Art Schmart

Nikki Sansone

Few moments in Project Runway history have been less memorable than Vincent Libretti’s constant fashgasms. It seemed like every week, every challenge, every dress was exactly what the love doctor prescribed for our little Vincent; everything made at the hand of Vincent Libretti “just got [him] off.” Though the principles of taste (and anyone with two eyes) would probably tell you that Vincent’s work was getting off no one, it is interesting to consider the link between Libretti, sex and his work. More often than not, the artist and the work are two entities inextricably linked through the labor of love. So what, then, of those special pieces that we are certain to come across that are perhaps more linked than others; that is to say, those pieces that aren’t just the product of a labor of love but instead the love product itself?

In the early nineties, American painter Jeff Koons celebrated such a gray area with his exhibit “Made in Heaven.” Koons and his porn star wife of five years were the star attractions in a long series of paintings, photographs and sculptures that spared no details and featured the couple in coitus. The super-saturated color quality of the pieces worked together with the former Mrs. Koons’ fantastical costume choice to take the edge off the hardcore-ness of the subject, but naked-as-the-day-God-made-him Mr. Koons remained a not-so-subtle reminder as to what exactly was on display. As the heated controversy that followed “Made In Heaven” might indicate, no amount of unicorn back-drops or blown-up butterfly props could distract viewers from the Koons’ very own unicorn and butterfly.

John Currin is following a similar path in mending together the realms of the erotic and the artistic. In his new exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery, Currin explodes the category of figurative paintings with portraits ranging from the super erotic to fully-clothed women reading books. Each painting is painted in the style of the Old Masters (ala El Greco) with Currin’s contemporary hand not too far out of sight. Earlier in his career, Currin had made a name for himself with his portrait of frigid Golden Girl Bea Arthur topless. For this exhibit, Currin drew from equally curious sources such as 70’s issues of Playboy, vintage Dutch porn and, of course, the hardcore stuff as well.

“The crappier my source material, the more it frees me up,” Currin told nymag.com.

Decidedly less graphic than Koons’s work, Currin’s exhibit still tickles the fancy of porn enthusiasts while keeping the ever-present censorship brigade at bay. Works like “Rotterdam,” in which imminent penetration is the clear and present subject, still pack all the power of Koons’s “Made in Heaven” punch, but the technique in which the subjects are rendered seem to almost legitimize the vulgarity. Rejecting a perfectly painted phallus in “Rotterdam” seems to almost inextricably be a rejection of the writhing-in-pleasure faces or exposed nipples of the Old Masters themselves. If ever there were a blaspheme, it would be such an utterance.

Exposed privates alone, however, do not a porno nor an art work make. Though Koons’s choice of erotic expression was well suited for the abovementioned dirty metaphor, it is also important to note that Koons’s campy back drop also raised socio-conscious issues of decency and taste.

Similarly, Currin’s portraiture inverts the vulgar with the revered: the low-brow subjects of Currin’s aimless porn perusing are given a sort of formal authority with their classical rendering. Upon first glance these exhibits might seem to have fallen victim to that tired notion of “sex as a vehicle for shock,” but in light of a strong trend of racy art one has to wonder why this subject keeps reappearing at all.

The common thread that unites Currin and Koons’s work is not a question of the pieces themselves but rather a question of space: where, in our very prudish society, is there space for erotic art? Art is the love child of the artist and his medium; such a fact cannot be brushed under the rug to be dealt with at a later time (especially not when lesser artists are celebrating such a fact weekly on a Bravo reality competition).

For so many practicing artists who see their work as a metaphoric extension of their blood, sweat and tears, denying them the space to display the extension of their other less glamorous fluids is an uphill battle. As one of the biggest global exporters in the adult industry, it has been a long time coming society start taking the porn off the bottom shelf and hanging it in our galleries.

Should every Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy have a spot reserved in the MoMA’s spring exhibit line up? Of course not. But statements that operate under the pretense that each of these artists was na’ve enough to think that their particular representation of sex and the body was going to be exactly what society didn’t want to see – the shocking sight of the century! – are flagrant acts of disrespect that fly in the face of every avant-garde-ist who ever fought for a little elbow room within the stringent parameters of the socially decent.