“Lipstick marks on pint beer mugs
And love bites on the neck
Take me in your back room
And you pay for what you get
Diana Dors all washed up
Dolores Del Rio
Hanging round the lowlife dives
And other zombie go-go’s”
–Marc and the Mamba’s ‘Sleaze’
In Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, Certeau draws the comparison between city walkers and voyeurs. He writes, “To what erotics of knowledge does the ecstasy of reading such a cosmos belong? Having taken voluptuous pleasure in it, I wonder what is the source of this pleasure…” (92). While here Certeau speaks of gazing at the city from above, his description of an “erotics of knowledge” could also delineate strolling through the sleazy façades of red light districts.
This voyeuristic pleasure was mirrored by Danish artist Tal R in his recent exhibition Keyhole at Cheim & Read, which closed last Saturday, February 11. While I typically avoid writing about shows that closed on Filthy Dreams, I’m making an exception for Keyhole since I stumbled on it unexpectedly in one of its last days (when visiting the concurrent Louise Bourgeois Holograms). I mean, as a harbinger of all things filthy, I just can’t let Tal R’s formalist investigations of sex clubs, strip clubs, porn shops, gay bars and porn theater façades go. I’ve professed my love of these lurid façades previously on Filthy Dreams so this exhibition falls right in line.
Keyhole consisted of two bodies of work–small, intimate drawings and larger paintings, which transform these sordid clubs into near heroic gestures. With names like “Sex Palace” or “Book XXX,” these businesses are clearly erotic, but their façades, as depicted by Tal R, don’t bely the universe of perversity inside. Instead, both the drawings and the paintings feature large blocks of vibrant colors, reminiscent of Matisse’s flat swaths of bright color. Even when monochromatic as in the painting L’Evasion, geometry, in the form of block grids, takes precedence over depraved subject matter. With this formalist interest, the sex establishment façades appear kind of sweet and sentimental–two descriptors not normally attributed to sex clubs.
For his part, Tal R seems to see his choice in subject matter as a coy means to launch a more conservative investigation into architecture and form. In an interview with Hyperallergic Weekend’s ongoing series Beer With A Painter’s Jennifer Samet, Tal R brushes off an explanation for his focus on sex businesses. Responding to a question on subject matter, Tal R said, “The sex club is just an entrance. What I like about depicting sex clubs is that you get people on the dance floor. You get people into watching. I need to throw something at people, to set up expectations, and start talking to people. If you were to just say, “façades,” that is not interesting. But if I say it is a sex shop, people are interested.”
This almost cynical explanation of his show’s focus as an artistic marketing scheme seems, at least to me, to be a diversion. Despite his own assertion, the subject matter does matter in Keyhole. Sex clubs, gay bars, porno theaters and shops are essential spaces, particularly for non-normative identities. When read in conjunction with the importance of these businesses for queer individuals, Tal R’s paintings and drawings take on a more sociopolitical meaning.
This becomes even more important when considering the disappearance of these businesses in many cities like New York, especially during the reign of Mayor (now Trump apologist) Rudy Giuliani. While Tal R’s sources are culled from photographs taken by the artist and his friends of many red light districts around the world, I’d bet many of these businesses are dying there too. In his seminal Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany describes the slow disintegration of Times Square’s sex industry. He writes, “The nostalgic approach sees all these silent red and green and purple window gates, these dead and wordless movie marquees, as an end of an era” (13). And, in some respects, these businesses are from a previous era. They’re much more a part of the 20th century than the 21st, when eroticism moved onto the Internet and our smartphones. I mean, who needs a peep show when you have Grindr?
But, what is the exact significance of these erotic bookstores, clubs and movie theaters? In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany explains the relational power of the Times Square porn theaters in the wake of the Disney-fication of Times Square. For Delany, these movie theaters, though sticky and filthy, provided a not-so-secretive location for queer desire, often transcending markers of class, race and ethnicity. “Were porn theaters romantic?” Delany observes, “Not at all. But because of the people who used them, they were humane and functional, fulfilling needs that most of our society does not yet know how to acknowledge” (90).
And yet, Tal R’s paintings and drawings in Keyhole don’t give any indication of the action happening inside these storefronts. Instead, they’re almost blank with the exception of a sign or maybe a silhouette of a woman on a pole. They rely, like many queer businesses throughout history, on coded signs and symbols for prospective patrons. Even though it may seem strange and paradoxical, this non-aesthetic is an aesthetic in itself, which is explored in Quinn Miller’s essay “Queer Exteriors: Transgender Aesthetics in Early Gay and Lesbian Advertising.”
Part of the collection Transgender Migrations: The Bodies, Borders, and Politics of Transition, Miller’s essay connects the aesthetics of gay and lesbian businesses (namely, bars, clubs and bookstores) with trans aesthetics. While this argument is sometimes hard to wrap your head around, the most important aspect of their essay, at least in the context of Keyhole, is the analysis of gay and lesbian storefronts. As Miller writes of advertisements in LGBT mid-century publications, “these advertising images produced a powerful aura around ‘queer exteriors’–representations of places and bodies that endow their surfaces, or relative absence or ambiguity of identifying marks.”
Similar to Miller’s description of these queer exteriors, Tal R’s artistic exteriors are also nearly absent of identifying markers. But even some of these signs like Tel Aviv’s sex store “Snow” are so vague that few would guess their prospective clientele. Certain paintings push this ambiguity even further as seen in Cabaret Closed. On first glance, the painting just looks like a color-strewn abstraction. But, on closer inspection, Tal R emblazons the bottom of the painting with “Cabaret” in looped cursive lettering, indicating the striped central panel is a closed riot gate.
However, this enigmatic façade, as indicated by Miller, is, in fact, a fallacy. Miller describes this as an “anti-look,” which is a “reflection of erotic tastes and sexual scene setting.” Even though its intent seems hidden, it’s not–at least for those “in the know.” As Miller writes, “Businesses that may appear to have been hidden, based on their location and lack of signage, were often furtive in a familiar way, with their familiarity hinging on an apparent secrecy. In the context of a social network of familiarly “furtive” buildings and openly circulated addresses, the nondescript building façade was provocatively emblematic of a set of social relations to which some people were privy and others oblivious. At the time, a building façade with a shadowy entryway in a desolate landscape produced a special sense of mystery about who might congregate inside, how they might be gendered and what they might want sexually, which made the place more alluring, positioning its interior in a productive and poetic relationship with its exterior.” This lack of an aesthetic was in fact a coded reference for prospective clients.
Similarly, Tal R’s paintings and drawings in Keyhole are a form of foreplay, hinting at a world of pleasure inside. In Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, John Howard reveals, “Queer locations generated speculation and intrigue. Though purposefully removed, they nonetheless fostered curiosity and fascination, for those both likely and unlikely to enter” (96).
The installation in Cheim & Read with façade after façade of clubs, bars, shops and theaters gives the feeling of strolling through a red light district like a flâneur, floating among the sleaze. But, like Howard’s observation, speculation, intrigue, curiosity and fascination all harken back to the title of the exhibition–Keyhole. Like peering through a peephole (or a peep show), the viewer in Keyhole transforms into a voyeur, desperately seeking to transcend and go beyond façade. Instead, they are given nothing.
In Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, he refers to the temporary and imprecise nature of the memories of erotic encounters within the porn theaters of Times Square. “I often thought about taking photographs in the movies. But I never did,” he writes, “Verbal accounts such as this are what remain” (36). Like the imperfect memories of the queer desire within the Times Square porn theater, Tal R’s paintings preserve only the vague memory of desire and a gnawing curiosity.