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A Straight Guy, Gay Guy and a Straight Woman Walk Into a Museum... (NSFW)

Physique Pictorial, volume 7, number 1, 1957
Physique Pictorial, volume 7, number 1, 1957
Printed with permission of Bob Mizer Foundation, Inc .

In Los Angeles in 1945, photographer Bob Mizer founded the Athletic Model Guild, a sort of home for wayward and hunky boys who didn't mind having their unclothed photos taken in the company of other men. Physique Pictorial, a small, half-sheet-sized black and white zine, was the house publication and sales tool, and it created a wide audience for both Mizer's photographs as well as the drawings of Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen. Mizer assigned Laaksonen the easier-to-pronounce pseudonym Tom of Finland, and under that name, Laaksonen's drawings became some of the most iconic images of gay erotic art.

MOCA Pacific Design Center is running a show of images from Physique Pictorial as well as images from Mizer's and Tom of Finland's private collection, through January 26. L.A. Weekly sent a team of three very different observers -- a gay man, a straight man and a straight woman (this writer and two of her male friends) -- to have a look at the show, and share their perspective on four of Tom of Finland's images.

Untitled (1 of 4 from "Circus Life" series), 1961
Untitled (1 of 4 from "Circus Life" series), 1961
Bob Mizer/AMG Collection, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection #61.11, © 1961 Tom of Finland Foundation

Straight woman: This reminds me of some of those Bettie Page photos, in that it's very cheesecakey and posed and set up, but it's really out of bounds for the time.

Gay Guy: Like pinups for boys.

Straight Guy: Exactly.

GG: There really is no effort to appeal to women -- it's very very much a gay erotica, it's very much making a point to not confuse anyone.

SG: Oh yeah.

SW: What's your imagining of what the response to this was when it first came out in 1961?

SG: Oh my god, it would completely freak them out. They would think it was perverted.

GG: Perverted -- that's a good word. But also, imagine all of the gay boys in the closet seeing this.

SW: Look at this all by itself. It just says "Test Your Strength." Can you imagine someone looking at it, like it if they didn't even know about gay culture? It's just a strong guy.

SG: No. Look at those adoring looks.

GG: I think it started in the sixties, when the idea of gays completely changed. Gays started going to the gym, muscular guys. It completely changed from the decade before when they were either just flamboyant or feeble. So it was a shift of paradigm in the way straight people perceived gay people. I think there was also a shift in the way gay people perceived themselves.

SW:Look, he's taking these super macho images -- a cop, lumberjacks -- that's what pissed people off, right?

SG:Yeah, the whole idea that NFL players were gay, that sent a lot of people up the wall.

GG: It's really well done. To get a pencil and come up with that -- it's incredible.

SG: But do you find it erotic?

GG: Mostly not. I admire it. But it's... also, when I go to gay bars and see go go dancers, no matter how beautiful, they are, it doesn't' do much. Because I think they try too hard.

SW: Is that what's wrong with this? That they're trying too hard?

GG: Yeah... but there are a couple of images upstairs, I had a hard-on looking at them. But it was just two pieces out of the whole exhibit.

 

Physique Pictorial, volume 16, number 4, February 1968
Physique Pictorial, volume 16, number 4, February 1968
Printed with permission of Bob Mizer Foundation, Inc .

SG: How was this intended? Is it intended as porn? What is it trying to convey?

GG: I think the guy was speeding, the policeman was going to give him a ticket, there's a lot of flirtation, they're both getting excited, and he may not get a ticket -- he might end up getting a blow job instead.

SW: There's that power relationship too.

GG: They're both in power.

SW: No, they're not both in power! The policeman has total power over the situation. He's writing a ticket. He's the top.

GG: But the other guy has power too. He may end up just ripping up the ticket. That happened to me.

SG: Is that right?

SW: Did you have to give a blowjob? Or just flirt?

GG: I flirted and he let me go.

SW: I remember the first time I saw Tom of Finland imagery -- I thought... "That's so gay." Which is a banal response, I know, but that it's so... out. I mean, it's not like Playgirl, which a lot of people thought was gay porn in disguise as erotica for women. It's just really, really out.

GG: yes, it is, and I don't think there's any intention to confuse anyone. The intention is to show, this is very gay. These tough, muscular, virile guys can be gay too. He broke the stereotype in most people's minds.

SW: Is that what this is about? The contrast between these images and the image of the pansy?

(To SG:)

How does this strike you on a visceral level? Does it make you go, "eeaaha?"

SG: If I was a kid or something, but not in this era. What I'm trying to do here is trying to find parallel to heterosexual situations. But you wouldn't see that kind of situation. If it was male and female, there would be no story there. Somebody would be naked.

SW: I think it's easy to imagine a parallel piece of art, where there's a girl with big cleavage, and she's looking at the cop and batting her eyes. Pinup calendar art -- that's what this is.

See also: 5 Artsy Things to Do in L.A. This Week

Untitled (from Beach Boy 2 story), 1971
Untitled (from Beach Boy 2 story), 1971
Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection #71.61, © 1971 Tom of Finland Foundation

GG: If I saw this at age 12, I would go completely mad.

SG: All gay men have large cocks, according to this.

SW: Why did that little hat become a thing?

GG: I think it's the power thing, the uniform.

SW: He's obviously not a real cop, but he's got this cop-y look. That mustache is really cop-y too. I think of mustaches as the gay uniform at that time, like the mullet hairdo used to be for lesbians.

SW: (to SG): Let me ask you this: If it was this same set of photos, but replace this character with a woman, would it be erotic?

SG: Seven guys and a woman is not interesting to me, but that's just me.

GG: Where would you see that with a woman?

SW: There's gang bang videos like that.

GG: I would be scared to be in his position.

SW: Plenty of straight men watch lesbian porn, and it's hot for them, but I'm looking at this, and it's so not made for me. It's so clearly saying, "this is not created for you, this is not about you."And I'm not really sure what it is that's getting that message across to me. Because allegedly, as a heterosexual woman, I should be able to look at these naked men and think that it's awesome.

GG: As a gay man, I'm not getting it that way either. It does not arouse me or excite me. I think it's entertaining.

SG: But this is intended to arouse, right?

SW: Or to tell a ribald little story?

GG: You might also think about where we are. We're in a museum. If you were in your bedroom looking at that, it would be a different reaction.

 

A Straight Guy, Gay Guy and a Straight Woman Walk Into a Museum... (NSFW)

(The drawing, not made available to the press, is a graphic image of a man with a very large penis penetrating another man on a sofa.)

SW: Wow, this one is the most intense in terms of being graphic that we've seen. I have to be honest... when I see this picture, I'm like... no.

SG: Feeling a little repulsed?

SW: Yeah. It just looks grotesque to me. How is it striking you?

GG: If this was real life, I'd be so happy.

SG: It doesn't strike me as grotesque, but it strikes me as alien -- I can't identify with it being arousing. If I put a woman there, it would be.

GG: It's so exaggerated, it's unreal, the size of everything, therefore it takes a bit of the excitement away. But it were a little closer to reality, maybe it would be more arousing. But I think he had the intention of getting this type of reaction -- grossed out, perverted. I think that was part of the idea... push as far as you can, so when you're here, people will be okay. I think he did a great service for liberating these so-called perversions.

SW: I think of the general culture seeing this... was it meant to shock, or meant to normalize?

GG: Shock at first, but I think that's a benefit in the long term.

SG: Do you think these guys gave any thought to this being seen by heterosexuals? I don't think they did.

SW: I think they had to, because Bob Mizer went to jail for distributing this stuff. They had to know that was a risk they were running.

SG: That's a risk they were running, but they weren't doing this for heterosexuals at all.

SW: But how could you escape from consciousness of the dominant culture?

GG: It could be also that they're not giving a fuck about the dominant culture, and they're saying it's time for us to do something for us. We are sexual beings, and we get to have this kind of fun too.

SG: Yes, exactly. I see that in here. This is liberating. They're saying, if you find this offensive, fuck you. It's for us.

GG: And if in the long term they get used to it, even better.

SG: I think it would be tough for any man, regardless or orientation, not to emerge from this unaffected.


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Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA Pacific Design Center)

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