Harry Bush's randy reality
Swell new collection of strapping young men
by John F. Karr
It seems to have been a sad life, that of Harry Bush. Solitary, embittered, self-hating. Yet in his art, so outgoing, jovial and loving. Bush's art calls up strapping young men who are just naturally, irrepressibly raunchy. See for yourself in the swell new collection of his work, Harry Bush Hard Boys (Green Candy Press; cloth, $50; paper, $35).
I always thought Harry's name, with its obvious pun, was a nom de porn. But the book's editor, local homoerotic art maven Bob Mainardi, tells me that was indeed Bush's name. I became a fan of Bush's work when I first saw it in the old Physique Pictorial magazine, and savored it during the 1980s and into the 90s, when editor John Embry featured it in magazines I wrote for: first Drummer, then The Alternate and Manifest. When Embry retired, it seemed to me so did Harry Bush. His drawings weren't being published anywhere. I thought he might have died.
He'd only gone deeper into reclusiveness. He'd never gotten on well with his editors, nitpicking about matters justifiable — his work was rarely printed to his specifications, the delicacy of his pencil line and his subtle shading invariably rendered dark and coarse — and matters unjustifiable. He was querulous, recalcitrant, difficult to reach.
In the book's fascinating and informative Introduction, Mainardi writes, "Bush was one of the most irascible and misanthropic individuals I've ever met, an old hermit crab living in a cast-off shell that sheltered him from the perceived slights of society at large, and gay society in particular." Convoluted and enigmatic, Bush "simply couldn't find success or satisfaction as an artist or a gay man."
During a youthful and unfortunately formative military career, Bush inherited what he later called "the standard heterosexual revulsion of queers." Stationed in England, it was only that country's ambiance that made him comfortable enough to come out, something he says he probably never would have done if he'd remained in America. It was back in Los Angeles that Bob Mizer, the blithely louche proprietor of the Athletic Model Guild, introduced him to the portion of the local gay community he knew, which Bush mistook for the gay world at large. "Those people were every hideous thing I had ever heard about them," he said of his distaste for what Mainardi describes as "the world of Hollywood hopefuls, hustlers, tricks and johns, and world-weary sugar daddies."
A loner by nature, Bush couldn't and wouldn't fit in. So he withdrew to the world of his art. And what a wonderful world of cockerie it is. These are California boys, beach boys and surfers, Marine's recruits, and all sorts of best buddies, teammates and locker room pals, from the Boy Scout troop to the leather set's motorcycle club.
And always, Bush's iconoclastic, wicked sense of humor, with situations and captions that mock. One randy teen arrives at summer camp to pose beneath a sign that reads, "We Make Boys Into Gentlemen." Except someone's crossed out "Into Gentlemen."
Others have their action whimsically described. "I Dreamed I Was Groped by a Sex Crazed Stranger on a Public Beach." That's a mild description of groped, this finger up the butt. Then there's the "Officer, look what you made me do!" series, and the Working Boy series: "For $20 you only get to squeeze the jock, mister." And The Coach series: "Coach had the big boys cream my jock."
My favorite is the Pubes Bikini series. In these, young men are engorged within, greatly distort the confines of, and spill bonerifically out of a thong-like bikini that's little more than a posing strap, with captions such as, "I Dreamed I Showed My Asshole to a Crowd of People — in My Pubes Bikini." In another, there's a real angel, with wings, popping out of his pouch a boner that a sweet young thing is — well, let Harry describe it: "Cupid is Wearing a Pubes Bikini While Socking It to an Entranced Adult."
Despite the wonders of his art world, Bush wasn't cut out for commerce and publishing. Or friends in general. He'd had a falling out with just about everyone he'd ever known. He was so exasperated (and exasperating) that he said he'd rather destroy his work than let people get their hands on it. In his old age, hanging on in very bad health while chewing over the bitter cud of gay society's fickleness and the frustrations of his artistic career, he was befriended by Mainardi, who slowly cultivated a relationship of trust. This ultimately led to Bush giving Mainardi permission to do as he pleased with the artwork. And what he's done, nearly 14 years after Bush's death, would no doubt please Bush considerably.
The 200-page book reproduces on heavy stock an even larger number of works, though most are given full-page reproduction. Here, in page after page of cock-teasing raunchiness, we can see Bush's classical technique, the way his figures avoid stiffness and revel in spontaneity. His delicate line and shading are respected, as are the exclamatory moments of color that Bush used to accentuate a posing strap, or an exposed asshole.
Grateful as I am for the book, I've got to heap praise on Bob Mainardi. He's done so much to research, collect and then disseminate to a greater public the homoerotic art and photography of numerous pioneering gay artists that I'd make him a Marshall at my Gay Day Parade. With his partner Trent Dunphy, Bob runs the little shop of wonders called The Magazine on Larkin Street, where many of these works can be apprehended and purchased. And which is where you can get Hard Boys. If Bob's there, he may even sign your copy, like he did mine. Thanks Bob; and a hard-on salute to Harry Bush, for these presents of happy sexiness.