Entertainment » Fine Arts

Stroke: A Retrospective of Erotic Illustrations from Gay Mags

by Andy Smith
Sunday May 4, 2014

Before The Internet or even Falcon Studios, there were magazines with names like Inches, Mandate, Genre and Honcho. For several decades during the later half of the 20th Century, gay male magazines filled an important role in the lives of men, many of whom lived closeted lives in small towns across the nation.

The forbidden quality made the work all the more exciting for its audience and offered a creative outlet for a talented group of artists.

Running through May 25th at the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, "Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Walls" celebrates the work of 26 artists whose gifts and vision transcended their medium.

"This is a show about beauty. It's like this amazing work bloomed out of a trash pile," says curator Robert W. Richards, whose often humorous work also is represented in the show, which features over 80 pieces, along with samples of the original magazines and correspondence between the artists and their publishers.

Among the featured artists (who often used pseudonyms) are: Antonio Lopez, Jim French, Harry Bush, Etienne (Domingo Stephen Orejudos), Michael Kirwan, Mel Odum, Benoît Prévot, George Quaintance, Robert Rosenfeld and Touko Laaksonen, aka "Tom of Finland."

A Fine Balance
Museum Director Hunter O’Hanian says "Stroke" balances work featured in magazines with fine art created by the same artists, some of whom had significant fine art careers. "Many of the artists were trained at major art schools, while others were self-taught. They’re almost natural artists," he says.

Seeing the pieces together, it becomes obvious that earlier fine artists influenced many of Stroke’s participants (Robert Rosenfeld owes a debt to Egon Schiele). They also influenced each other, O’Hanian says. "Tom of Finland freely admits he was inspired by the work of Neel Bate," O’Hanian adds.

Walking Tour on the Wild Side
From 3:00 to 5:00 on Saturdays and Sundays, the dapper Richards offers a tour of the exhibit, sharing insightful, frequently amusing insights into works by artists including Richard Rosenfeld, Mel Odum, and the groundbreaking images created by Tom of Finland, whom he describes as one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century, based on the impact his work had on fashion and the overall gay male aesthetic.

The work on display dates from the late 1940s through the present day, though the actual heyday of the publications that featured this work ended in the early 1990s as VHS evolved into DVDs. The rise of the Internet rang the death knell.

Attendance has been record-breaking, due in part to extensive, positive press coverage, which has included articles in The New York Times, The Advocate and The Huffington Post. "After the Times ran a story in its Style section, we had over 200 people visit on Saturday and 180 on Sunday," Richards says.

Richards and O’Hanian also are thrilled by the diversity of the crowds visiting the show. "We’re happy that we’re seeing a lot of women and a lot of couples, both male/male couples and male/female couples," says Richards. "I’ve learned from this experience that women love gay porn."

High Art in Low Places
Most of the artists held "day jobs" in other fields, including fashion. "You were doing it for yourself," says Richards. However, he adds that the work also paid well. "I received $500 for a piece and they paid upon publication. The day after the magazine hit the newsstand, you had the check," he says.

Burned out from years of travel as a fashion illustrator, Richards began working for gay publications in the 1970s. "I went to a newsstand, wrote down the names of publishers. I’d arrive at their offices unannounced with my portfolio and say, ’Hey, want to see some drawings?"’

Richards worked for Mandate, Honcho and Stallion, among other magazines. In the late 1970s, he created the illustrated character of "Toby: A Modern Boy’s Life," which chronicled the adventures and misadventures of a spoiled aspiring model.

Men Fit to Print
Though it closes May 25, "Stroke" will probably live on in print. This summer, Roberts, O’Hanian and other members of the museum staff will begin work on a book celebrating the artists of gay male magazines, featuring additional works by artists featured in the exhibit, with a tentative publication date in 2015.

"Stroke" runs through May 25th at the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art at 26 Wooster Street, New York, NY. Museum Hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 12-6pm, with extended hours on Thursday (12-8pm). Admission is free.



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