'log jam.' However, someone I know said 'cum.' Maybe it's 'skid marks.' I don't think anyone would ever say 'Jello.'"
In a similarly kinky vein, there are Jan von der Ahe's pretty art-deco menstrual blood paintings and George Stoll's long luxurious roll of teal chiffon toilet paper, Untitled (Wall Mounted Scott Green Pudding) (1997). Also included are frankly odd images, like Claude Wampler's Scrotum Yarmulke (1998), in which the artist generously keeps her bewildered pet dog's delicate little skull warm (and pious) by using a man's stretched scrotum as a yarmulke. It is a gesture that is less sexy than sure to annoy people who are disgusted by seeing coats on dogs, but all of these works exemplify art's role as a forum to beautify and sublimate uncontrollable, unsociable urges, from violence and celebrity longing to messy bodily functions.
The chapter titled "A New Kind of Arty Sex" is more subdued, and addresses the relationship between architecture, art and sex. Hainley loves Maureen Gallace's soft-hued paintings of houses and country roads because they remind him of "the places were sexuality is formed." In this context, San Francisco artist Vincent Fecteau's odd papier-mch sculptures make genital-like forms abstract almost to the point of decency while "suggesting something crafty and sexual, something a spinster aunt might make a Christmas tree ornament out of as well as a lone testicle."
Potty humor has a place of pride in the book, which is not that surprising, since scat art, from the Incas, Goya and 18th-century enema porn to Paul McCarthy, has long enjoyed as illustrious a part in art history as the glorification of the body. Here fluids and feces are represented alongside Adonises, as in Tony Tasset's 1994 cibachrome, I Peed in my Pants, showing the artist confidently displaying his incontinence; Michelle Hines' World Record #4: Peristaltic Action, in which the artist allegedly deposited the world's longest turd down the length of a bowling alley; and of course Tom Friedman's tiny little piece of poo on a pedestal.
The summation of this exhibition is a section titled "Nine Sex Questions," in which Walters and Hainley surveyed 14 artists on topics such as, "should anything be off limits in contemporary art," "do you ever get turned on by making your own art," or "have you ever used art as pornography?" Richard Hawkins, Cady Noland and Mike Kelley in particular used their questionnaire as an opportunity to discuss the complex role sex plays in viewing and creating art. As Noland says, good art "can be 'scorching.' It can leave you humping air."
Still, none of the artists match Waters' and Hainley's banter. Their transcribed conversations move from art theory to reminiscences about the artsy decor in gay sex clubs to Waters' riff about a Satanist with a speech impediment. They discuss all the art they love with passion and insight. Much of their dialogue is frank and hilarious, but along with the repartee, Waters and Hainley offer some of the most astute, sensitive and coherent commentary on contemporary art recently put to print.
That they both know their art theory and recent art history is not surprising considering Hainley's pedigree as contributing editor for Artforum and a professor at Art Center in Pasadena and Waters' status as an iconoclastic filmmaker whose film Pecker playfully skewered the art world's customs and pretensions. More significant is that they viscerally love art, see it as a forum for fantasy and successfully resurrect what Joseph Conrad termed the "artist's role to speak to our capacity for delight and wonder."
Art appreciation is fundamentally about arousal and longing. As evidenced by Larry Clark, Gary Lee Boas and Richard Hawkins each appropriating images of a young, dewy, but (sadly) clothed Matt Dillon, art offers the possibility of possessing something unobtainable, transgressive and desirable.
Waters and Hainley prove that pleasure transcends the often priggish discourse surrounding art. Good art is like a good stripper, it flirts and reveals a lot but remains mysterious and evasive. Art provokes the need to possess it, know it, often defile or deface it but its elusive, flexible meaning only heightens its allure. No one wants a whiny, didactic, confessional stripper. And as Waters says, "Transcendence is a great thing, but I don't want it or expect it all the time." Which is appropriate since as Hainley asserts, "contemporary art is all about sex."
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.