As the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage this week, everyone on the Twitters was declaring #LoveWins. Well, maybe, but let’s remember that love doesn’t just win in chapels and courthouses. Love can also win in sex clubs and bathhouses, in parks and public restrooms. Like John Waters says, I miss perverts! Well, what better way to celebrating sleaze with the father of hypermasculine homoeroticism himself: Tom of Finland.
The most comprehensive exhibition of Tom of Finland’s gloriously glory-hole-driven work to date, Artists Space fills their two locations with Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play. With a winding exhibition layout that resembles the labyrinth-like architecture of sex clubs or the Ramble, The Pleasure of Play titillates, overstimulates and overwhelms with Tom of Finland’s seminal subcultural and subversive illustrations.
Ok, let’s be honest, Tom’s work can be…well…intimidating. With military uniforms, barrel chests, bubble butts and yes, enormous dicks, Tom’s characters can err toward the Ubermensch fascist. And certainly, turning every corner in the exhibition to wander into a new pleasure bacchanal in a jail cell, park or motorcycle rally is a unique viewing experience.
However, due to the almost unbelievable span of the exhibition, The Pleasure of Play reveals the work’s significance to gay culture not only as spank-bank material but also as a means to depict relationships–sexual or otherwise–between men.
Born Touko Laaksonen, Tom was given his recognizable name by another pioneer in eroticism – Bob Mizer who published Tom’s work in his influential muscle mag Physique Pictorial. While Tom was drawing muscle men for Mizer’s publication, he was also holding down a straight job at Helsinki’s McCann Erickson, an ad agency you might recall from Mad Men. Related: you know that queen Sal was lusting after Tom’s drawings in his office when he wasn’t dancing to Bye Bye Birdie.
With his first exhibition of his work at Stompers, a West Village boot store, Tom became one of the most seminal figures in gay culture, almost singlehandedly inspiring fetish aesthetics that continue today. With his drawings, Tom developed or at least, cemented the stylistic markers of hypermasculinity from leather jackets to military caps and harnesses. Just look around at the Folsom Street East or go to The Eagle and you’ll still see men dressed exactly like Tom’s illustrations.
With the extensive and expansive nature of The Pleasure of Play, viewers can follow the consistent aesthetic that Tom pursued throughout his career. Despite the wide range of dates, it would be almost impossible without looking at the wall labels to discern which year many of the illustrations were made. Despite the enormous political changes and events that occurred from the 1950s to 1980s from Stonewall to ACT UP, Tom’s characters largely remain the same: an unwavering fantasy that continues to inspire men today. Just look for the Tom of Finland tattoos.
However, some of the most interesting works in the show were the drawings that did not resemble the large majority of his oeuvre. For example, an early gouache from 1947 more closely resembles Leyendecker’s Arrow Collar Man (not to say that also isn’t queer in it’s own way) than his own later work.
Perhaps my favorite part of the two-space exhibition was the smaller show in Artists Space Books & Talks on Walker Street, which showcases Tom’s inspirational collages. Cutting out pages of print advertising, newspapers and magazines, as well as gay periodicals, Tom grouped imagery of different men together by type from leathermen to motorcycles to mustaches and uniforms. On some of the collages, Tom also drew directly onto the collage materials, visibly developing his unforgettable style. Studying the mainstream print illustrations, Tom then transgressively transformed them into his own subcultural vision.
Despite the aesthetic aggression in Tom’s illustrations and other works throughout the exhibition, the illustrations also contain an earnest tenderness, revealing the possibilities of queer relationships. Depicting an outlaw relation between men that, at the time of his drawings’ creation, had to be coded, secretive and hidden away, Tom’s illustrations became a means for men to experience not only sexuality and hypermasculinity, but relationships between men.