Patrick Staff, “The Foundation” | 4th July | Bristol, UK


PATRICK STAFF, The Foundation (film still), 2015 . Courtesy the artist.

PATRICK STAFF, The Foundation (Film still), 2015 . Courtesy the artist.

The Foundation is a new film installation by Patrick Staff exploring queer intergenerational relationships negotiated through historical materials. The film combines footage shot at Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles — home to the archive of the erotic artist and gay icon and a community of people that care for it — with choreographic sequences shot within a specially constructed set.

The legacy of Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991), better known as Tom of Finland, spans multiple generations; his work made a considerable impact on masculine representation and imagery in post-war gay culture. The Foundation was established in 1984 by Tom and his friend Durk Dehner to preserve his vast catalogue of homoerotic art, whilst endeavouring to — to quote the organisation’s website — ‘educate the public to the cultural merits of erotic art and in promoting healthier, more tolerant attitudes about sexuality.’ Today, Durk runs the organisation and lives in the house, along with a handful of other employees and artists.

Rather than focusing on Tom of Finland’s work, Staff’s film evokes the Foundation as a set of relations. He explores how a collection is formed and constituted; the communities that produce and are produced by a body of work; and ideas of intergenerational relationships and care. Through observational footage of the house, its collections and inhabitants, the Foundation is revealed as a domestic environment, a libidinal space, archive, office and community centre; a private space which is also the home of a public-facing organisation and the source of a widely dispersed body of images.

Staff foregrounds his own identity and his personal dialogue with the different communities of the foundation to consider how ideas of intergenerational inheritance and exchange are complicated by gender identity and presentation; in this context, of a younger trans person in an environment dominated by the overtly masculine, male identity of an older generation. Documentary footage of the Foundation is intercut with a series of staged scenes. The set incorporates aspects of the building’s architecture and purpose, operating within the register of experimental theatre. In these sequences, featuring his interactions with an older actor, Staff uses choreography and props to explore the body as a site for the construction and deconstruction of subjectivities. The language of the stage set is extended by Staff’s new sculptural works, commissioned for this exhibition, which make use of materials designed to construct the image of an exterior.

The Foundation is co-commissioned by Spike Island, Bristol; Chisenhale Gallery, London; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; and Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver. Co-produced by Spike Island, Bristol and Chisenhale Gallery, London.

With thanks to Tom of Finland Foundation. The Foundation is supported by Arts Council England Grants for the Arts, The Elephant Trust and the Genesis Prize.

Patrick Staff
Staff (b. 1987) is a British artist based in London and Los Angeles who works with video, installation, performance and publishing. He frequently collaborates with other artists, dancers, historians and public participants creating malleable frameworks for socially engaged research mediated by moving image.

Patrick Staff and Durk Dehner in TOM's studio.

Patrick Staff and Durk Dehner in TOM’s studio.

Patrick Staff visited Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles, an archive devoted to the work and legacy of the legendary homoerotic artist, for the first time in the summer of 2012.

He was expecting to find the usual, sober atmosphere of a depository. What he discovered there instead was so removed from his expectations that he felt compelled to create something out of the visit.

When the artist returned to London, he couldn’t stop thinking about the Foundation. So, he began to sketch out a plan for a film. Taking a year, Patrick would go back to Los Angeles, ensconcing himself within the close-knit gay men’s leather community at “TOM House” in the Los Angeles hills. During that time he tried to understand his relationship with the place and the community living there, deciding he wouldn’t make something as straightforward as a documentary.

The resulting work is The Foundation, a thirty minute film of footage of the daily activities at Tom of Finland Foundation (the place, the collection, the office, the community spaces) that considers Tom’s influence on subsequent generations of gay men, how legends are created and their heritage curated. The Foundation premièred at Chisenhale Gallery, London.

Through 20th September 2015
Tuesday to Sunday, 11a to 5p
133 Cumberland Road


Tom of Finland | Through 23 August | New York


38 Greene Street, 3rd Floor

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1976, Graphite on paper, 12” x 9”, Gift from artist, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection #88.77, © 1976 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1976, Graphite on paper, 12” x 9”, Gift from artist, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection #88.77, © 1976 Tom of Finland Foundation

The subtitle of the Tom of Finland exhibition currently at Artists Space, The Pleasure of Play, points to a key aspect of the artist’s work: its fundamental cheerfulness. Tom, who admired the work of Paul Cadmus and Norman Rockwell alike, gave his homoerotic drawings of well-muscled men in uniform (and in various states of undress) a subtly wholesome bent. He once vowed, “My men were going to be proud and happy men.” His young bucks’ cocks are mammoth, but often their good-natured grins are bigger. The highly repressive decades during which Tom’s work developed could not stem his innate sex-positivity.

This two-part exhibition, the largest to date in the US (where he first became known in the mid-1950s through his drawings for the Los Angeles quarterly Physique Pictorial), features nearly two hundred drawings, hung loosely by medium and theme rather than chronology, and an even greater number of reference collages—mass-media clippings arranged by type that helped guide the prominent cleft chins and flared-thigh jodhpurs that defined Tom’s hypermasculine ideal. Early gouaches from the mid-1940s feature urbane rakes whose illicit behavior is only occasionally explicit; but soon thereafter, Tom provided close-up views of every possible combination of orifice and appendage, as modeled by bikers, sailors, loggers, and cowboys. A standout in the main exhibition is a twenty-part 1977 series starring Tom’s recurring leather-daddy character, Kake, whose cruising instigates an orgy that grows one by one with a stream of onlookers turned joiners. It’s remarkable, not least because Tom rendered the profusion of compound convexities—nipples, biceps, asses, abs—in the unforgiving cross-hatching of pen and ink. His skill in graphite is no less extraordinary: Portraits made in the ’80s seem lit from within, all oiled skin and gleaming leather. But it’s a surreal intergalactic image that endures, providing a suitable analogy for Tom’s global effect on gay culture. In it, a brawny, mustachioed Nordic man penetrates planet Earth in smiling ecstasy.

By Claire Lehmannartforum