I was born and raised in New Jersey and now I live in San Francisco. My parents still live in New Jersey, a few miles west of Manhattan. When Hurricane Sandy hit the Tri-State Area, I was glued to my television watching Anderson Cooper on CNN. I felt completely helpless, but then a commercial splashed across the screen and told me to visit RedCross.org. “Of course,” I thought, “I can donate blood!” Then I remembered I couldn’t because: “you’re a male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977.”
Earlier this year, Anderson Cooper began publically discussing his homosexuality. While there are many other ways to contribute to the causes of Red Cross, I wonder about the day that Anderson will smirk “well I can’t donate,” as effortlessly as he once spit out a Coca-Cola product during a tasting while guest hosting on Regis and Kelly.
The notion that art could reveal that sex and sexuality is linked to survival was first brought to my attention back in my undergrad days at Carnegie Mellon University. My teacher, Ayanah Moor, shared a striking image by Kara Walker:
This image was something that has stuck with me ever since I first saw it. As a closeted homosexual myself in college, I can attest that being sexually repressed only makes one fixate on sex that much more. Immediately, I saw a silhouette of women sucking on each other’s nipples as a sexual act of evil homoerotic pleasure. When Ayanah discussed that it could also be about survival – sharing and consuming each other’s milk to feed an imposed hunger – I realized the empowering ability of sex and sexuality.
When I had my first-ever solo show this past January at Steven Wolf Fine Arts, it was all about sex. I titled it, Public Displays of Affection. Like the black and white work of Kara Walker, the largest works in my show were ten black and white sculptures called Peace Poles.
I appropriated an existing object called a peace pole that always displays the text “May Peace Prevail On Earth.” I replaced that text and selected various inspirational quotes from Christian and Alcoholics Anonymous rhetoric. I created a studded leather collar and wrapped it around the base of each pole. For me, as a sexually inexperienced homosexual, I coupled the iconic image of the peace pole with encouraging words, not for a closer relationship with Jesus or to battle alcoholism, but for my personal anxiety about anal sex.
Am I suggesting that any artwork about sex and sexuality is also an artwork about survival?
Could Tracey Emin’s My Bed be a work about survival? According to Wikipedia, “The bed was presented in the state that Emin claimed it had been when she said she had not got up from it for several days due to suicidal depression brought on by relationship difficulties.” The residue of everyday objects including condoms and underwear littered the area on and around the bed. Using the highly sexualized site of a bed, Emin reveals her strategies of survival during a period of suicidal thought.
Did you know that one nickname for a used condom is scumbag? Another work I presented in Public Displays of Affection was a series of small sculptures titled “Scumbags:”
I used animal balloons as the rubbery material to create the abstract forms. By placing it against a velvety backing, I elevated the material to a luxury good. But I didn’t have to do such a thing, since Jeff Koons already elevated the dog balloon to monumental art and luxury good status in the 90’s. This loaded object in art history seems to be one of a few turning points in the squiggly road between modern and contemporary art. Wherever Jeff Koons and Jeff Songco meet in terms of art is up in the air, but I must say that during my studio time making hundreds of dog balloons, I realized the subliminal sexuality underlying the meaning of a simple dog balloon: the obvious form itself, the sensuality of touch on the lips and the fingers, the delicate patience, and the fear that with one wrong move, the balloon could pop and everything is over.
When I was in grad school, one of my classmates shared a painting of what looked like an orgy of men – dark male bodies penetrating each other against an even darker background. During his critique, another classmate shared how offended he was by it: “When images of sex are depicted for erotic pleasure rather than for biological reproduction, the work leaves the arena of art and enters one of pornography.” The former classmate responded by saying, “but I’m gay, and for gay men, these sexual acts are the ultimate act. We can’t reproduce, and so in your terms, art and pornography are one in the same for me.” In the famous words of gay icon Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive.”