Considering the penis
'The Dick Show' at the Center for Sex and Culture
by John F. Karr
Two of my favorite things are most fortuitously coming together this month. The first is a chance to look at a select collection of penises (certainly important for a guy such as I, whose oft-repeated goal in life is to see everyone naked with a boner at least once). And the second is the chance to ballyhoo the Center for Sex and Culture, where you'll find The Dick Show, a month-long art exhibit and a benefit evening of performance. And since you've probably never heard of the place, I'll tell you about it right away. Then I'll get to the penises.
First, a bit of disclosure is necessary. The founders of the CSC, Dr. Carol Queen and Dr. Robert Morgan Lawrence, are my longtime friends. After Mayoress DiFi closed the bathhouses, we helped preserve the public's right to sexuality by serving together on the Coalition for Healthy Sex. Carol's recommendation to SFSU led me to many semesters as guest lecturer for the Varieties of Human Sexuality course, and over the years, the CSC has been the site where I and some like-minded gentlemen co-host "meatings" of the SF Jacks.
Dr. Lawrence reminded me last week that we'd met in the early 1980s, when I was what he humorously called the Party Management Administrator at 890 Folsom. (I ran the clothes-check room, and helped him get naked.) The hall was leased by Buzz Bense, who later created Eros. Robert reminisced, "Carol and I met there at a COYOTE party [Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, supporting the rights of sex workers], and the moment was memorialized by none other than Herb Caen in the Chronicle. I was acting as doorman, dressed as a Ringmaster, with tit clamps and no shirt. When Carol and I ended up kissing, I set down my top hat, but saw one of my boyfriends jerking off nearby and accidentally about to shoot in it. I yelled, 'Please, sir! Do not cum in my hat!' The remark made its way to Mr. Caen, and he ran it in his column."
890 Folsom was a radical space, home to multiple groups espousing sexuality. It's where I met, at its space-sharing meetings and over my clothes check counter, many local sex activists. "Out of the people sharing that building," Robert said, "came Jacks, Blow Buddies, Eros, and the Jack and Jill-off parties, which Carol and I later turned into the Queen of Heaven safer sex events, and the CSC."
Today, the couple are globally known sex educators, who got there the hard way. Robert narrates: "We'd been driving all over the country in a battered van, giving sex-ed presentations at any facility that would have us. In 1994 we stopped to visit Betty Dodson in New York City. She took one look at us and warned, 'You're gonna burn yourselves out! You need a permanent space, with a library, an exhibit hall, and performance stage.'
"And that's the model we're finally realizing in our new location," Robert said. A nonprofit certification came first, then several local rentals, each more awful than the last, before the CSC finally landed in its suitable and semi-permanent home (their five-year lease has a renewal option). The CSC is between 9th and 10th Sts., at 1349 Mission. It's on the corner of Grace Alley, which seems wonderfully portentous. It's a long shoebox of a building with a central open space that's grand. One wall is reserved for art exhibitions, while the opposite wall, lined with bookshelves, houses the library. Overhead is a peaked roof supported by exposed wood beams, and area rugs warm the dark wood floor. All that wood, carpet and books led one guest of Jacks to exclaim, "It's like masturbating in a baronial mansion!"
"As long as an adult event is legal," said Robert, "we'll host it. Besides the Jacks, we have the Society of Janus, an erotic hypnosis group, an erotic reading circle, a dominant/submissive discussion class, a photo club, and men's wrestling. The Men's Pleasure Workshop in August will be a hands-on event. We also archive personal collections: we have the papers of Larry Townsend, Nina Hartley, Patrick Califia, and others. Coming up are workshops about gender."
That brings us finally to The Dick Show, which brushes against ideas of gender. The show has been curated by Jack Davis, a long-time Radical Faerie well known for crocheting and exhibiting penis covers, who describes himself as "a visual artist who contemplates fags, dicks and naked men in high heels." But don't let that image mislead you about the exhibit. "I'm not interested in being funny or humorous," Davis said emphatically. "I'm interested in being edgy and serious."
So the show is more than just a bunch of dicks up on the wall. It asks, What's the Big Deal about Penises? And why is it essential that a man have a penis? How do you have sex if a penis is not involved?
"I really wanted to bring up the issue of men of my age group being confronted with a whole new group of gay men: the transmen," Davis explained. "I heard of mistrust, a feeling of betrayal, from men who were born with a penis, and I wanted to investigate that. I wanted to look at the idea that if you have a penis, you're cool or better than anyone else. I wanted to look at what has changed in our thinking about penises, and how important they are to sex."
I saw the artworks at last Friday's opening, and I feel they address these issues less overtly than the May 18 evening of performances will; the exhibit was not curated to explicate an Issue, although it gently offers illumination. Among the artists, I liked Mark Garrett's arresting collage of an exploding cock, made of cut-paper silhouette and pasted with semen. It looks to me like the blooming of an exotic blood flower. Artist Dwoo created his oversize oil painting of a cock especially for this show, and hoped at the opening that the thick, Impressionist-style daubs of paint had dried. Stand far back and you'll see the Star Child of the movie 2001 in the left testicle. Which begs the exhibit's question, what can you see in a cock?
(Photo: John F. Karr)
Katie Gilmartin drolly imagines a pulp paperback cover with the pertinent title, The Lady Was a Man; its author is Richard Tucker (wink-wink). The nude study taken by photographer Mariah Carle is razor-crisp yet warm, revealing a one-armed and much-scarred man, defiant and proud.
"It's physically demanding," says Justin T^me of his work in linocuts. Since a dear friend of mine who died of AIDS made memorable erotic woodcuts, I was drawn to the sharp contrasts and clean lines of Justin's work. One piece has the intense, wavy lines that recall Van Gogh.
Michael Rosen is showing two black-and-white photographs that pitch bold moments of auto-fellatio as practiced by both men and women, even one who doesn't identify as such, bringing us back to the show's questions of penis and personhood. For his contribution, curator Davis shows the tracing he made when the scarification on his shoulder was created, whose outlines of blood he later beaded.
Complementing the month-long exhibit is a one-evening benefit for the CSC. Davis explains, "My method for producing benefits is to gather together a dream team of performers and artists, then let something happen." The Dick Show in Performance, on Fri., May 18, will find eight performers of varying disciplines offering their takes on dick. Cayenne will offer songs and a crash course in tucking – ouch! Also on the bill are body-based performer Jess Curtis, documentary filmmaker Ed Wolf, author Kirk Read, interdisciplinary artist and sexual healer TTBaum, and sexologist and witch Captain Snowdon. Expect Davis' promise of edgy, questioning viewing.
Would you flee from an intimate encounter with a transman? If gender politics aren't part of your life, or if you are scared by the very thought, then the potentially disarming Dick Show in Performance is calling to you.