The Art That Failed
Some Thoughts from a Juror of This Year's Seattle Erotic Art Festival—Plus, a Shout-Out to a Few of the Knockouts
a wind of sorrow by corwin prescott / courtesy of the artist and seaf
I don't know much about sex, but I know what I like. No, wait, I got that wrong. The line is "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." And actually, I do know something about sex, and art, and the place where the two intersect: I got to exercise my opinions on the Seattle Erotic Art Festival art-selection jury this year. I was one of five people who spent many hours in a dark room looking at more than 2,000 visual art submissions and winnowing them down to the best 226. It wasn't easy. I've had work in a few SEAF shows, so I know how it feels to be the artist, waiting and hoping that your submission is accepted. But with limited space and so many submissions, you really had to set the judges on fire.
Some submissions got a unanimous yes, but the jurors didn't agree on everything. There were submissions I loved that didn't sing to anyone else and vice versa. There were near misses where we were closely divided: Two jurists liked it but the other three didn't. And then there were submissions that did not even come close to rocking our world. Not at all. They were not even art. They were—at best—pretty pictures, nothing more. When people utter that awful cliché "I don't know much about art..." what they mean is, they like pretty pictures. They mean, "Art should not challenge my preconceived beliefs on a subject in either its form or its content. It shouldn't engage me emotionally in a way I don't expect. When I look at it, I should merely think, 'Oh, that's pretty.'"
Now, pretty pictures aren't inherently evil. The world needs pretty pictures, but there's a vast gulf between a pretty picture and art, and nowhere does that chasm yawn more widely than in erotic art. Sometimes the weakness is in vision and statement. For example, the artist thinks, "This is a body part I like in a sexual partner, therefore a depiction of it equals erotic art." The artist then creates an image of someone's ass, framed from the small of the back to the mid-thigh. Nothing else, just someone's ass. This type of submission was mainly photography, and I gave slightly more consideration to submissions in other mediums. Far more than, say, painting, drawing, or sculpture, photography is an art where people can use high-priced gear and extensive post-processing to spackle over gaps in talent and effort. Even with a simple subject, less-represented techniques are intriguing, so I'm more likely to be engaged by an artist who creditably wields something more than a shutter button and a mouse. And however one might appreciate them in real life, an isolated pair of butt cheeks rarely conveys complex emotions in any artistic medium, and they are not a new subject. Neither is a closely cropped shot of a pair of boobs, a cock, a pussy, or a foot. Yes, I see that the model has a nice whatever. Next!
Another distinct category: submissions that are all concept and no juice. For example, the beautiful but blank-faced model with wax-doll eyes that don't really see you and an overall absence of emotion. Think: Keanu Reeves and Kristen Stewart in a Dolce & Gabbana fashion layout. I saw a number of submissions like this that made me think, "The subject of this image doesn't seem to be thinking or feeling anything about what he/she is doing. I'm not sure even the artist really feels strongly about it. He/she just thinks other people will think it's sexy." That's not art, that's a vodka ad. That has nothing near the power of an image of people moved by something genuine and passionate.
Three more highly specific criticisms before I mention the things I loved. First: A photo of a sneering woman wearing a corset and high boots and brandishing a riding crop ceased to be bold new erotic terrain around 1983. Actually, it probably ceased to be new around 1883. These days, images of women in latex dresses holding whips are used to sell cars, beer, and pistachio nuts. That picture is officially boring as shit. Stop creating it. Second: Rope bondage can be a photogenic subject, with riggers displaying their technical expertise and models displaying their flexibility and endurance. But between porn sites and FetLife profiles, pictures of models intricately wrapped in rope have been, well, I wouldn't quite say done to death, but it's no longer a rare glimpse into a taboo world. Unless you bring something fresh and powerful to it—like A Wind of Sorrow by Corwin Prescott (at left)—you're basically submitting an example of macramé art. Third: "Erotic art" does not mean "tastefully rendered porn." It's not that art cannot stir us sexually, but it must pause in our brains on its way further south.
And now for a few pieces that stirred me the most, the ones I can't stop thinking about. Nico and Vann by Michael Rosen and If You Go, I'm Going with You by Gmark stunned me with their classic black-and-white style and drop-dead-sexy beauty. The subjects in Snidely by Lisolette Gilcrest are so vividly present, you almost expect them to speak—I desperately wanted to see the next frame of their implied story. A man, a woman, and a blow-up doll in a bathtub populate comic self-portrait Ménage a Trois by Richard Northwood—it's an excellent example of a photo that's been retouched just enough to be fun. The painting Hump Day on Hyacinth Street by Andrea Joyce is an intriguing, surreal, slightly childlike composition of men gardening and washing a car on a banal suburban street—except that they're all wearing gimp-style fetish hoods and catsuits. Mr. Robot Did a No No, a painting by Jody Joldersma, is like something you'd see in a dream—you'd wake up unsure if you were aroused, amused, or frightened. And if looking at the happy, silver-haired lovers in Harvery and Jane by David Steinberg does not make you smile, then you have no soul.