Guest Post by Richard Allen
On March 8, as part of the run-up to the annual Black Party at the Roseland Ballroom, the Center held a benefit called Art + Sin, an exhibit of thirty-two years of posters for the notorious expo and dance party. While the posters were meant to titillate, excite, and above all, advertise, they also function as art in and of themselves (the original poster, as well as several subsequent years, featured Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, after all). These posters also serve as a continuous document of the various sexual preoccupations of the last three decades of gay life, and as such, make the viewer think past the current representations of sexuality, and to instead situate them in a larger conversation about the changing nature of gay life.
This continuing conversation manifested differently throughout the exhibit. The poster from 1993, by Bastille, was among the most sexually explicit and graphic of the images, showing a group of men in various stages of S&M play in the background, while in the foreground, a disembodied penis emerges from the corner, still sheathed in an obviously used condom. This poster is from a period when the gay community found itself consumed not just with dealing with the current AIDS crisis, but also increasingly concerned with prevention, and provides a fascinating example of an early attempt to express gay male sexuality in a way that is non-judgmental and inclusive, but that also pointedly demands responsibility.
Another pair of posters makes this conversation even more explicit and functions as an amusing sort of call-and-response across generations. The first poster, from 1982, by Scott Facon, incorporates woodblock illustrations that look plucked from a century-old German medical text showing a step-by-step guide to performing a circumcision. The 2004 poster, by Thom Graves, uses the same layout of imagery and simple black-on-beige color palette, but instead is a medical illustration of foreskin restoration. The later poster references the larger (both gay and straight) culture’s growing debate about circumcision, but also draws a witty and knowing historical thread through the entirety of the Black Party itself. Yet another poster, from 2002, is a photograph of a bound and roughed-up man in Abercrombie and Fitch underwear wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch shopping bag with a model’s head printed on it over his own head. Behind the subject,muscle mag posters tacked to the wall. On the surface, this photograph suggests simple bondage within a sexual context, but the juxtaposition of boxer-briefs and shopping bag also evokes much darker interpretations about gay male self-esteem and body-image, and how media and consumer culture shape and reinforce men’s relationships to their own bodies. Ultimately, the viewer wonders if enslavement to an ideal is the real bondage being referenced in this photograph.
Alongside the posters, while attendees chatted and sipped vodka and bid on auction items, another group of men were actively shaping ideals as they quickly but skillfully sketched a nude model who changed positions every fifteen minutes. As I walked around the circle, peering over shoulders, I was impressed by the confidence of the drawings and paintings I saw. Clearly, all of the assembled artists had formal training or were freakishly-gifted naturals. However, what was most fascinating was not the skill and beauty, but the tiny little ways that each participant manipulated the model to closer conform to a personal ideal. Some depicted him with a larger penis, some with a squarer jawline, some with a more feminine mouth, more chest hair, less chest hair, leaner, more compact, and so on, but invariably, something happened in the mind and hand of each sketcher that subtly reshaped reality to a version that pleased them more. In that way, the benefit itself felt like just the most current manifestation of this dialogue about contemporary gay life, sexuality and aesthetics that continues to play out in posters, parties and streets throughout New York.