Very well hung: the ICA’s Keep Your Timber Limber exhibition

With its bulging bikers and its penises waving flags, the ICA’s Keep Your Timber Limber show takes an unblushing look at sexuality in art. Welcome to beefcake world

Tom of Finland, Untitled (Two men at poster), 1963 (c) Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1963, Graphite on paper, 11.50” x 8.50”, ToFF Permanent Collection #63.05, © 1963 Tom of Finland Foundation


The fantasies of Touko Laaksonen, as the Finn was originally known, migrated into a kind of near-universal default clone-wear, and celebrated cruising and casual sexual encounters in a way that appears almost wholesome. 










Tom of Finland and friends: battle of the beefcakes – in pictures

Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1959. Graphite on paper.

TOM OF FINLAND (Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1959, Graphite on paper, 11.00” x 8.50”, ToFF Permanent Collection #59.04, © 1959 Tom of Finland Foundation



Keep Your Timber Limber at the ICA pulls together boundary-pushing drawings by eight artists that challenge gender, sexual and political stereotypes and highlight issues of war and censorship.









Tom of Finland. Cary Kwok. Antonio Lopez. All in show of fierce radicalness opening this week at the ICA.

Curator Sarah McCrory tells all.

On Tuesday night, the ICA is opening a new exhibition.
It is called Keep Your Timber Limber, and is about drawings and works on paper.
But not just any works on paper.
Super radical and fierce works on paper.
Like this.

TOM OF FINLAND (Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1961, Graphite on paper, 12.34” x 8.63”, ToFF #61.05, © 1961 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1961, Graphite on paper, 12.34” x 8.63”, ToFF #61.05, © 1961 Tom of Finland Foundation


The curator is the amazing Sarah McCrory, the new director of the Glasgow International festival, who spent the past three years as curator of Frieze Projects.

She’s the one who made all those amazing things happen at the fair. Like Lucky PDF’s onsite TV studio. Or the Grizedale Arts food coliseum. Or Simon Fujiwara’s archeological dig.

Sarah’s work as a curator is active and inclusive, provocative and genre defying.

It is super, super exciting that London is getting a show this summer with such innate agitation.

She’s installing the show right now. I grabbed her for a few minutes on the phone to talk through it all. I was sat in a Starbucks. She was just walking away from the ICA. As I started typing, she is talking about how the installation is going…

SARAH McCRORY: All the works are out of the crates pretty much. I’m. Not. Nervous. At. All. [She laughs]. I’m just really excited to see it all up. And they’ve made the gallery look very chic. They’ve painted it a warm grey. It’s treated with the respect it deserves.


– – –

…Then I went to the Tom of Finland Foundation in LA which I highly recommend to anyone. Firstly it’s run by two incredible men, Durk Denher and Sharp, just Sharp, one word. They were just really generous and showed me round the foundation which is also their home, a living breathing foundation with eroitca all over the place. It’s become a bit of a mecca for a lot of people, they’ve got lots of great tales and they get sent things all the time, an amazing archive of letters and art that is sent to them unsolicited. Pre-Internet, coming across a Tom of Finland coffee table book was a lot of people’s first encounter with homoerotic art, and for a lot of those guys, seeing it was the first time that they were like, oh. OK. This is great….

Those were the starting points. It was also looking at how people use drawing, which is often seen as a precursor to painting or sculpture, not viewed as a medium in its own right. All the artists in the show are in essence quite political, whether that’s sublimated politics, or overtly outrageous in a Judith Bernstein way. There’s a lot of scales really to how direct the work is. Tom of Finland is inherently political. When he was making it, it was illegal. Also he was one of the first people to show men engaged in homosexuality activity as proud and happy and healthy and not shown as deviants or perverts or shameful or angry. It is very much a positive view of gay men. There’s a sense of humour and the leather look now is kind of kitsch, but then it was really empowering. Stuart Shave of Modern Art is opening a Tom of Finland show of sketches on 5 July, so it’s a good time for Tom of Finland.

Tom of Finland is interesting, because the images are so familiar, yet because you see them all together in big coffee table books, you think of them as a blur, rather than individual drawings.

Exactly. Also those coffee table books are not a great way to see the work, because the reproduction doesn’t represent the work. They’re blown up in those books, while actually the works are actually quite small and intimate. They haven’t been contextualised much in the fine art world. They’ve been seen as illustrative or, like you say, really well known but they he’s known for its style but not as individual pieces. One thing is that from the very beginning, it was always explicit and erotic. He didn’t start one way an then get more and more erotic. They’ve always been that powerful and out there.




’Keep Your Timber Limber’ features drawings by Tom of Finland

Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper), opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London on June 19, explores how artists since the 1940s to the present day have used drawing to address ideas critical and current to their time. With themes ranging from the politics of gender and sexuality to war and race, the exhibition brings together the work of eight artists – including the legendary gay artist Tom of Finland (1920-1991).

Tom of Finland, Untitled (Two men at poster), 1963 (c) Tom of Finland Foundation

Tom of Finland, Untitled (Two men at poster), 1963 (c) Tom of Finland Foundation

Tom of Finland is the acknowledged master of homoerotic art whose images of masculine men helped to smash stereotypes and create new diversity. Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991) by his real name, Tom of Finland has had a substantial effect on gay culture of the late 20th century. He’s one of the most renowned Finnish artists internationally.


Tom of Finland, Untitled (Two men at poster), 1963 (c) Tom of Finland Foundation