As we unwind the bright red packing tape that joins the two coffee cans together, Hunter O’Hanian, the director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, explains what I’m about to see.
“We think this is his only finished work,” he says, separating the cans to reveal a long scroll made of computer paper taped end to end. Black and white photocopies of twinks—whipped, gagged, crucified, tattooed, and tied—writhe across the pages, filling them almost to the margins. The image has no punctum, white space, or dominant figure to draw in the eye, allowing the viewer's gaze to rest. Instead the eye skitters across the pages, noting a hard cock here and a flagellate there, without stopping on any particular moment.
Hunter isn’t sure if this is the artist’s only finished work for three reasons: The artist is dead, his partner—who asked that they both remain anonymous—donated the work, and the donation consists of 77 large cardboard boxes filled with gay porn, photomontages, pulp novels, mail-order sex-toy catalogs, books about Dracula, and images of opulent, but empty, rooms lacerated with careful slits to allow for the insertion of pornographic cut-outs.
A number of the boxes contained only carefully washed plastic clamshells (the kind that might hold a salad from a take-out Thai restaurant) filled with individual male figures meticulously excised from six decades of porn—the processed raw materials for the artist’s apocalyptic sex montages. Like the scroll in the can, each piece of paper has been carefully packed, as if the artist feared their rustling might hint at their true nature, their sexual shame. The line between fear and reverence is nonexistent here. These totemic boys are tools of artistic creation, but if discovered would mean destruction. The scroll itself is an act of mediation between these two poles, a spell cast in porn, simultaneously birthing and caging the artist’s secret desires.
To date, the museum has cataloged approximately two-thirds of this collection. Despite the detailed sheath of notebook pages that list the contents of each box, it’s a slow process because the closer you look the more you see. For instance, the centerfold of a 1950s physique magazine might hide a cut-out of a Saint Sebastian-esque ephebe in bondage. If you look closely at the image, you will notice that the figure’s tiny handcuffs have been transposed from another image and that his pentagram tattoo was added by hand. As the magnitude of detail hits you, you realize these 77 boxes contain a man’s lifework, his world, his everything—the story of an anonymous artist told through grainy reproductions of sexual torture.
Call it outsider art, intuitive art, art brut, or neuve invention; it is work made precisely at this intersection of art and obsession, pride and shame, sex and death, that has me scavenging through the museum's archives. Jean Dubuffet, the 20th century painter and impresario of the insane who coined the term art brut, famously said, “Art doesn't go to sleep in the bed made for it; it would sooner run away than say its own name.” How apropos to go looking for it amongst the love that dares not speak its name.
Intuitive artists tend to share traits from a grab bag of commonalities: obsessive tendencies, mental illness, repression, confinement, isolation, a lack of formal training, sexual hang-ups, a sense of persecution, religious or visionary zeal, a focus on the process of art-making rather than its outcome, a disconnect from cultural centers of power, and a belief in the importance of their own work that is separate from its salability or critical appreciation. The original outsider artist, in an American context, is Henry Darger, the orphaned, occasionally institutionalized recluse who spent more than sixty years creating his 15,000-page masterpiece The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is an ideal place to search for such artists. For the last 40 years, the museum and its founders, Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, have been dedicated to rescuing and preserving gay art. They’ve created a haven for art makers whose work was unappreciated during their time, whether because of their identity, the frankness of their homosexual work, or their mental instability.
I am fascinated by the delicate interplay between pride and shame in the lives of these men—their desire to be anonymous while simultaneously believing their art is important enough to dedicate their lives to it and ensure its preservation. (And so far all the intuitive artists I’ve found there are men. The museum now has a broader mission, but it began primarily as a collection of erotic male art, and the majority of its collection is focused on males.)
Much of the work could be considered survival art, rough pieces created in a hostile environment to make sense of the artists’ conflicting desires and unstable worldviews. Even when these men had formal training, they wanted to explore themes removed from what was speakable during their lifetimes. The insider art status was never available to them. Instead their art was an act of pure creation and dedicated to their own vision. Aside from the work that now sits in storage, little is known about most of these men.
Take, for example, Edward Hochschild. In 1995 three of Edward's friends walked into the museum to see if someone could rescue Edward's art shortly after he had died of AIDS-related causes. Wayne Snellen, the museum’s Deputy Director for Collections, recalled that his apartment was “trashed” when they arrived, but they were able to save three pieces: The Vial Cross, an approximately 5' tall wooden cross studded with vials of hair, blood, pills, sand, and all kinds of ephemera and effluvia; a shirt made from Edward’s hair; and a large dildo studded with acupuncture needles, placed under a bell jar, and affixed to a smoke-detector base. Crudely made but powerfully evocative, the three pieces present an inarticulate meditation on sex, religion, illness, penance, and identity.
Then there is Joseph Friscia, a self-taught sculptor who lived with his mother. In the museum’s files, he has but a six-sentence biography, which notes “his sculpture was the result of a severe Catholic upbringing.” His first donation to the museum was The Church Has Its Way, which consisted of clay figurines of men in various states of religious torture. (One man pleasures himself with a crucifix, which is a sight I will never forget.) After disappearing for years, Joseph reappeared and told Wayne that his mother had died and he was “now free.” He gave the gallery new sculptures, man-beasts molded from the peach pink bodies of fetal mice, and never returned.
Joseph and Edward are emblematic of the outsider artist who is a reclusive creative working out personal anguish through art. The museum’s collection also includes Hokey Mokey, who has anonymously mailed art to the gallery every month for the past 15 years.
Here, the same dynamic of pride and shame is worked out in a more playful manner. Hokey’s work primarily consists of flat erotic montages placed inside envelopes. The art dares viewers to both open the envelopes and destroy their contents. Each packet is themed around some aspect of the month, like a holiday or a turn of season, and suggests an ongoing attempt to make sense of the world through pornographic art. Over the years, Hokey’s work has developed three-dimensional aspects, layering of colors and materials, and suggestions of an awareness of other collage makers, like artist Barbara Kruger. When finally tracked down, Hokey expressed no interest in having a show of his work or coming to the gallery. He had sent art to a few other people, but said the overwhelming majority of his work (nearly 200 packages to date) has gone to the museum.
Ted Titolo is another artist who has given all, or nearly all, of his work to the collection—a vast and stunning collection of art in a dozen mediums and a hundred styles. Of all the outsiders in the collection, Ted’s work is the most powerful. Deemed too gay for art school and too crazy for the army, he worked on Wall Street and dreamed of being a “fat lesbian,” according to Wayne. Ted's compulsion to create is cataloged in reams of notebooks, sheaths of drawings, boxes of VHS tapes, and untold scores of photos.
Ted is often the subject of his own work, although his self-portraits tend to obscure or remove his face. Occasionally, the portraits go so far, they call for Ted’s own annihilation. (In their context, these self-destructive scratches might have more to do with Ted’s desire to obliterate his maleness than his self-hatred.) Much of his art is divided up into “projects,” such as Rasa, an epic collection of writing, drawing, and photography that nearly fills a dozen three-ring binders. Perhaps his most interesting work is American Kouros, an illustrated book created in the late 1960s, which details the “War Between the Monosexes and the Herms.” In this epic battle for humanity’s sexual and emotional future, Ted posits hermaphroditism as our only hope.
All but two of these men are dead or missing, and of those two, only one is in contact with the museum. They have left their work to say what they never could. For artists who made art outside the broader context of gay life in the 20th century, these outsiders speak powerfully to the experiences of gay men in their time and place. The fact that these artifacts remain—and were created in the first place—is a testament to the ability of pride to occasionally mediate shame in private, on paper, on canvas, or in the bodies of dead mice.