Before Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs and Lady Gaga videos mainstreamed homoerotic imagery, some of fashion’s most talented illustrators had shadow careers from the 1950s through the 1990s drawing for underground gay magazines such as Physique Pictorial and, later, more overt porn glossies such as Mandate, Honcho and Torso. The Internet, with its abundance of porn, killed those titles, but a diverse trove of illustrations from their pages will be on display beginning Friday at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in SoHo, in the winkingly titled show Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Walls. Curated by Robert Richards, himself a longtime illustrator of fashion and homoerotic imagery, the show aims to exhibit “quality artwork that had to be hidden away for many years,” says Hunter O’Hanian, the museum’s director.
The magazines used these images, which generally reflected the fashion illustration styles of their eras, to enliven their erotic fiction, because creating them was cheaper than hiring models for a shoot. The show includes the work of major names like Tom of Finland, who was legendary for his exaggerated depictions of male anatomy and for reclaiming straight male archetypes for gay culture; Antonio Lopez, the ’80s fashion illustrator whose work has experienced a major re-emergence in recent years; Mel Odom, whose Deco-inspired portraits were a favorite in “Playboy”; and George Stavrinos, whose impeccable drawings graced Bergdorf Goodman ads throughout the ’80s. There are also the comically raunchy tableaux of Michael Kirwan, which are reminiscent of the work of Paul Cadmus and R. Crumb. “He drew big, clumsy, ugly men in hideously rendered rooms going at one another, and it’s just gross,” says Richards. “They have a wild humor.” On the other hand, he notes, “Odom can project more sexuality in a face than anyone else.” And Tom of Finland, says Richards, “defined how gay men wanted to look but didn’t know it yet.” O’Hanian says that the museum has just received an offer from a publisher to feature the collection in a book.
A piece of Richards’s own in the show is called Toby. “He was a boy I invented in the ’80s for Torso — a spoiled pet with a rich boyfriend,” the artist says. “I’d write a different chapter and draw the pictures every month. Toby was determined to be photographed by Bruce Weber, and all the images are inspired by iconic Bruce Weber shots. He finally did get a call from an agent, but when he reported for work, he found out it was a porn set.” Toby — naughty and narcissistic but ultimately respectable — declined the offer.
By Tim Murphy