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Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play

by Hans Hafkamp in Theatre, Art & Expo , 10 augustus 2015


“Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play,” which opened on June 14 at New York’s Artists Space, is one of the most comprehensive Tom of Finland survey exhibitions to date, spanning six decades to include more than 180 drawings, 1930s childhood paper dolls, the full set of 1940s gouaches along with triptychs, individual drawings, storyboards and over 300 reference pages.

Touko Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland (1920, Kaarina – 1991, Helsinki), was a child of grammar school teachers and grew up in rural Finland. At the age of nineteen he enrolled in a distance learning advertising course. Soon drafted, he joined the Finnish Army in its fight against the Soviet invasion. After the war he stayed in Helsinki, studying classical piano at the renowned Sibelius Academy. While at the Academy, Tom of Finland worked as freelance graphic designer, later becoming senior art director at the Helsinki office of the global advertising agency McCann Erickson.

While living life as an adman in Helsinki, his global career as an iconic gay figure was jumpstarted in 1950s Los Angeles, through his ongoing contributions to Bob Mizer’s magazine “Physique Pictorial.” From the 1960s onwards, he frequently published his now well-known comic series with the Danish publishing house DFT, COQ International and the Revolt Press, and later through his own Tom of Finland Company.

Worldwide Repute

Tom of Finland’s very first exhibition was held in 1973 in Hamburg, a city he had been visiting since the early fifties and a major center for his activities at the time. A trendsetting Hamburg gay bar commissioned a large mural, and in October 1973 a sex shop owned by Revolt Press in that city hosted Tom’s first exhibition to celebrate the unveiling. In this exhibition the original plates for his cartoon story about Pekka, a lumberjack, were put on show.

In October 1978, Tom of Finland had his first New York show at Stompers, a boots store in the West Village. A few months earlier, in February 1978, he’d had his first gallery exhibition in the USA at Feyway Studios, San Francisco, where he was befriended by Robert Mapplethorpe, who in 1980 helped him get his first major New York exhibition at Robert Samuel Gallery.

In March 1978 his work was also shown for the first time in Amsterdam at the opening exhibition of the Rob Gallery. In a 1981 interview with gay magazine “Sek” Rob Meijer said about the background of launching his gallery, which was the only one in Europe showing “male erotic art” at the time: “I had commissioned a painting from an artist friend, and I wanted to organize a party for the opening. One thing led to another, and that is how the idea [for a gallery] was born. Tom of Finland was quite famous already, and I just wrote to him that I would like to display his work. Soon, some ten drawings came by mail.”

Tom’s work was regularly on display at Rob Gallery during the 1980s, and a little more than a year before his death, Rob referred to him as “one of the most important artists of the gallery still.” Even though Rob had told Carolijn Visser of newspaper “NRC Handelsblad” in 1981 that Tom’s drawings were not “conversation pieces” but “masturbation pieces,” he disagreed with Tom of Finland’s own characterization of his work as pornography in an interview with “GA-Magazine” less than ten years later: “Of course it’s up to Tom of Finland himself. I think that most of the work has such high-quality that it transcends pornography. It is true, however, that the more hidden artists have to work, the more exciting their works are. The more they have to work in secret, the better the expression in their work.”

During his seventeen years at McCann, a job he quit in 1973, Tom of Finland started traveling extensively throughout Europe. On his many trips, particularly to London, Hamburg and Berlin, he would take his drawings to sell or to gift to men whom he met in the local gay scene, thus proliferating his work while establishing an underground distribution network, and with it a network of friends and admirers. From the 1970s onwards Tom of Finland began to visit the USA more frequently. While he never permanently resided in the States, during the last decade of his life he spent equal time between Helsinki and Los Angeles.

Subversive Cutouts

Tom of Finland’s biography parallels pivotal moments of twentieth century (gay) history, bearing witness to the disasters, the turmoil and the radical changes that took place during his lifetime. Indeed, his work stands in dialectical relationship to these events and the often oppressive culture that surrounded him.

Starting from an early age, Tom of Finland played with the iconographic conventions upon which both the representation and the very conception of masculinity are based. His emblematic, larger-than-life drawn phalluses threaten not only the existing symbolic order of heterosexuality, but also reorganize the principles by which (homo)sexual desires are structured. In a review of “The Pleasure of Play” Jason Farago wrote: “The male sex organ is depicted not so much as a body part, but more as a fetish object in its own right - a thing independent of the male body, worthy of intense, delirious veneration.” Tom’s fearless portrait of sexuality can also be read as a portrait of the sadomasochistic relationship that is at play between culture and subculture itself, an aspect that runs through gay culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as much as it is present in Tom of Finland’s biography and work.

Working from 1956 to 1973 as senior art director at one of the first global advertising agencies, it is likely that Tom of Finland had access to a range of global mainstream publications as well as illegally published early gay magazines – both from which he would meticulously cut out details and compose on single pages to later use as studies, or as he called them, reference pages.

It is telling that many of these cutouts are taken from global print campaigns; Tom of Finland seemingly studying and taking apart the representations of maleness and gender-assigned attributes in mainstream media, and fusing them with cutouts from gay periodicals. Originally separated into binders, the majority of these collages were sorted by distinct taxonomies: leather jackets, motorcycles, uniforms, beards, hairdos and so forth. On rare occasions he also drew directly onto these cutouts, to either amplify or reduce the existing attributes.

In some respects the collages are key to an understanding of Tom of Finland’s work. During the day (at least until 1973), as an acclaimed advertising executive Tom of Finland was involved hands-on in creating the hetero-normative vision of the happy suburban family of the late 1950s; while at night, he would cut up the very basis of his own work (print advertising) to study, to analyze and to categorize – turning these reference pages towards the exact opposite of their origin. One aspect of Tom of Finland’s drawings is that the faces of his protagonists feature a familiar, recognizable likeness – these bold, grinning faces, while in the act of sadomasochistic play, present a fearless vision of sexuality pointing towards the culture that constructed the relationship between sexuality and fear in the first place.

“Tom of Finland: The Pleasure of Play” is the first exhibition to examine, analyze and present the historic role that his art plays in addressing and transgressing stereotypes of gender, sexuality, race, class and power relations. The exhibition can be seen until August 23, 2015.

Artists Space Exhibitions,
38 Greene Street, 3rd Floor,
New York, NY 10013, USA
 



 







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