The eleventh annual Seattle Erotic Arts Festival had a shorter but varied showing this year. Quality control is a problem typical of arts festivals and juried shows, especially when a specific theme is addressed. In the case of the Erotic Arts Festival, the trouble is compounded, as artists know they will have little opportunity to present taboo works in traditional settings—or may be worried about how it could affect their reputation—and the care and subtlety they may give to other work is lost in their forays into erotic subjects. Ideally one would hope to see strong works that are legitimate parts of an artist’s oeuvre that may have been excluded elsewhere, as erotic content seems to trump everything else and therefore doesn’t “belong” with other work.
A devoted volunteer panel put in forty-hour weeks to select from myriad submissions, and there were quite a few wonderful pieces that ought to have an audience. However, the questions then become: Does this venue really serve the works and the artists? Does it contribute thoughtfully to a larger cultural conversation that would remove the stigmas that prevent these works from being shown elsewhere? Does it further segregate the works?
We need festivals like the SEAF for now, but their messaging and the curation need maturing if the audience is to mature. Erotic art as a category is problematic—most obviously for issues of “obscenity” and “good taste,” which are arbitrary and changeable things. This is especially true in a culture that is still rather Victorian in its taste for repression. “Good taste” is nothing to aspire to—Edith Sitwell vilified it as the worst vice ever invented—as it seems to imply a lack of creativity, but to defy “good taste” guarantees neither creativity nor artistic courage. Taboo works can be just as lazy as the most banal decorative art, though they justify themselves through shocks rather than anemic aesthetics or sentimentality.
At worst, work that aims to be erotic is merely pornographic, which is not so much obscene as it is a bore—which is worse. It is more dull than daring to put pornography on a wall, as Americans are rather familiar with pornography even if they are relatively uptight about sex. Art, however controversial it may be, generally inspires admiration, adoration, curiosity, contemplation or some other upper-brain activity. Unlike the pornographic, the erotic still aims for the head and heart and need not reach the groin, hence why it can be an aspect of all forms of art. It’s a condiment, not the main course, so on its face an erotic arts festival sounds a bit like a trough of mayo. The SEAF at the very least generates dialog about these distinctions through the variety and volume of works that it presents.
The medium most represented at the festival was overwhelmingly photography, much of which was underwhelming. The thin line between the erotic and the pornographic was crossed most often and most blatantly in this medium. Some walls looked like a poor attempt to emulate—like so many before—the styles of Rob Zombie and Joel-Peter Witkin. Complex tableaux aside, they didn’t even acquire the novelty of their stylistic predecessors. Some walls looked more like a Tumblr than a gallery or salon setting, but instead of plastic porn-stars, the models were decidedly average. The overall effect could be considered “sex-positive” to some who feel marginalized by their inability to attain the high standards of our image culture, but individually the pieces were inconsistent and often poorly composed.
However, there were some outstanding works with excellent composition and compelling content. The wet-plate process photograph “The Countess” by Eliza Gauger has a dim, velvety tonal range that adds to the allure of the ambivalent but graceful pose of the female figure. Both the spare, bold staging and costuming allude to power and status beyond sexuality—a bourgeois parlor scene, a collar a la mode and boots a la guerre. The beauty of the exposed body framed this way hints at the erotic lust at the root of so much lust for power and does so without abasing the subject.
“The Madam” by Assaf Ziv succeeds through a completely different approach. A room full of seated, fully dressed, stoic and androgynous figures sit stiffly on chairs facing the camera directly. The nubile allure of “The Countess” (a socially sanctioned title of power) juxtaposed with the imposing, world-weary gaze of “The Madam” (another title of power, but unsanctioned and hidden) was a bit of very smart curation—maiden and crone—that allowed two strong works to shine individually and have a dialog together.
One way of taking the conversation around sexuality to a more productive place is to admit to the abject silliness of it. By not taking the subject matter too seriously, a playful approach can elevate works from childish to child-like. That said, being childish is sometimes suitable, and a work that might otherwise be cringe-worthy plays well with others in a festival like this. For instance, one drawing in colored pencil turned a supine male figure into the body of a bicycle (his phallus sprouting a seat) with a female nonchalantly riding it (but not penetrated). The style and content were both unsophisticated, but the absurdity of it among images of bound breasts and cum shots was refreshing and a pleasant inversion of the male gaze that dominated most of the works.
Indeed, the male gaze is a subject all its own to be evaluated in contemporary and historical perspectives. That it dominates a show about sexuality should come as no surprise to anyone—in fact will likely even be unnoticed by many viewers who accept it as fish accept water. So when one happens upon a photo, such as Nate Gowdy’s “The Go-Go Dancer,” whose female subject is shouting in shock/joy/embarrassed laughter, as she peers up between the two male legs standing on a stage in the foreground, the humor is a relief in multiple ways. Meanwhile, Stasia Burrington’s “Slumber Party” takes the Japanese Kawaii aesthetic (in this case Chibi) and turns an all-female cuddle-puddle into something as charming and graphically interesting as it is provocative. This sort of sweet intimacy was a tonic among more blatant fare, even though the No Boys Allowed sentiment of the drawing had a voyeuristic side, too.
The lush, lithographs of Garance Roberts also compelled the eye to move over the entire work and were some of the most classically beautiful pieces on display. Despite the bold, dynamic divide of color in lithography, there is grace and movement and mystery in her sylvan scenes of nymphs. Roberts and Gauger both took aesthetics and subjects that look like something from last century but kept them fresh and engaging. This timelessness, too, is a feat worth mentioning.
By far, the least represented medium of the night was sculpture, but the sculptures present were among the strongest works. It should be noted, too, that the low lighting (mood lighting, it seemed) of the space was not appropriate for many of the works hanging on the walls, but the sculptures looked best in this sort of interior twilight, as sculptures often do. Two nude males by John Sisko were especially powerful. Sisko’s angular style gave every muscle and bone a hard, machined edge that complemented the relaxed, vulnerable poses of the subjects. These were not classically beautiful figures, but they were appealing to the eye. Nor were they hyper-realistic works, but they were deeply human. These sculptures very likely would not be shown in many galleries simply because they are explicit in their painted anatomy (down to the rosy pink of a supine young man’s anus), but that’s a shame because they are actually as straightforward as they are beautiful.
More abstract sculptures showed how sensuous and suggestive a non-literal approach to eroticism can be—two in particular. “Collared Lady” by Osha could be phallic or feminine depending on your mood, but its shape and implied anatomy were beautifully refined. Delayne Corbett’s “Caress” allowed a teardrop of stone to droop at its tip, an organic shape whose smooth surface, dark color and visual heft was one of the most beautiful works shown and acquired an additional lushness and sensuality merely by association with the other works
This is perhaps the more powerful and progressive role for the SEAF to play: To illustrate the broader idea of eroticism and reveal the underlying currents of it in works where it might be overlooked, such as Corbett’s. These works are often viewed as if they exist in a vacuum, but works always interact with their surroundings. A finer balance of subtle and explicit content could send a powerful message, allowing for dialogs such as between Gauger and Ziv’s photos and more abstract works as well. There will still be room for saltier material to titillate, affirming eroticism without perpetuating gross objectification or boring an audience that comes for something different than what they see on gallery walls or on the internet—in private browsing mode.