art

(“Flurry” by Marilyn Minter, 1994)

This year’s London Frieze art festival included an exhibit called Sex Worka retrospective on the first wave of feminist art. “Your Art (Probably) Sux!” cried sex workers, upon realizing that the only one of us formally involved was an anonymous porn actress’ cropped pussy lips in a photo.

But to be fair, we hadn’t even seen much of the show. So how have we gotten to this cynical place, where giving an artist the benefit of the doubt seems like a losing bet? Because when it comes to conversations about sociosexual mores, the deck is stacked against us and the house always wins. Sex workers have long been used as muses, metaphors, and props, sensually strewn throughout the art world’s most famous boudoirs but rarely recognized as cultural producers in their own right. When it comes to the era of radical feminism at the heart of  Sex Work, a period of artistic fascination with (fetishization of?) prostitution, a time integral in the creation of a violent anti-prostitution feminist politic, the stakes seem life or death. Fool me once, you know?

For the record, I don’t think the art in Sex Work sux. Considering the recent death of Hugh Hefner, a misogynist whose myopic hetero vision of men, women, and sex shaped a generation, it is still somehow precious to see bodies represented through the eyes of anyone but straight cis men. Betty Tompkins’ black and white “Fuck Paintings” feel spectral, like catching a glimpse of her hazy vulvas through a steamy window. They were all too real, though, in 1973 when she had to order pornography from “the far east” to a secret mailbox in Canada, and then smuggle it across the American border.  Marilyn Minter’s color-saturated orifices aren’t nearly as shocking as the idea that only a few years before I was born she was told by a gallery that women artists don’t sell and to come back in ten years—or never.

The historical context of these works can’t be overlooked. They herald from a time that is eerily recent, when an exhibit featuring only women artists like this one would be so transgressive a curator might lose a career over it, and where the best an artist could hope for in terms of positive reviews was a patronizing remark about a work’s alterity—its “feminine qualities. “I like this art and yet I still struggle to release the distrust lingering from a many-decades-long betrayal committed by the epoch in question. Because after all, there is a historical context for sex worker outrage, too.

[NSFW image after the cut]

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(A screenshot from Amalia Ulman's Excellences and Perfections series)

(A screenshot from Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections series)

‘Up-and-coming’ no longer describes Argentine-born Amalia Ulman. Her recent work– a secret Instagram photo series mimicking the online persona of an L.A. sugar baby–made some huge waves. Ulman is quickly gaining ground as an artist whose accomplishments extend well beyond speaking at the respected Swiss Institute and showing at Frieze and the 9th Berlin Biennale. Her recent viral success is due in no small part to the enduring cultural fascination with—and disdain for— sex workers. It just so happens that she used to be one herself.

Even though she was never without basic needs growing up in a working class family, Ulman found herself struggling later in life to afford food and winter clothing while making art in London, England.

“Once I had to steal a coat from a store,” she says of a time when she was also financially supporting her mother, “and for me it was the most demeaning thing I’ve had to do in my life. It was out of necessity and not just for fun or the thrill. It changes things a lot when you actually need it.”

Financial hardships aside, Ulman had to balance the time demands of artistic production: “Sadly, most people don’t really understand that the process of making art requires lots of free time. That’s why, especially now that the economy is so bad in general, it’s just full of rich kids, because they’re the only ones who can go a month without really doing anything. Because that’s how making art works.”

Moreover, Ulman was resistant to the social expectation that a young woman should be spending her time finding a husband. She was keenly aware that if she charged for that same romantic experience she didn’t want personally, she could make both time and money for herself:

“Instead of having to perform heteronormativity all night, like going on dates with random dudes, for free, I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just do that for money.’ For me, [sex work] wasn’t like a dark thing to do, or an empowering thing to do either. I was just buying time for myself to think. I had retail jobs in the past where I had a 9-to-5, plus transportation of two hours in the middle of the snow, and I couldn’t think. I would rather I monetized on my body, which I was already doing in a way because that’s how the art world was working for me…even if I didn’t want to, I was being objectified as a young female artist and most of the attention I was getting was from older men in the art world. It was very objectifying.”

Imagine this encounter: An older man invites a younger woman to a private room in Manhattan. Once there, he offers her money, sensually feeds her finger-foods, and grabs her ass as she leaves. It seems par for the course for any escort providing an outcall, but this is what happened to Ulman during a formal interview with a representative of an admired art magazine, not with a former client. This is reality in an industry with an ingrained culture of quid-pro-quo “mentorship.”

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T&S contributor Kenya Golden makes looking fantastic look easy. Happy #Blackout day!

T&S contributor Kenya Golden makes looking fantastic look easy. Happy #Blackout day!

The publication of the $pread book is spawning so many articles about that dearly beloved magazine!  This week we’ve got one in the The Atlantic featuring a thoughtful interview with Rachel Aimee and Eliyanna Kaiser.

Community activists in Toronto are organizing in an effort to protect sex workers, injection drug users, and homeless people, from the usual brutal street clean-up efforts which accompany such public spectacles.

For sex work history fans, this article and interview on illicit sex and sex work during Ottoman and French rule of Algeria is fascinating!

Nearly one quarter of UK university students have considered doing sex work, while 5% actually do or have done sex work. Austerity cuts, rising tuition, general social moral laxness, may all play a part, although the chorus of anxious articles spawned by the study mainly blame high tuition.

One student said she is “always on her guard” when with clients.  The article treats this as if that’s somehow unique to sex workers and not just, you know, part of the experience of having sex with strangers while female.

Shouldn’t student sex workers be supported instead of stigmatised?” asks this article, quite reasonably.

You haven’t seen handwringing until you’ve read this article about the hitherto unbemoaned threat of global warming: it will force women to become sex workers. [READ MORE]

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Juniper Fleming's "Venus of Urbino" in Reclamation and (Dis)Atonement. (Via Fleming's site)

Juniper Fleming’s “Venus of Urbino” in Reclamation and (Dis)Atonement (courtesy of the artist)

I interviewed sex worker artist Juniper Fleming on her collaborative photo series with other sex workers, Reclamation and (Dis)Atonement.

Your project consists of remaking iconic Western art works, creating photographic reproductions in which you replace the main figures in the paintings with sex workers. What does depicting sex workers in these roles achieve?

As sex workers we use the archetypes represented in these paintings every day in our performances, at work and in life. This history, and reality, of the feminine script is one that you cannot escape, but you can define your relationship to, through fantasy and inversion. As sex workers we are the inversion, at the same time as we are the embodiment, of the feminine.

How do you feel about the way sex workers are classically portrayed in the Western canon? I do recall some bright points, like all those gory paintings representing the triumph of heroic Biblical harlot Judith, when she beheads the general (and client) Holofernes for the Israelites.​ I was happy to see one of your photos is a riff on one of these paintings.​

Well, first what has to be re-established from history is that sex workers were often models and muses for artists. Caravaggio often employed sex workers as models in his paintings. His piece ”Death of the Virgin” was rejected by the commissioning parish because it depicted the well-known courtesan, Fillide Melandroni, as the Virgin Mary. And the modern (Western) canon has painters such as Manet, Degas, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Seurat divulging their fascination or at least proximity to sex work in their paintings. Many of them went directly to brothels to do some of their most famous work. Countless other times, however, our position as the model, muse, and/or subject has gone undocumented. These reimaginings are so important because they include us in celebrated and preserved artifacts, when so much of our history has been erased, deemed invaluable, throughout time.

Which model did you decide to use for each photo and why?

Actually, when a worker decides they want to collaborate with me on the project, they get to choose the painting. I have a growing index of paintings, throughout the span of art history, that represent the feminine in some way. Each person looks through that index, or comes with a painting I don’t have, and we go from there. Then we work together to design the props, with them collaborating as much or as little as they want.

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Poloroid by Meneline Puryear.

Poloroid by Meneline Puryear

The name Colby Keller might be unfamiliar to you if you don’t follow mainstream gay media (or don’t watch gay porn, I guess). But if that’s your thing then you have surely heard by now that Keller, a ten-year veteran porn performer, has decided to buy a van and cross the country (and maybe Canada) in order to make porn in all 50 states. There’s an Indiegogo campaign to help him do it, and right now he’s actually surpassed his goal.

Colby Keller is tall—especially for someone in the porn industry—and scruffy, which is a thing now in gay porn but which wasn’t, really, when he started. He has a pretty massive fan base that likes him for his kooky sense of humor as much as for his porn work. He also visits more museums than anyone I’ve ever met who wasn’t directly employed by one, which he frequently documents on his blog, Big Shoe Diaries.

I’ve met Colby a handful of times. We have mutual friends, and a couple of years ago we saw each other at The Hookies, the international gay escort awards. (Those exist.) He was presenting one of the trophies and kindly snuck me his wristband to get into the VIP area, where a small group of us awkwardly marveled at everything that was happening around us.

He’s in LA right now on something of a media blitz—Vice declared him “the Marina Abramovic of gay porn” just a few days ago — but he was nice enough to answer some questions about Colby Does America over the phone. [READ MORE]

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