Manuel Betancourt

“Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Wall,” or How you should really know your (nude, gay, erotic) history

April 12, 2014 · in Queer

Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Wall, is a historical retrospective of sexy and erotic illustrations by artists who made work for the gay male magazines from the 1950s to the 1990s. Curated by New York-based illustrator Robert W. Richards, Stroke features 80 original illustrations by 25 artists. This exhibition of a forgotten body of work not only explores the male form, but for the first time ever, offers an examination of gay male private life, as experienced through magazines which were available on nearly every street corner in America – but often kept under their mattresses for fear of being discovered. The exhibition will feature some original illustrations which appeared in the magazines, along with other works of art that have never been seen publically.”

I went to the Stroke exhibit today and (as I mentioned elsewhere) I can’t recommend this exhibit enough! It’s hot, sexy, suggestive, furtive, titillating and many other synonyms akin to those, but above all, it tells a necessary story of the budding homosexual underground scene in the latter half of the twentieth century. I’ve railed on before at the way people my age obliviously (or more egregiously, willfully) neglect to understand and account for the vast history of LGBT culture and politics that has led us to the level of political visibility we enjoy today.

Antonio (Antonio Lopez) "Male Studies 1" (1980) Pencil and watercolor on paper 30 x 23 in.

Antonio (Antonio Lopez) “Male Studies 1” (1980) Pencil and watercolor on paper 30 x 23 in.

Michael Kirwan "Subway" (2005) Watercolor marker on paper 12.5 x 12.5 in

Michael Kirwan “Subway” (2005) Watercolor marker on paper 12.5 x 12.5 in

George Stavrinos "Man Exercising" (1977) Graphite on paper 14 x 11 in.

George Stavrinos “Man Exercising” (1977) Graphite on paper 14 x 11 in.

Looking at these illustrations (running the gamut from the now near-ubiquitous pinups of Tom Finland to the delightfully mundane but no less suggestive paintings of Michael Breyette), Stroke is a snapshot of the ways gay males negotiated their (or so they were told) shameful, lustful desires for the male form. Whether depicting an explicit orgasm shot or a playful pinup pose, the pieces speak to the variety of tastes of the artists, creating in its wake a fascinating taxonomy of gay male fantasies (the mechanic, the jock, the gym rat, the wrestler) that is all the more impactful once you examine the material existence of the works. Blending, as it does, illustrations from underground magazines with more gallery-intended pieces, the exhibit aims to blur and question the line between “art” and “smut,” between “erotica” and “pornography,” between — as the title implies — the mattress and the museum.

Thus, for all the titillation of the pieces (and there sure is plenty of that), the short artist bios are littered with an all-too familiar story that nevertheless still pains, especially when read in such quick succession. There are a lot of stories of finding in art an escape from rural or suburban isolation (gay meccas have always been urban centers, at times leaving those outside of them yearning for an inclusive space of their own); there are plenty of pseudonyms (subterfuge was at a time necessary given legal persecution of any material that may be deemed inappropriate), and, most hauntingly, there’s plenty of death (I stopped counting but “died from an AIDS-related illness” adorned far too many of the artist bios, an urgent reminder of the toll the 1980s AIDS crisis took on the burgeoning gay artistic community).

Michael Breyette, "Power Bottoms" (2013) 24 x 11½ pastel on pastel paper

Michael Breyette, “Power Bottoms” (2013) 24 x 11½ pastel on pastel paper

If you’re in the NY-metro area, I highly recommend taking a look at the exhibit to take in the beauty, rawness and playfulness of the pieces but also to bear witness to yet another closeted aspect of LGBT history that is slowly making its way out from under the mattress and into the open. For those not able to make it to NYC, all the exhibited works have been curated at this Stroke Pinterest page by Joaol Maximo who has an amazing set of pinboards on display.

My favorite piece from the exhibit is this disarmingly seductive portrait of, oh you know, a guy with a top hat, a white shirt and a harness just lounging and staring into the distance.

Benoît Prévot "John 01" (2013) Pencil, ink and gouache on paper 29.75 x 22.5 in.

Benoît Prévot “John 01” (2013) Pencil, ink and gouache on paper 29.75 x 22.5 in.