The human body has always had the ability to repulse and excite. Perhaps in equal measure. Perhaps even at the same time. And as long as humans have existed, it seems, we have been freaking out about what to do with it; how to speak about it; what to think about it.
A group show of erotic art currently hanging at San Luis Obispo’s Steynberg Gallery feels like an accurate expression of this ancient condition—as much for what’s present on the gallery’s walls as what isn’t. The show, which features work by local artists Tim Anderson, Joanne Beaule Ruggles, Roberto Armstrong, Steven deLuque, Tracy Taylor, Barry Goyette, David Settino Scott, Shane Yates, Josephine Crawford, Mark Bryan, and Peter Steynberg himself, was originally going to be called “Group Sex” (get it?). But the name was changed to the more romantic “Exposed,” Steynberg explained with a shrug, after a few artists expressed concern that the show’s cheeky working title was based on pure shock value.
Such revision is probably necessary for an erotic art show in a gallery that doubles as a community gathering place. “Exposed” is beautiful and provocative, but never graphic or obscene. Visiting the freshly installed exhibit (from which several more overtly obstetric submissions had been excluded, and sat waiting to be returned to their creators), I noticed a tendency in the works selected to err cleverly on the side of abstraction. Tim Anderson’s piece Hot and Heavy in the Land of Good and Plenty, in India ink on a white background, is realistically drawn but depicts shapes that look more like free-floating alien genitalia than anything you’d find on a human. Through this soup of forms swim shapes that could be cells, or possibly candies (Good & Plenty?), and the occasional hot dog. Beyond its content, the piece is remarkable for Anderson’s ability to show softness and shadow in a precise and unforgiving medium.
But where Anderson depicts abstract things in a realistic way, other artists depict real things abstractly. Take Ani Garrick’s Pan of my Dreams (a photographic diptych, starring a penis) and Homage to Deep Erotic Abandon, five black-and-white photographs that use motion and unusual perspective to show the body in ways that often slightly disorient the viewer, and feel like snapshots imprinted in one’s recollection: a nipple, depicted close enough to reveal its textured surface; a mysterious crease of soft flesh; a long-exposure shot of a nude figure in motion; the underside of a woman’s chin.
Also present is an extraordinarily sexy abstract painting by Josephine Crawford. Sibyl, dated 1988, is rendered in a style I’d previously never associated with Crawford, whose work I’d thought of as purely figurative. (Sibyl isn’t the oldest work in the show: Steynberg’s nude painting Shelly was done in 1974.)
Mark Bryan, an oil painter known for his circus imagery and political satire, is represented several times throughout “Exposed.” One work depicts two nude women having tea in a room of distinctly Asian-looking decor, as a cramped-looking elephant curls in the corner. I wonder what that one’s about.
Elsewhere, David Settino Scott has animal-creatures and human women getting it on in the moonlight; among the animals is a particularly dour-looking rabbit.
Shane Yates recently had a two-month solo show at Steynberg, in which he exhibited work uncomfortably close to that of German artist Gerhard Richter: black-and-white paintings that would resemble old photographs were they not deliberately obscured by what became known as “the blur,” an effect that, in Richter’s case anyway, was often done with a squeegee or a swipe of the brush. At least Yates owns up to this rip-off/homage, titling a saucy painting of one woman spanking another Richter…wirklich? Translation: Richter…really?
(Of course, one might argue that artist Roberto Armstrong “ripped off” Van Gogh and Picasso by employing similar styles in his erotic paintings La Lune and Yes, Yes, I Will, also present in “Exposed,” but there’s a crucial distinction between his work and Yates’, in that the painters Armstrong chooses to emulate are 1. universally known, even to children and people who have never set foot in an art gallery, and 2. dead.)
Joanne Beaule Ruggles, a figure artist who often employs mixed-media techniques, has four pieces in the exhibit, each of them figure sketches. They’re intentionally left hairless, and they’re colored not with any typical skin tones but with a rainbow of paint smudges and patterned scraps of paper. Being bald and racially ambiguous makes Ruggles’ nude figures appear more neutral, like stand-ins for the archetypal human being. But then there’s the bright patterned debris that fills and surrounds them, perhaps serving as a metaphor for the ways in which our environment colors and influences who we are.
Painter Steven deLuque’s sculptural piece is perhaps one of the show’s biggest curiosities: a calla lily with an enormous pink penis poking out of it, like a stamen. At first glance, the piece appears to have little to say other than, “Hi! I’m a great big dick on the wall!” and it’s likely that’s all some viewers will get out of it. You can talk about the balance of male and female symbolism, how both traits can be present in one object, or one person; you can discuss how male nudity is still so uncommon in erotic art, so much so that when we do see it, it’s all we (sorry, I) can talk about, but still it’s hard to get over the fact that the piece is, well, look at it! It’s a great big dick on the wall!
It may not be any coincidence that deLuque’s piece is at the back of the space, where it can’t be seen upon entry (though it’s in good company, alongside Barry Goyette’s photographic series of a nude woman thrashing about on a bed, holding antlers that seem, when she is in motion, to replace her hands). Sometimes viewers need a chance to warm to that stuff.
Lastly, in a stark and rather funny contrast to the muted sexual urgency of “Exposed,” are the defiantly sweet watercolors of Tracy Taylor, whose piece Foreplay, which depicts a couple gleefully engaged in a pillow fight, hints at the erotic in its own happy, G-rated way. Awww. See? There’s something for the whole family at the erotic art show.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner seeks to meld the—no. Sorry. Really. That’s a great big dick on the wall. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.