“Stuffed With Desire”
An Essay for In My Room: Ana Benaroya, Tom of Finland, Karl Wirsum
Venus Over Manhattan, June 8 — July 8, 2023
“The real thing about creating,” Franz Kline once shared with Philip Guston in the midst of fluffy bar conversation, “is to have the capacity to be embarrassed.” Kline then offered this evocative description, which must have duly impressed Guston much as it now delights me: “Painting is like hand-stuffing a mattress.”1 To be fair to the medium specificity of Kline’s insight, the artists brought together in this exhibition of drawings do share a distinctly un-painterly approach to image-making. But, surveying bulging lumps and intumescence throughout the present room, imagining their work as the performative stuffing of forms that can never be stuffed quite full enough is irresistible to me. In the graphic fullness of these drawings by Ana Benaroya, Tom of Finland, and Karl Wirsum, the potential for producing something embarrassing is transfigured by the exuberance of making it seen.
Many of us will remember experiencing wondrous revelations in childhood simply by drawing with whatever materials were at hand. The magic of that discovery could be so real, availed of little more than a marker—one learned to unhinge reality and find alternative worlds. A humble notebook page could represent the promise of entirely other places to create, explore, and inhabit. Invoking a 1963 song by The Beach Boys, In My Room situates its drawing practices within a similar kind of self-fulfilling interiority: There’s a place where I can go and tell my secrets to… further hinting how this introverted mode of expression acquires the relish of something hidden, despite exhibiting itself as form.
Between introversion and extroversion is a threshold of embarrassment, which artists traverse everyday. Drawing, commonly understood to indicate preparatory, precursory, and often intensely private creative exercise, bears out this traversal in heightened definition: following nothing but the compulsive pleasure of mark-making, the vast, absorptive imagination engenders enduring new forms. As the marks in this exhibition of drawings all amass around exaggerated human figures, I think it’s only natural to feel the thrill of possibility that some secret desire wants to make itself known.
Has the secretive blush faded from our delectation of Tom of Finland’s phallic delights? Even verging on the pornographic, the representation of male homosexual desire no longer seems particularly scandalous. So, why are these drawings still powerful? Do they speak to nothing more than our congenital love for the emphatic visuality of erections? Regardless of our own desiring tendencies, no doubt there is an invisible meaning that fixes our gaze to the phallic parade and charges its form with energy. Better yet, I would argue in this case, we are still surprised, excited, and a little discomfited to recognize a problematic element in Tom of Finland’s drawings—that is, the remarkably candid staging of erotic fantasy complying, in ecstasy, with a masculinist aesthetic regime.
Jack Halberstam writes that Tom of Finland’s drawings allow us to peer “into the vexed area… within which the political and sexual bonds between men become confused and entwined.”2 Part of the important work that these drawings do, then, is draw out our reflections on the shadowy formation of desires within sticky relations of power. Halberstam, a theorist of female masculinity, also points to difficult sources of lesbian representation in literary works by Radclyffe Hall and Gertrude Stein, works deeply entangled with the thorny chauvinism of their authors. Hall’s infamous 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness is an early narrative formulation of the lesbian subject tragically individuated through hellish torments of anxiety, repression, and invisibility. Having long attracted curious readers with its disreputable status (‘obscene’), Hall’s novel casts a shadow and—I share this from experience—still packs a gruesome punch.
As many tomboys will find relatable, clothing is a focal point for acute psychic strife between the young butch and her mother in The Well of Loneliness: “there was constant warfare between them on the subject of… dresses, which her daughter must wear in order to please her.”3 While Hall’s tragic hero grows up to invest her all in an elitist masculine complex of superiority, dapper tweeds, and martyrdom, I think of the comically bellying, huge yet unpretentious nude in Ana Benaroya’s work as an insistent refusal of this sort of narrative, as if to say: no clothes, no tragedy. Considering how much lesbian visibility has historically depended on conspicuous butch/femme pairings, and how little visibility is possessed by lesbians still today, I want to suggest that the joy of mutual enormity in Benaroya’s figures may even break a tragic spell. Here, the transgressive physique is heroically feminine, built with enhanced capacity for harboring a nameless love.
Rising like loaves of bread in an oven, the puffed bodies of Benaroya’s romantic heroes nourish fantasies other than mythic masculinity—even as they clearly borrow from that fraught aesthetic dominion. Their anatomical robustness seems to refer less to brute power than to an earthy exuberance of corporeality and form. Beside a soft smile and twinkling bedroom eyes, the monumental body in Benaroya’s work is unconquerable yet openly desiring, even contemplative of love. Did she get this ripped to be completely absorbed in daydreaming? Is that, in fact, precisely what her strength is ‘for’?
It’s funny (as in, queer) to buttress effeminate decadence with a jacked physique. Returning for a moment to the legacy of historical fascism, it’s worth noting that masculinist aesthetic is inclusive of male sexuality, so long as men are manly; what is repressed is the feminine, whose every manifestation is regarded as obscene. Mighty feminist and philosopher of love, bell hooks, addresses our mass cultural delusion under this representational system with her formidable strength of plain speaking: “How can any girl sustain the belief that she is loved, truly loved, when all around her she sees that femaleness is despised?”4 Though they may appear abnormal, Benaroya’s female figures are clearly liberated from anxious self-abnegation. Rather than engineering smallness for themselves (as all too many girls learn to do), their principal objective is to become big—a compelling visual strategy, one must admit, for announcing positive value.
“The communion in love our souls seek is the most heroic and divine quest any human can take,” bell hooks writes. “We long to be loved and we long to be free.”5 The heroic theme—not usually privileged in feminist discourse, to say the least—enjoys an unmistakable presence in Benaroya’s work. Like many boys before her, the artist was initiated into creative practice by the eminently accessible aesthetics of superhero comics, which visually condense narrative and psychological depth in male figures superabundant of muscular flesh. Regarding the graphic genius of a woman, I cannot but ask: How does it feel to see a female hero fully fleshed-out, in that sense? Faced by she who champions romantic yearning, does anyone turn away with a blush?
Psychologists have identified shame as an innate human affect embodied by averting one’s eyes while lowering the head.6 Significantly, if unsurprisingly, this is the same pose endlessly repeated in images of women circulating under the gaze of men. By contrast, the idea of the female gaze proposes a ‘shameless’ subject—as least inasmuch as she is free to look anywhere (and it is our shameless desire to see women do as they please). As I imagine Benaroya herself in a downturned posture, deeply focused on page and board, I wonder at how the embodiment called ‘shame’ might lower one all the way down into bottomless, visionary imagination, to self-display in the shadow world.
By self-display, I don’t mean self-portraiture, of course. But I do believe the soul speaks in images. Consider the realm of dreaming: every dreamer knows there is an underworld of images where visuality per se, untethered from the tangible, tantalizes our daylight consciousness with the apparent significance of forms. What meaning does this immaterial experience hold for us? From the perspective of the image, sovereign of our imaginative lives, observance of the daylight world really begins at night—which is to say, regarding image-making, the shadow is the reason for the form.
The closest witness of any body is its shadow. I love those surprising moments in Benaroya’s work where shadows are drawn like aroused projections of the body’s own ghost. In such places one can clearly see an erotics of the shadow developing; in other places, the shadow lays rather like a healthy coat of fur—the pride of any tomboy, her bearskin.7 We respect a bear because she knows why she acts as she does, and we ask her no questions. Likewise, there is no problem of authority for these figures about whom one could say, “the more one realizes of one’s own shadow, the more one gets condensed and thus unapproachable—knowledge of one’s dark side serves as a protection.”8
Despite bearing similar impulses, the erotics of Karl Wirsum’s drawings have a very different flavor. Sharp vectors of contrast stitch together acerbic patterns of the feminine mold. Stylized to the point of abstraction, these figures have an iconic presence, unreal yet vividly compelling. Their contours appear to crumple, deliquesce and re-solidify unpredictably, like plastic action figures melted under summer sun. On stark notebook pages, Wirsum’s drawings seem to possess the figure-hood of playthings—and they are unmistakably grotesque, like many plastic, masculine dolls: stiff-jointed and ready to be repositioned; unconscious but somehow, inventively, alive.
Another curious instance of animacy is the hairy puff of smoke that curls and drags throughout Benaroya’s work, accompanying her heroes like companions on a legendary adventure. As a symbol for externalized conditions of the body, I think this smoke is a phenomenal visual conceit: what might have become verbal gets vaporized, but puffed in a way like the heroic physique—more stuff of fanciful form. In the comic cloud of cigarette smoke, it is as if invisible desires and psychic conditions are getting gassed to be seen.
Perceiving and becoming visible are ecstasies beyond words, beside meaning: with respect to the aesthetic realm, such is the very means and ends of life. Indeed, as recorded in the history of words ether and aesthetic, ‘to breathe’ and ‘to perceive’ were once intimately linked in ancient thought. Parting a curtain of creative fantasy, these artists invite us to perceive something new as if it had always been there. By becoming graphic, however, the artist’s desire does not seek decoding; to become visually undeniable is all the image wants (and in this, it is outrageously sincere). Stuffed with forms perfected by repetition, these images look as though they have known themselves for centuries. As for desire, perhaps it had always been there, filling the air—we just didn’t know what we were seeing.
1. From a lecture given by Guston at the University of Minnesota, March 1978; qtd. in Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston (Munich: Sieveking Verlag, 2016), 100.
2. Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 156.
3. Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2014), 64.
4. bell hooks, Communion: The Female Search for Love (New York: First Perennial, 2003), xiii.
5. hooks, Communion, xviii.
6. See Silvan Tomkins, Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995).
7. In The Feminine in Fairy Tales (Boulder: Shambhala, 1993), Marie-Louise von Franz elaborates on an idyllic ancient Greek “cult of the goddess Artemis of Brauron, who was a bear goddess. Young girls of good families were given to serve the goddess from their twelfth to sixteenth year. In the awkward times when girls are just as difficult to keep at home as boys… they behaved like tomboys—neither washed nor cared for themselves in any way, spoke roughly, and were called bear cubs. Thus… the feminine personality could develop unharmed by the problem of sexuality and go into life with a certain amount of maturity, gained in security under the bearskin.” Characteristically, the author—a psychoanalyst—then offers this observation: “Particularly if girls have a rather delicate, feminine nature underneath do they hide it behind tomboy manners” (61-62).
8. Marie-Louise von Franz, The Feminine in Fairy Tales, 203.