I went to the fifth annual Dirty Show thinking, OK, I’m probably not going to like it. I went last year, when the show of supposedly erotic art was at downtown’s Museum of New Art, and I was, for the most part, grossed out. I found it misogynistic, just a bunch of pornography in paint for men looking for a new medium. It was all dicks and chicks and hungry-eyed wolves in trench coats leering and drooling at the burlesque performances and the art on the walls. There were some good pieces last year, such as Sacha Eckes’ strange outlined creatures having sex and looking pitiful and lascivious, and Tracee Miller’s oils of a sexy-kitty-nurse in the woods. The most exciting thing about that night was when a woman approached me as I stared at a bondage photo, trying to figure out what piece of flesh I was gazing at. After complimenting my stockings and shoes, she asked if I liked toes. I said, no, not particularly. Oh, she said, that’s too bad. I love toes, she said. I’d like to massage your legs and feet and suck on your toes.
I also went to the Dirty Show two years ago, when it was at artist Camilo Pardo’s space in the Bankle Building. I thought it was really bad. Just sleazy art, not very well rendered, depicting genitals, bloody women, fetishistic stuff and women displaying themselves for the pleasure of guys. Of course there were exceptions, as always, diamonds in the rough, a few things I wanted to buy, but still I was inspired to go home and take a bath. Both years, I was struck by the sentiment a Supreme Court justice expressed about pornography in one of the landmark cases: I know it when I see it.
The dictionary defines pornography as art or literature intended solely to sexually stimulate. And that’s what a lot of this stuff was, I thought, lacking the beauty or the skill that makes art worth seeing, lacking the mutual inspiration of the artist and the viewer, all that highfalutin stuff that makes the visual arts worthwhile.
This year was different. In the cavernous rooms of the Tangent Gallery and Hastings Street Ballroom, a big old warehouse at Milwaukee and Hastings streets, the Dirty Show featured more than 300 pieces of art, hung very well so that each piece could be pondered. The organizers built walls to extend the display space, and it had the feel of many different rooms, yet open and flowing. The space became a big sex museum, and a charming one at that, before it got insanely packed. While many pieces were amateurish renderings of bodies and sex acts, there were quite a few winners. There was enough good stuff to keep a person busy for hours, and the show included wit, humor, well-done fetish and erotica and some painfully formed objects of desire that would have been great to own (many more would have sold if the prices had been slashed).
The organizers are Jerry Vile (formerly known as Jerry Peterson) — of erstwhile Orbit magazine fame — and Jeremy Harvey — a stylish man-about-town also known for copyrighting the TRTL graffiti image for T-shirts to make money and discourage the tagger — and Detroit artist Glen Barr. The three did much to ratchet up the professionalism this year; it was obvious in the quality of the work and the presentation. In past years, folks at Dirty didn’t know where to go if they wanted to buy a piece. This year, each piece was labeled clearly.
Barr’s work is clearly popular with Detroit’s budding artists; many knock-offs were on display.
Many fine originals filled in the mix. Very interesting was Jack O’Summers’ picture boxes, which featured cut-outs of men having sex from current magazines mixed with old Renaissance works. The boxes opened up and had names such as “Like Father/Like Son/Like Hell,” priced at $150 to $375.
A large painted canvas in the back room showed a huge penis holding up the world, with an audience of breasts observing. Dick on a pedestal, if you ask me.
A crowd favorite was a big portrait of George W. Bush’s face, created with quarter-inch-square pictures of penises. It’s unbelievable that the artist could create such an accurate image of the president’s face with little dicks.
Green sprouts came from a terra-cotta vagina Chia Pet, and then there was Vile’s own work, “Suzi, the lonely, amputee womanchild tries out her new Crest spin brush.” Vile’s $475 piece included a lovely pink and white chest of drawers and provided plenty of narrative comic relief.
A white board with a hole in it stated, “Fuck art.” A charcoal piece showed a woman’s profile, and might have been the most sublime piece in the show, with more than a few fans. The piece wasn’t erotic and may have been included because of its quality.
Another favorite was a dildo that, when pulled, sounded an air horn — annoyingly popular.
Brilliant was Beth Ann Wilusz’s “Sound Hole,” a rich, brown, carved guitar, whose sound hole was the back of a woman bending over. She could have called it “Pluck the Pussy.” Smart, beautiful stuff.
A favorite of mine, though not so erotic, was “Do Not Enter,” by James Brutus. Priced at a mere $250, it depicted a black woman lying belly down in a white dress with her feet bent up behind her. It was modern in that the woman was floating in teal art deco, with nothing to hold her up and flanked by a painted logo on the top right, but formal in that she had as much volume, shape and contour as a real woman.
Some photos were simply disgusting, including a few of a bloody girl. Though the title of the series indicated the photos were about menstruation, the name was a foil, as the pictures showed women beaten and bleeding from the mouth.
Much of the work seemed to appeal to an eager, horny brand of boy/man, some of whom took their chance to yelp at women, “Get it on,” and “Oh you’re sexy, babe.” But the crowd was as diverse as the metro area, and the show seemed to offer something for everyone — everyone who stuck around, that is.
“You know, I hate to say this, it’s embarrassing. But a lot of this stuff, I really don’t like it,” one tipsy girl told me. “I feel bad to say that. But a lot of it is gross, so I can’t appreciate the art. I hope that doesn’t make me a prude. Sex is beautiful. But I’m not an arts person, so I don’t know, maybe I am missing something?”
I said that in my view it was OK to not like art, and to say so.
Vile started Dirty five years ago in the offices of Orbit, because, he says, he owned a lot of dirty art and knew a lot of artists who did dirty art, and thought it would be great to display work that’s not “arty-cheesecake” in a gallery-type setting. Though a great portion of visual art is based loosely or directly on sex and sexuality, Vile is correct that it’s less common to see anatomically correct figures and acts — bondage, coitus, fellatio — painted on canvas.
At its base, Dirty is a big party, and it’s got to be a money-maker. Last year, some 2,500 people attended. This year there were more. On Friday, people were strongly encouraged to pay the $10 donation, while Saturday attendees were charged $10.
As the Dirty night wore on — Friday night went until midnight, Saturday until 2 a.m. — the crowd got drunker, and the show got dirtier. On stage, after the burlesque, a man and woman got naked and simulated sex. I was glad she had removed her thin cotton panties because they were so large and unsettling, but I had mixed feelings about the result. Some other naked women pranced around stage. It looked like an orgy was about to start. I headed elsewhere.
As I left, I thought, hey, what’s the problem with this? It’s the largest, most-attended art show in the city. Is it too bad that regular art shows don’t draw more people? Yes. Is it sad that sex is a sure sale? Yes. Is there some great art and a hedonistic bacchanal and a host of good people involved in the Dirty Show? Absolutely. Is it a chance for young artists to show their work? Yes. Am I glad I missed the guy shooting paint enemas out of his anus onto canvases late Saturday night? Yes. Am I shocked the canvases sold? No.
Vile says he hopes to raise enough money to buy a truck and take Dirty on the road, like a carnival. In the meantime, the show is headed to Miami this year, he says, and, he hopes, to Cleveland and Chicago. While Vile and Harvey’s creation can only do great things for Detroit’s raunchy reputation, obviously, there’s a piece of us that is part of what they are doing, a piece of Detroit that rejoices in wanton sex. More power to them.Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org