If I have one ambition for the Seattle Erotic Art Festival, it’s to upend the notion that erotic art exists only for a fringe audience.
Art history shows us that the subject of sex has always been relevant: Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa, Rodin’s Kiss and Manet’s Olympia, to name a few. The sexual themes in art have changed along with the way sex was perceived throughout cultural history. We see these perceptions changing still, as evident in the work of contemporary artists Leigh Bowery, Cindy Sherman, John Currin, Kara Walker, Marilyn Minter, the Chapman Brothers and Ghada Amer. More than ever, a new take on aesthetic and philosophical eroticism is a credible and significant theme to explore in any creative medium. After all, we live in a society in which the public is barraged by mainstream media sources, in which ads by the likes of Levi’s, Reebok and Carl’s Jr. rely on sex to sell consumer products. Which is more offensive, Cecily Brown’s highly sexual yet beautifully painted and formally breathtaking pieces of rutting bodies full of pleasure, sensuality and joy, or Miller Beer’s commercial featuring mud-slinging females in a cat fight, in which the women move from fully dressed to their underwear in the span of a single minute? The commercial we accept without question; the art we deem socially uncomfortable.
Last year I was honored to be chosen as the Seattle Erotic Art Festival guest curator for a show within the show, if you will, separate from the rest of the juried works and those of the annual festival-invited artists who show up year after year. In that role, I challenged twenty-five artists – Joey Veltkamp, Gretchen Bennett, Troy Gua, Robert Hardgrave, Jennifer Zwick, Emily Pothast and Kim Trowbridge among them – to push their work beyond obvious perceptions of eroticism and to help mark a shift in the festival’s misunderstood reputation of pushing porn (or “bad art” belonging only to a fringe crowd) to one of engaging viable contemporary art.
There are few erotic art shows in the country that strive as hard as SEAF to comb through every piece of work, ensuring all perspectives are represented and all the patrons walk away with something they can relate to. The jury is selected to include pairs of eyes involved in different facets of the art community, and performances are curated to showcase a wide range of theatre: from highbrow plays to bawdy burlesque.
I think the biggest challenge for me, as a curator, was working with more abstract pieces. Having strongly identified with the struggles that arose from applying an erotic theme to disparate art forms, I talked with artists a lot about landscape and the body and how self-referential our work always is – something which, as it turns out, is a natural launching pad for erotic works. Many artists I spoke with found themselves having some kind of inner dialogue along these lines and had a lot of fun with the work they put in the show. I’d like to think I helped build a bridge between two formerly distant artist communities – and audiences – and opened a door to free expression on a fun but taboo subject.
SEAF is gaining momentum among artists in Seattle’s more mainstream art community. This year I have been invited by guest curator Chris Crites to put my money where my mouth is and push my own aesthetic limits, along with local talents Charles Krafft, Joey Bates, Cable Griffith, Shaun Kardinal, Erin Frost and Daniel Carrillo, among others. I’m excited to be in such good company as we strut our conceptually sexy stuff on the walls, and I’m also more than certain the challenge will continue to fuel our own work outside the Festival.
As I said of the festival last year, it isn’t necessary to like all the work you’ll see – in fact, I guarantee you won’t – but you have to acknowledge its dynamic progression towards something positive. This event provides a safe haven of acceptance, encouragement and celebration and proves every year to be a joyful, provocative, surprising and challenging experience, as art should be. •