Friday, September 1st, 2006

Tom of Finland: Rough

Western Project
3830 Main Street
Culver City, California   90232
July 29–September 9, 2006
Installation shot, Western Project (2006) 
Installation shot, Western Project (2006)

Tom of Finland invites an intimate, comedic gaze. If there were two keys words for his work, they would be “freedom” and “narrative,” rather than “hot” and “hunky” as some might hazard. True, the topics of a Finland portrait are very sexual, but as the artist’s choice to adopt the pseudonym “Tom of Finland” in late 1956 (the name accompanied his artwork submission to Physique Pictorial, which wowed the editor and earned “Tom of Finland” the magazine’s Spring 1957 cover) suggests, Touko Laaksonen understood that his work expressed an abandon that was not sanctioned by the homophobic, prudent regimes of his time.
TOM OF FINLAND: Rough presents 130 preliminary sketches, notebooks, and master drawings from 1928 -1989. The exhibit revolves conceptually around a vitrine in the middle of the main gallery space: an archival display of Finland’s drawing tools, including a sketchbook heaving with images of men, leather and military wear, and Finland’s hand-drawn “adjustments” to newspaper photographs.  From this center point, close viewing of archival materials is paired with – and challenged by – gallery director Cliff Benjamin’s large scale monochrome murals of Finland pieces on each wall. The murals resemble Finland’s work convincingly, achieved through overhead projection and tracing in acrylic paint.  What these murals evidence is not only the “larger-than-life” status of Finland’s work within gay, leather, kink, and factions of the art world, but also the microcosmic marks of his pen and pencil works, only blown up 400%. That the murals successfully translate the narratives of sexual splendor and social freedom communicated in their original size attests to Finland’s graphic power.
Again, perspectives on intimacy and abandon are explored in the exhibition’s layering of original Finland pieces over these murals, such that the corporeal experience of viewing and grasping so much sex at once – much like the orgies Finland depicts in his sketches, and master drawings, differently – leaves one, as perhaps it should, in a tizzy. How close or how far?  To witness the evenness of a Finland line, or to marvel at cock sizes and their many sexual gestures? These are some of the questions which Rough raises.
With the murals, this exhibition dips into a historical imaginary, in a way that recalls the 1998 “Queer and Kinky Danger: Art of San Francisco’s Leather/SM/Kink Worlds” where wall-sized illustrated panels rescued from the Bulldog Baths (a late 70’s Folsom Street club) rested against archive/gallery walls.

Tom of Finland, page from his childhood notebook (1928) pencil on paper, Collection Tom of Finland Foundation
Tom of Finland, page from his childhood notebook (1928) pencil on paper, Collection Tom of Finland Foundation

In Finland’s childhood notebook, from age 7, we witness a youthful attention to brotherhood and themes of labor and masculinity. In a page from his childhood notebook (1928) on view in an entryway vitrine, a hand-drawn comic with watercolor describes a firefighting scene, where women and children are compartmentalized – and separated – by comic cells and boxed-in subplots. Here, Finland is learning the trade of telling stories visually, tapping into gender-appropriate boyhood joys: firemen, police teams, trucks, comic books. The themes of homosociality and men – which rarely leave a Finland frame – are evident in these early drawings, as is his sense of humor. What is remarkable about these early pieces is his focus on memory, expressed in one cell where the child’s thematic concerns are trumped by his detailed attention to depict a house roof. Rather than representing a roof by an upside-down V, suggestive of efficiency and schematization, the young man draws out systematic and evenly-spaced rafters and ceiling joists. As his parents were both school-teachers (and not carpenters), the focus and visual breadth of this cell expresses the enhanced role draftsmanship is already playing in his developing creativity. Conceptually, perhaps the rafters and ceiling joists are indicative of the “underground,” supporting community he will later find.
While Canadian artist G.B. Jones, who has been called “the female Tom of Finland,” shifted Finland’s terms of fantasy and iconographic masculinity into overtly political themes of irony, Rough evidences a different shift through its massive exhibition of preliminary sketches. An early portrait sketch (whose production overlaps with Finland’s service in the Finnish Army as a lieutenant for the duration of WWII,1939-1945) such as Untitled (1944) toys with the scene of an anonymous blow job. In the sketch, Finland completes the frame, demeanor, and (especially) hairstyle and jacket folds of the top, while only a head and cap (pulled over the face) of the bottom, blowing and fully engulfed, are rendered. Though gallery director Benjamin suggests no sure trace between preliminary and master drawings with any of the studies on display, it is possible that Untitled (1946) grew out of Finland’s conception of anonymity. In the 1946 work, Finland draws out class distinctions and relations of power more thoroughly: colorizing the scene, revealing the face of the man blowing (his cap, which once shielded his eyes, now dons the head of the “top”), and adding a third player to the scene: a set of restraining hands, putting the status of the “top” in question.
This character joins a larger sex party in 1968 in Preliminary study for “The Rope” where he is finally placed in a geography (the forest), described from the front, and shares more fluid relations of power.

Tom of Finland, Untitled (1963). Graphite on paper, 11-1/2 x 8-3/16 inches
Tom of Finland, Untitled (1963). Graphite on paper, 11-1/2 x 8-3/16 inches

Many of the preliminary sketches throughout Finland’s career emphasize formal issues of framing, figural composition, and perspective (a voyeuristic one) over volumetric depth. In other words, one grasps what seems to be a Finland process in these preliminary sketches: that the first order of business in a Finland composition is figural scale and physical orientation, so that Finland’s own presence as voyeur is established; second, Finland sets these scenarios of desire into three dimensions by playing out the depth of field and background details.   Sketches up to the mid-1960’s show experimentation with the dimensions and proportions of archetypical hypermasculinity, where such things as nipples, pectoral muscles, erections, testis, and buttocks are drawn and shadowed with an ever-increasing  sense of nuance.
The direction of these experiments is suggested by his 1971 comic series Jack 1: The White Hunter. This rescue story, exhibited here for the first time, takes on colonial archetypes (Tarzan and the White Hunter) and queries the nature of their masculinity, through Finland’s stark color contrasts brought on by pen and ink on paper. His choice of materials moves his master drawings out of a graphite art historical tradition, and into the mechanical age and popular press. Perhaps what is lovely about this comic series is its remove from the (by now) traditional terrain of sado-masochism into a much more domestic realm.
The provocative and explicit nature of  Finland’s work in relation to his tenure as an officer (read: power relations) in WWII  (read: German soldiers; specific military costumes) poses an interesting question to us in our own late 21st century military culture. Namely, with the homosociality which military duty demands (and offers) of young men and women just over 18 years old, ripe in their own sexual developments and explorations, will Tom of Finland have a successor?

Western Project3830 Main StreetCulver City, California   90232310-838-0609