Homeland Insecurity

How does an abstract landscape painter enter an erotic art festival?  Better yet — should he?

Illustration by Demian Johnston for City Arts

Look in the corner of this page and you’ll see the name of my column, “Homeland Insecurity.”

It refers to the unsteady ground I find myself on as an artist making a living as an art guard.  It’s not the gallery representation by Mary Boone and Charles Saatchi or the retrospective at the Whitney I prayed for while finishing my BFA in painting, but we all pay our dues.

Before the Whitney calls, I have to make an impression on the local art scene.  But how to get started?  Showing work is important.  But showing work in the wrong setting might ruin my chances at ever being taken seriously.  Some shows, though, are in a bit of a grey area.

This year I was invited to participate in the Seattle Erotic Art Festival (SEAF) by guest curator Sharon Arnold.  And erotic art, for many, means . . . what?  That discussion is very much ongoing.   But when one thinks of erotic art, one mostly thinks of figures, right?  At least figure parts. Considering my work is rooted in landscape and cityscape, it seemed strange that I was selected.

Years ago I took my first figure drawing class featuring a real live nude model. This happened at a time when I didn’t have a lot of experience viewing the opposite sex naked. So I went to class with my palms sweating, anticipating some zaftig girl, the nude-model stereotype. When the model turned out to be an older, bearded gentleman, my sweat turned cold. 

It took me a lot longer to become comfortable around naked figures in my personal life, probably because the models in class never talked to me, at least until they put their clothes back on.

My insecurities about nakedness were revived when I was invited to this show. Do I want to be known as an “erotic artist”? What if a big gallery owner sees my name associated with this?  What will my peers think?  Do I have to wear a mesh shirt to the opening? 

I hemmed and hawed until my interview with Sharon Arnold.  We had an engaging e-mail discussion in which she expressed her desire to invite artists such as myself to approach erotic art from “different, less literal” perspectives (that is, not just leather, chains and corsets).  She pointed out that artists like Yoko Ono (who invited the audience to cut away pieces of her dress in one performance piece) and Tracey Emin (who created Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963 – 1995, a tent with the names of her sexual partners sewn into it) have used sexuality in their work to great success. Sharon wanted to find artists and encourage them to think more along these lines — to broaden the definition of what SEAF could be and bring it into the mainstream art world.  It sounded exciting.  But, still, what was I going to paint? 

After tossing my first idea (involving roller skates, a popsicle and Angelina Jolie — sorry guys), I decided to make the erotic elements in my piece come from process instead of imagery. This way I’d free myself from my concern of not being a figure painter. If I lost you with the word “process,” think Jackson Pollock. He’s a great example of action painting — process-based work in which the artist is bent over, oblivious to the outside world, flinging and dripping paint, moving here and there, in an intense dance of limbs in constant motion, constantly looking for the best spot to touch next.  Pollock would have taken SEAF where Arnold wants it to go.

My process, of course, would not be anything like his. But to achieve a similar process-focused approach, I decided I needed a problem to tackle, an obstacle that would, how should I put it, heighten the erotic mood. Without giving too much away, the solution presented itself.  The title of the work I submitted says it all: “Every Mark Was Made with Her Hand on Mine and Her Suggestion in My Ear.”

I had a great time painting for SEAF.  And no, she was not naked. 

Though the end result was not a dramatic departure from my usual work (I’m sure lots of people at SEAF looked at my painting and thought, “What’s that doing here? Where are the chains and corsets?”), how I think about who might see my work may never be the same.  Putting aside my insecurities about my reputation was well worth it. 

And while I may still be spending most days directing folks to the museum’s bathroom (and waiting for that phone call from the Whitney), I am glad to have taken this leap and maybe to have reached a whole new, unpredictable audience.

View examples of Ryan Molenkamp’s paintings on his Web site,