I’ve spent the majority of my time as a resident artist at Tom of Finland Foundation immersed in an archive of Tom’s sketches and preparatory drawings.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the way Tom’s unfinished work allows me to see his brain and hand collaborating, to understand the choices he was making as he crafted his images. In the process of gathering and abstracting his images to inform my own drawings, I was often caught between erotic and analytical responses to his work. As a casual viewer who is attracted to men, Tom’s work is, to put it blandly, easy for me to simply enjoy. As an artist and an academic, I was inclined to engage with the context of the work, to find the politics and the art historical importance. In grappling with these modes of viewing the work, which we are often told are mutually exclusive (especially in academic settings), I’ve come to believe that the only way to understand the work is through the erotic, not in aside from it or even in addition to it.
The drawings have immense intellectual, political, and art historical importance, absolutely, but that content is pinned under the pleasure, smothered in it, dripping with it. A viewer has to first admit desire and open themself to the murky, irrational erotic depths of the work. Reach elbow deep in there, and everything else can be found. (In particular I think that Tom’s work is incredibly political – as the pleasure of the sexual outlaw always is – but he isn’t often credited with this precisely because the politics are bound to the pleasure, and pleasure gets messy.)
In fact, Tom’s bodies are impossible to reconcile in a purely intellectual way. They don’t make sense without an understanding of the pleasure that motivated their making and the pleasure they are meant to incur. They’re recognizable but illogical, familiar but impossible, real but fantastical – which is, not coincidentally, a fairly good definition of art. It’s that intercourse between imagination and reality that makes his work so impossible to divorce from an erotic impulse (although museums and academics have tried), and so powerful as art and erotica, simultaneously.
The desire to which he gives form is richer and more complex than popular conceptions of his work, or even of erotic art in general, often allow; I think we might still be catching up to it. For all the macho energy attributed to Tom’s drawings, and taken up as a primary signifier of sexuality by many of his acolytes, if you really trace his lines and indulge in his forms the way I’ve been able to these past few weeks, you can also find incredible sensitivity, even softness. The men in Tom’s drawings are comprised of mounds upon mounds of rounded masses, gently rolling into one another, without a sharp angle in sight. Their shirts are somehow both tight and billowing. Their pants ripple luxuriously, gathering into an impossible number of folds as they slide down thick legs toward slick, glossy boots. The content on the surface of the work, the images and scenarios depicted, is aggressively sexy, but at their contours the images are supple and sensitive, at times extravagantly so.
I think that Tom, great artist that he was, knew that this tension would stoke erotic heat far more than straightforward masc energy alone ever could. He knew it so well that he embedded it in the process as well as the content of his work. Tom’s characters and scenes are sexy, but the way his pencil hugs, nudges, pulls, and shapes the line itself is erotic. In his preparatory sketches in particular, you can find his own erotic pleasure in the places where his lines pile up, where you see him spending the most time (his depictions of the creases and folds of leather boots, for example, are almost baroque in their exaggeration; they coil and vibrate with desire that transcends their subject and their materiality). More than just depicting pleasure, I think Tom’s drawings are made of pleasure, just as much as they are made of ink or graphite. His brain and hand were collaborating, but also his cock.
Like Tom, I’m interested in making the world that I want to live in, embedding pleasure and politics in not only the imagery of my work, but in the material and process of it. My time at Tom of Finland Foundation, thanks to the incredible people here who secure, promote, and live out his legacy, has underscored for me the primacy of pleasure, and the potential of erotic art to move us beyond the familiar in search new and better pleasures.
-Joel Parsons, 2018