A few years ago, I went on this date in the thick of West Hollywood. I should have considered that a red flag when the guy—a Weho resident and entertainment lawyer who I met from gay speed dating—asked me if it would be cool to either grab 2PM yogurt at Yogurt Stop or 2PM cocktails at The Abbey on a Sunday. I opted for yogurt. We had a fine time but, as weekend afternoon first dates go, it was a bit of a dry happening. After we finished our frozen treat, we wandered around the hood and eventually happened upon an erotic art fair. We both agreed it would be funny to check out the scene and, as expected, it provided us with many laughs: there were lots of fetish art and playful porn and, most notably, vintage pornographic magazines and photographs that were windows into LGBTQ histories, local and beyond.
One thing that stood out to me were these little zines called Physique Pictorial, a mid-century beefcake magazine that alluded to various homosexual practices without overtly performing them. They were these very safe, friendly, playful performances of gay sex that could easily be confused as something a bodybuilder may use for reference on how they want their body to look. I bought a few, absolutely enamored, and didn’t know what rich histories these objects had. They featured the work of photographer Bob Mizer and illustrator Tom of Finland, two internationally known gay cult art icons. Their work is very important not only to LGBTQ history but to art history and sexual history in America. Their work, while obscene in nature, is incredibly important. Thankfully, MOCA has memorialized the work of these artists with a new show at their Pacific Design Center space called Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland, an offering that will provide as much enlightenment as it will stimulation.
The show is a celebration of the work of these two artists. Their creations were often thrown together in Physique Pictorial, a periodical that was made as a part of the Athletic Model Guild in 1940s Hollywood. Mizer—who founded the guild—was a photographer at the time and would photograph tons and tons and tons of boy-next-door men in a star system way, tossing them in various scenarios and with other men to show off their bodies. Tom—whose real name is Touko Laaksonen—sent his illustrations to the magazine and Mizer found them, was impressed, and wanted to feature them on the cover.
They are fantasies and they are a means for a person to project a fantasy atop of—and Tom rightfully ran with that making crazy, absurdist situations with these men. The thing many missed in his work is the brilliant artistic ability present. The way the men’s shirts wrinkle in tautness over pectorals and his ability to shade a laughable bulge through tight jeans is brilliantly done. There are a few important moments that provide insight into his process and capabilities too: there are two collages of photographs that inspired him and a small corner drawing called Portrait of Durk that flawlessly represents the human form without any exaggeration. In these moments you are able to set the content of Tom’s work aside to see the raw talent he possessed.
Surprisingly, Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland is the first American museum exhibition dedicated to the work of these two artists. It is a landmark show in that their work—while erotic and arguably “amateur”—is recognized as having a huge impact on art history worldwide, in America, and in Los Angeles. It is entirely appropriate that a Los Angeles museum presents this show as both artists worked locally and whose grasp is still felt today by way of the many Taschen books about them and the aforementioned yearly Tom of Finland Foundation Erotic Art Fair.
The show is about having intimate moments with the work of these artists, which is how they were originally viewed. These artists made work intended to be viewed in private and alone. Moreover, the content of their art is already wild enough that any more than the intimate would intimidate or scare away any non-LGBTQ, non-gay-men art goers. Instead, MOCA gives you Bob and Tom as they should be presented: in a way where their talent—not their subjects—can be the focus.
Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland is having an opening at MOCA PDC on November 9th and will be on view through January 26. There will also be the TOM-themed Gogo Dancer Appreciation Festival and ONE’s Art & Physique Circa Bob & Tom opening on the 9th, both walking distance from MOCA. If interested, Tom of Finland is having a donation based life drawing workshop on November 10, too.