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X-pression: sex and sexuality in art

Part 1: the sexual act

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Paul McCarthy

Blockhead drawing, 2000 / The Garden, 1991-2

Paul McCarthy - sex in art
Image courtesy of MOMA

Sex - or at least an implication of it - is one of several constants in McCarthy's work.

His sketches abound with scribbled genitalia, often positioned where they shouldn't be - a penis in place of a nose, a scrotum as an absurd hat.

McCarthy's sculptures and installations are similarly replete with sexual imagery, and his performances, above all, seem orgiastic in every sense - a riot of drooling, gorging, shitting, mutilation and frenzied dry-humping.

It's little wonder, then, that his work is usually seen as a commentary on desire - not only sexual, but the kind of primal, ungoverned urges elemental to the human psyche.

McCarthy's point is that such instincts are ultimately controlled by agents other than ourselves: socially conditioned; culturally diluted; or quite simply exploited, with our needs, wants and desires channelled into an insatiable urge to consume.

 

Paul McCarthy - the Garden (detail)
Images © Paul McCarthy

Nevertheless, McCarthy's depiction of the dionysiac is largely metaphorical, with strictly self-imposed limits.

There is never any real sex or violence in his performances; instead, food staples such as ketchup, chocolate sauce and mayonnaise stand in for blood, shit, snot and sperm - an ever-present reminder of the ugly nature of consumerism itself.

The containers for these foodstuffs can prove useful, too, for as McCarthy has noted:

"A mayonnaise jar as an orifice brings into the equation something that the human body cannot - it's about consumption, the act of buying, and fetish."

McCarthy's artistic stance is highly individual, and his use of sexual imagery far from conventionally erotic.

Rather than attempt to analyse human sexuality, he places it alongside all the grotesque exaggerations that make up his chaotic universe - collectively a reminder that even our most fundamental instincts are relentlessly processed by the world around us.

Limited editions by Paul McCarthy

 

Jeff Burton

Jeff Burton: sex and the erotic in contemporary art

Although Jeff Burton's photographs leave almost everything to the imagination, they are records of an industry that certainly does not.

Taken on the sets of porn movies, Burton's images cleverly play with the idea of the explicit.

Although the artist frames them so that sex is only ever suggested, it is, of course, taking place beyond the margins of his compositions.

As with many of the works featured here, completing the picture involves viewers in the act of imaginatively providing sexual content which the artist has only implied. It's a tactic that not only absolves the artist of accusations of obscenity, but seriously questions the notion that we may require 'protection' from portrayals of sex.

On another level, however, Burton's photographs frequently serve to deflate the atmosphere of intense fantasy that adult movies attempt to create.

Focusing on details such as sweating actors, discarded underwear or lunch-break sandwiches, mundane reality is brought emphatically to the fore.

sex in contemporary art: Jeff Burton
Images © Jeff Burton

Moreover, the presence of the movie set reminds us of the highly paradoxical nature of sex in commercial pornography: while genuine, it is also highly artificial, directed, edited, and performed by actors.

Burton's images are beautiful artworks, photographs which, like those of Mapplethorpe and Serrano, reveal considerable attention to formal concerns such as composition and colour.

While keeping the explicit firmly under wraps, these records of a very specific sexual reality are eminently desirable.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe

The X Portfolio, 1978

Robert Mapplethorpe - sexuality in art

In 1978 Mapplethorpe published the infamous X Portfolio, a limited edition series of photographic prints depicting homo-erotic and S&M sex.

Unlike Jeff Burton's images (above) they leave little to the imagination, and shortly after the artist's death in 1989, these and other images led to an infamous obscenity trial and furious debate in the American Congress as to whether Mapplethorpe's work should be considered art or pornography.

His practice was not unique in its depiction of sex, but certainly pioneering in its emphasis on alternative sexualities. Prejudice undoubtedly played a part in its specific vilification, but interest in the trial and focus on his work also instigated closer examination of obscenity laws as well as greater awareness of sexual diversity.

 

Robert Mapplethorpe
Images © Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe

Since the '80s, the ubiquity of the internet and easy access to adult materials has probably had the greatest impact on more liberal attitudes to sex and sexuality. Ironically, however, it is also partly responsible for a recent, noteable shift regarding the nature of what is assumed to be obscene - a development in which, again, Mapplethorpe's work is implicated.

The artist was often commissioned by friends or society figures to take portraits of their children. Sometimes they were photographed nude or partially clothed, and two such images were among those targeted by the 1990 obscenity trial.

In both cases, the parents of the children stated their complete approval, but today, of all Mapplethorpe's images, his nude studies of children are among the most likely to arouse condemnation, a growing trend which has already had repercussions on the work of leading artists such as Nan Goldin.

Nevertheless, if Mapplethorpe's work has attracted more than its fair share of controversy, notoriety has never outweighed the extent of his artistic achievements.

His practice was extremely diverse, ranging from society portraits to mixed-media sculpture and floral still lifes. Yet whatever the subject, Mapplethorpe's photography was consistently rigorous in style and composition, imbued with uncompromising sensuality.

His legacy remains one of the great artistic and political icons of the late twentieth century.

 
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