Tom of Finland: Mark Moore Gallery * Los Angeles, California
by Ingrid Calame
Los Angeles, California
I was seduced by a pencil, looking at the Tom of Finland retrospective. The page-sized drawings in pencil, gouache and ink, of men in various states of undress, are sweeter than any photographic porn. Forgoing coy art strategizing for a long career of beautifully drafted visual stories of ribald sex, Tom went straight for the object of his desire: a world of men fondling and eyeing each other in endless acts of coupling, in effect creating his own Kamasutra. Like Vargas girls and other bodies of erotic work, the figures in Tom of Finland's drawings typecast a certain standard of beauty, but due to the public nature of the sex he depicts, his drawings offer a utopian community of exchange.
Tom of Finland's drawings are pop sub-culture superstars, both stylish and kitschy. While focusing in the main gallery on the '80s drawings of his buff Aryan-style macho men, the back room succinctly covers the development of his drawings throughout the decades. Tom's men in the '40s drawn-like fashion illustrations are slim and sometimes even feminine. In an early gouache, a young, rosy-cheeked boy with mammary-like pecs is "taken" by some sailors. loggers (1973) could pass for straight Americana, except for the knowing glances of a trail of fresh-faced and bare-chested boys jauntily riding logs down the river. Dipping into a feeling of fairy-tale in the early '70s, a young man is tied to a tree-- his pants, emblazoned with the words "I am a thief," are tied around his ankles, while his tormentors ride off on their motorcycles down the road.
By the late '70s and '80s, Tom's men are distilled into their famous forms. Grown men in their prime, they are so similar in build and feature that they could be one man: broad shoulders, curvaceous butt, voluptuous pectoral muscles, and long erect member. Even Tom's black men have the same physique and features, like a Barbie cast from the same mold: only their skin color and hair texture is altered. Their bodies bulge out of costumes that define a role--cop, civilian, prisoner, gangster, lieutenant, guard, athlete--and these roles are interchangeable. Upending authority, Tom's infamous cops fucking their prisoners are just as hungrily fucked by them in the next drawing. Like a pair of ink drawings from circus (1975), in which acrobats swinging on the trapeze suck each other off in a balletic arc, all of Tom's men are balanced by each other and bound to reverse places. In their leers, grimaces, admiring smiles and casual glances, there is an understanding of this trade of sexual gratification, no strings attached. The simplicity of this equal exchange, especially in the present era of fear, is utopianly appealing.
In the drawings, it is always the promise of sexual fulfillment and approach, rather than climax or detumescence, that is represented. Physical contact motivates the grouping of figures as raw. Restless and endless desire is delicately configured in an ideal of eternal spring. Tom's compositions ricochet around the directionality of the figures' glances, as well as their gonads: a man peers over the fence at a gang bang, a bartender watches two men approach a third.
Sometimes an onlooker glances out at us, and we become acknowledged participants in the spectacle, yet most of us will not match up to the hegemony of Tom's men. We are odd balls and stragglers--old, young, fat, skinny, female, a rainbow of ethnicities and sexual proclivities. But if the homogeny of Tom's men weighs heavy against its potential utopia of equality, it is also this repetition of the same that is the engine of his vision. Reiterating Tom of Finland, the creator, Tom's fetish-filled world is further fetishized with his name: police badges read Tom's cops, a license plate TOM-59, T-shirts read Tom's men, a dude approaches Tom's bar. Tom and Tom's men are stars of self-generated kitsch. What ultimately emerges as the utopia here is the unencumbered spirit with which one can pursue their pleasure. In the masterful strokes of his pencil, Tom of Finland made this his life's work.