The Center for Sex and Culture's "Doing Your Dirty Work" Show

by - Monday, September 10, 2012

In August, the Center for Sex and Culture Gallery in San Francisco opened their first juried show "Doing your Dirty Work: a Sampler of Contemporary Art about Sex." My good friend, who happens to also be a spectacular artist, Dorian Katz and her partner Marlene Hoebler have done a lot of work both in the archive and curating the exhibition space in CSC's relatively new building. They used this exhibition to highlight  the shared mission of the CSC Gallery as a whole - to create a space for work that addresses sexuality and sexual identity but is "every bit as varied, complex, compelling, beautiful, ugly, and sophisticated as art ever is."

The space in the gallery is pretty limited; the CSC is highly multi-functional (they have shows, classes, readings, and all other sorts of amazingness), so all of the work has to safely fit on one wall. The curators  used this constraint to their advantage by tightly arranging the photographs, paintings, and film stills. The intimate grouping of these thirty works invites comparisons to old salon spaces and allows for formal and conceptual combinations. It reminded me of walls in my Grandma's house, just packed with a lifetime's worth of memories and art and photographs, except that the material was all sex stuff. This kind of humor wouldn't be lost on the curators; the cover piece of the show was a small needlepoint in a heart shape frame. It said, ever so sweetly, "Teabagging for Jesus."

The show not only succeeds in demonstrating the variety and seriousness possible in work about sex, it also adeptly highlights a correlation between the formal aspects of the work and their subject matter and a collective respect toward their subjects. It's this respect (and often genuine kindness) that I found most striking in both of my visits to the exhibition- where mainstream work often treats the power dynamic between artist and subject as a foregone conclusion, but many of these photographs, paintings, and sketches treat their subjects with much more mindful care.
Brittany Neimuth Visceral
George Dinhaupt- c-print, 30 x 40

The curators juxtaposed George Dinhaupt’s tender photograph of a robust kneeling man cleaning off his partner with Brittany Neimuth’s more forceful molding of her own flesh in “Visceral.” Dinhaupt defines his work as reexamining masculinity within a broader cultural dynamic, but he does so in this case with a mix of sexualized and desexualized signifiers (the mans straps and his simple grey socks) in an intimate space.In Neimuth’s closely-cropped photograph, she uses her hands to push her body into ambiguous abstractions, which confronts the viewer with their own fear of excess and the body. These two beautiful gestures trouble traditional definitions of certain sexual bodies and desires by recognizing the aesthetic potential in their subjects.  

Sydney Hardin- L'Origin du Inflatable Love Doll- latex enamel on  canvas

 Sydney Hardin’s “L’Origin du Inflatable Love Doll” also manipulates traditional notions of desire, specifically women’s roles as vessels for cultural fantasies. The plastic, acrylic surface of the paint and sharp, abstracted edges further stress Hardin’s use of the synthetic stepping in for the organic, showing the artificiality of the fantasy female. This painting is so striking because it is simultaneously sexy in its positioning and very artificial. It acknowledges the viewers' desires, and then reveals the artificiality of this desire.

Emmett Ramstad's collection of Pubic Hair archives treats a sexualized, yet debated topic with pseudo-scientific logic and seriousness. Karen Thomas's Madonna and Child (as Blue Poodle)stands at the very end of the exhibition wall. This fabulous and somewhat campy sketch has tremendous presence and humor. These bookends to the exhibition show the tremendous range available in this work. Ramstad's work especially is delivered with a slight wink, but it has deep art historical roots, back to the work of Hannah Wilke or even back to Dada products.

If you had never gone to a show of this nature, you might be surprised by the variety of issues this work addresses: body image, sex toys, humor, technology (or at least vibrators), race, gender roles, the archive, power, art history, religion, women’s cultural positioning, pleasure, and violence are just a few running tropes through the exhibition. This show is already closed, because the CSC gallery opens their new show usually the second Friday of each month, but this means that, if you are in the San Francisco area, there is always something smart and fresh going up in this gallery. This month, "Tough Love: A Half-Century of Masculine Homoerotic Imagery from the San Francisco Bay Area," is opening at the gallery. Go check it out!

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