Tom, Bob, and the Boys: Queering Midcentury Americana

21st January 2014, 9:48 pm

LOS ANGELES — Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland are to queer pop culture something like Picasso and Braque are to 20th-century abstraction: shocking then but still rich and surprising. Side-by-side at MOCA Los Angeles’s Pacific Design Center, we see them codifying an erotica that becomes synonymous with their names, setting down tracks for Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Mike Kelley in art, Kenneth Anger and John Waters in film. Their eros is narrow and anachronistic, to be sure, but that strangeness has become their magnetism today.

The galleries are filled with hundreds of images of men from the gray flannel suit era: clean-shaven square jaws, straight noses, wavy hair, muscular builds. But the suits are off in favor of in biker or cop or cowboy outfits, or no clothes at all; they strike playful, sexual poses or, in Tom of Finland’s work, are entangled in orgies. These are not the thin, effete men of the mainstream imagination, but archetypes of mid-century American masculinity, the boys next door.

TOM OF FINLAND, (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled (Detail) (1 of 4 from “Circus Life” series), 1961, Graphite on paper, 12.25” x 9.75”, Bob Mizer/AMG Collection, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection #61.11, © 1961 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND, (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled (Detail) (1 of 4 from “Circus Life” series), 1961, Graphite on paper, 12.25” x 9.75”, Bob Mizer/AMG Collection, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection #61.11, © 1961 Tom of Finland Foundation

Tom of Finland exploded the charged sexuality he saw under the surface of Americana — in his images, bikers are pulled over by cops and handled a little too roughly, a silhouetted soldier meets a man for a hand job in an archway, the strapping TV repairman is cornered against the set by its owner. They are the same boyish daydreams that pervade porn: banal encounters transformed into sexual fantasy.

Finland’s images are pornographic, to be sure, but they also transcend porn’s single function. His work is a study in the seductiveness of images, the way beauty — in this case the lushness of his graphite and the bold simplicity of his bodies — can normalize the fantastic. Finland codified an entire subculture of leather and biker play; the images and outfits for sale in West Hollywood and the Castro and the West Village could be taken straight from his work.

Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland continues at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Pacific Design Center (West Hollywood) through January 26.

READ THE COMPLETE ARTICLE BY RYAN WONGALLERG

 

 

Published: 21st January 2014

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