The Many Faces of Sex in Contemporary Art

“Sex and art are the same thing.” Picasso said that. Well, I’ve tried both and no, Picasso, they’re not. But he still has a point there. (It’s Picasso after all!) In the history of mankind, people couldn’t help but having sex. And art couldn’t help but making it one of its main subjects. Sex rarely fails to attract attention, advertisement knows that. There’s beauty in it. Moreover, there’s a whole variety of emotions and concepts that can be expressed through sexuality. Nobody is more aware of it than contemporary artists. Let’s take two examples…

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Keith Ryan, $30, 1990. Dye coupler print, 39.6 x 58.9 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

We usually don’t tend to see sex as something that creates relations of power. It does though. (I know what you’re thinking: “Not Foucault, please!” I won’t, don’t worry.) In the worst case, sex is oppressive or even openly violent. Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s (1951-) “Hustlers”-project, where he depicts Hollywood’s male prostitutes, manages to show us those relations in the most subtle and aesthetic way possible.

Keith Ryan, $30 (1990) literally spotlights one of them. Despite his being located in central Los Angeles, the photo apparently shows him in complete lonesomeness. But is he really alone? The headlights of the car, so closely related to the stereotypical john, seem to indicate the opposite: Keith Ryan, hunkered down and purchasable for $30, is being scrutinized by an interested client.

His social position as a hustler is greatly reflected in the arrangement of the photograph. Sex underlies the stern melancholy of the scene.

Judy Dater, Self-Portrait, Salt Flats, 1981. Dye coupler print, 45.88 x 35.88 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.
Judy Dater, Self-Portrait, Salt Flats, 1981. Dye coupler print, 45.88 x 35.88 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

Self-Portrait, Salt Flats was taken by Judy Dater (1941-) in 1981. Exposing the female body as she does in this photograph was a scandalous thing to do in the man’s world of the early 1980s. Nobody had told her to do so. She quite simply wanted to, thus expressing the desire of emancipation of a whole generation of women.

Again, a car is involved. However, this time it’s a symbol of mobility and freedom, underlined by the endless desert scenery. Its open doors echo the artist’s revolutionary exhibitionism.

Dater herself forms the center of the composition. At first glance, it looks like her body had been printed on the cloth. The fact that she’s actually standing in front of it marks her as the subject, not the object of the arrangement. What we see is a woman who is the master of her own sexuality. For her, it doesn’t mean oppression, but rather freedom and emancipation.

As we’ve seen, sex can be many things. And artists just can’t help but representing it in all its variety. Do we complain? No, we want more! Luckily, it just so happens that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is holding an exhibition called Physical: Sex and the Body in the 1980s, until July 31, 2016 – featuring both of the artworks discussed above.

Los Angeles is far and you just can’t wait? Then here’s some sex for private use:

1000 Erotic Works of Genius

30 Millennia of Erotic Art

In Praise of the Backside

The Origin of the World

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