Tom Cho: Tom and me, part two

READ TOM CHO: TOM AND ME, PART ONE

Tom Cho is the author of Look Who’s Morphing, a collection of fictions published this month by Arsenal Pulp Press. Cho will be guest editing The Afterword all this week. Following the first installment of this two-part essay, Cho concludes his discussion of the work of renowned gay artist Tom of Finland.

Here’s something that I came to think about while writing some of the fantasies that fuelled my book Look Who’s Morphing: our most interesting fantasies aren’t safe.

Our most persistently compelling fantasies are far from benign: in fact, some of these fantasies can be despairingly bittersweet because they can never be brought to fruition. Even as such fantasies dramatize our desires (however transparently or opaquely), they also painfully mark our distance from the possibility that these desires can ever be satiated. We’ve all harboured such impossible fantasies, whether they might be the fantasy of being thin (and what we imagine that will mean), the fantasy that those who once left us will miraculously return, or some other fantasy that is beyond us – even if it is not beyond our desiring it.

*

In February this year, I had a four-day stay at the Tom of Finland Foundation. Based in Los Angeles, the Foundation’s purpose is to protect, preserve and promote Tom’s artworks, alongside erotic artworks by other artists. The Foundation is housed in a three-story, American-Craftsman-style home on a street lined with palm trees in the neighbourhood of Echo Park. Now a museum of erotic art, this was also the house where Tom stayed during his trips to the US, away from his native Finland. Tom lived in the house with Durk Dehner – originally from Alberta – who was Tom’s partner, friend and occasional model, and who continues to serve as the President of the Foundation that he cofounded with Tom.

On my first night at the Foundation, Durk led a group of people, myself included, on a tour of the house. Midway through our tour, Durk drew our attention to a framed Tom of Finland drawing in the dining room. This drawing depicted a group of men openly engaging in BDSM sex in a park – not the safest of fantasies to bring to fruition in real life. Yet, as Durk shrewdly pointed out, Tom depicted the scene as if it were perfectly safe to stage an all-male BDSM sex scene in a public outdoor area. As Durk noted, this scene – featuring two naked, bound men sporting erections while being seen to by three leather-clad dominants – had the casual air of a group of guys playing badminton on a Sunday. Part of the illicitness of the fantasy was its very imagined safety.

*

The predominant line of praise for Tom of Finland’s contribution to gay culture is that his depictions of hyper-masculine men were a brazen and much-needed counter to widespread representations of gay men as lisping and effete.

To be sure, this line of praise is, historically speaking, relevant to the social and cultural context out of which Tom was working and out of which his work was received during much of his life. It also acknowledges vital ways in which Tom’s work undoubtedly served as a salve for some men. As Durk told me of his early experiences of supporting Tom’s work: “I set up some public events for [Tom] and I got to, as they say, witness.… I got to hear one after another of these 21, 25-year-old boys come up to him and just, with heart, just – open heart – tell him that he was so important to them. That he was the one; that they saw his art in some newsstand in some bumfuck town, where they saw it in the drugstore and they knew.… They knew it was for them.… (I)t spoke to them.”

Tom Cho, Special to National Post

NP

Continue reading

Tom Cho: Tom and me, part one

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), “TOM’s Marine”, 1984, Graphite on paper, 13” x 9.5”, ToFF #84.27, © 1984 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), “TOM’s Marine”, 1984, Graphite on paper, 13” x 9.5”, ToFF #84.27, © 1984 Tom of Finland Foundation

Tom Cho is the author of Look Who’s Morphing, a collection of fictions published this month by Arsenal Pulp Press. Look Who’s Morphing launches on April 29 at Story Planet in Toronto. Cho will be guest editing The Afterword all this week. In part one of this two-part piece, Cho discusses the work of renowned gay artist Tom of Finland, and his own work.

His birthday was May 8, but his birth name was not “Tom.” “Tom” was the name that he acquired in his 30s and under which he became best known for his art. He took selected figures that had been reserved for the heterosexual imagination and he recast them in his own works, where they were re-imagined in scenes of irrepressible fantasy. He also had a size fetish – or at least, that’s what the depictions of gigantism in his work seemed to suggest.

I speak here of the artist Tom of Finland (1920-1991), but also of me. I guess it’s a presumptuous parallel, this admittedly fanboy-fuelled correlation that I’ve already begun to draw between Tom of Finland, whose self-described “dirty drawings” had a pioneering influence on post-war gay male culture (and gay male leather culture especially), and Tom Cho, a fiction writer with just one book-length work to his name so far. But then, like Tom of Finland, I enjoy bringing embellishment to the page.

*

Tom of Finland was renowned for his homoerotic depictions of beefcake men, whom he often portrayed having enthusiastic sex with each other. Tom’s impulse to embellish his subjects was, I suspect, very much in keeping with his background as an illustrator in the advertising industry – but, more importantly, it was spurred by his sexual desires (he once declared: “If I don’t have an erection when I’m doing a drawing, I know it’s no good.”). Although Tom’s early renderings of the male form depicted more modest bodily proportions, his men progressively developed the exaggeratedly bulging muscles and gigantic c**ks that became signature to his work.[*]

That said, in the logic of the fantasy world of Tom’s art, the c**ks weren’t over-sized – functionally-speaking, at least. Despite their ludicrous bigness, the c**ks in Tom’s art invariably formed perfect fits with the needy orifices that were there to receive them. Instead, the more telling excess in Tom’s work stemmed from the disparities between the fantasy world of male-to-male sex in his art and the heterosexist world he lived in that had already claimed for itself the masculine archetypes – policemen, leather-clad bikers, lumberjacks, sailors and others – that Tom desired as a child and that came to populate the scenes in his work.

Reading against the heteronormative grain that assumed such men must be straight, Tom spied in these figures some excess of meaning beyond what was readily available. The permissible meanings associated with such masculine figures had come up short for Tom and he saw a “surplus” that lay beyond it. He sensed that these figures of masculinity need not mean the same thing every time, but might mean otherwise (which borrows, as I’ve already started to do here, from scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ideas of what “queer” can refer to). It was this surplus of meaning, this promise of overflow, that spilled into Tom’s fantasy-driven work and became the excess from which the other, more commonly noted super-abundances in his work emerged. So, although we sometimes conceive of fantasy as being naïve and guileless, the fantasies in Tom’s art were acutely knowing. They spoke of the keenly-felt distance between Tom’s desires and the limited set of meanings allowed to him.

*

Tom Cho, Special to National Post

Capture

 

Continue reading