Diesel & The Community

In Paris and the Venice Biennale, the sex-positive universe of Tom of Finland

Durk Dehner in conversation with Dan Thawley

Untitled, Tom of Finland (1989)

The legendary figure Tom of Finland is a veritable poster boy for the rise and rise of LGBTQIA+ culture across the 20th century. Alongside his partner Durk Dehner, the Finnish artist co-founded the Tom of Finland Foundation in 1984 to preserve and promote the legacy of his homoerotic body of work, which consists of thousands of pieces of ephemera from original gouaches and graphite sketches, to printed matter and merch. Leaving Finland and its post-World War II conservatism behind, Tom found solace in the burgeoning gay community on the West Coast of America in the 1970s — a group that embraced hyper-masculinity in reaction to the discriminatory societal views of the time. His either suggestive or openly pornographic sketches inspired generations of artists to explore homoerotic themes and redefine the perception of gay men and women in wider society, leading to an extensive permanent collection amassed over 30+ years by the Tom of Finland Foundation.

For the first time outside of Los Angeles, the Tom of Finland Foundation has curated a public exhibition that unites Tom’s work with the foundation’s own collection, to form the group show AllTogether produced in conjunction with French arts centre The Community and supported by Diesel and its creative director Glenn Martens. The extensive group show is presented in two iterations: the first opened at Studio Cannaregio in Venice on April 23rd, coinciding with the inauguration of 2022 Venice Art Biennale, and the second in Paris at The Community Centre on May 8th. Both exhibitions run simultaneously through June 26, 2022.

A limited edition Diesel x Tom of Finland capsule collection in honour of Pride 2022 is now available at Diesel.com featuring works by Silvia Prada, Florian Hetz, Palanca, Peter Berlin, Michael Kirwan, Tank (Paul Tankersley) and Heather Benjamin.

Untitled, Florian Hetz (2017)

Happy Bottom, Marcel Alcalá (2019)

Untitled (preparatory for finished drawing 81.23), Tom of Finland (1981)

Untitled, Bob Mizer (1960)

Preludio, George Quaintance (1950)

Page 10 from TOM, Silvia Prada (2017)

Tit Print, Annie Sprinkle (1993)

Untitled, Goh Mishima (1980)

Dan Thawley: How does it feel to show this work in Europe for the first time?

Durk Dehner: This is the first time that we have been able to mount an exhibition from our permanent collection and present it to the world. That in itself is very, very rewarding. Tom and I dreamt about this, that one day, if things were right, our family of friends would be able to be shown to the wider audience of the world. And it has come to be. Today has taken a long time, but it’s happened, and so that’s really a remarkable thing.

DT: Do you think it’s a testament to the way that the world has changed since Tom passed away? Do you think when he was alive, he could have ever imagined showing at the Venice Biennale amongst the sculptures and palazzos and all of this incredible, rich yet heteronormative history of art?

DD: You know, he didn’t say it about Venice, but he said that about the Louvre. “If society comes to accept gays loving each other, then maybe I might be able to get a little side room in the Louvre.”

DT: At the show in Venice, starting from the bulging depiction of David, there’s a lineage that just goes on and on and on. It’s become more extreme, it’s become cartoon, it’s become everything. You see how we can go from this quaint needle point work to the biggest phallus in the room. Are you having a good time witnessing all of this?

DD: I’m having a wonderful time and it’s really special. It’s been a long journey with COVID and we had to put so many things on hold, but I’m so proud. The German artist who did this piece here, The Orange Tree, his name is Renaldo Hoff and he’s going to come tonight. He’s going to be able to see his work presented, you know, I mean he’s a working artist, he sells a lot of work here, but it’s a pleasure for him to be able to see himself.

Here Cums the Aussie, Bastille (1983)

Penis Angles Ghost Drawings, Emma Kohlmann (2019)

Rope, Etienne (1981)

He Also Serves Who Only Stands and Waits, Marcello Lupetti (1998)

Self-Portrait Shirtless, Peter Berlin (1979)

Untitled, Tom of Finland (1978)

Untitled (preparatory for finished drawing 81.23), Tom of Finland (1981)

Finally, Michael Kirwan (2012)

DT: Aside from the fact that Diesel and Glenn Martens have supported this exhibition, with The Community co-curating it, what are your thoughts on young people, and in particular a fashion house, supporting your work?

DD: They’re bringing visibility to new audiences and realising that gay people have always integrated sex positivity and sexuality together. It’s really an opportunity for us to share our merits and our work with a bigger audience, and for them to actually realise they can relax and enjoy and experience sexuality in the visual arts, in clothing, in the way that they can be.

DT: On the same trip to Los Angeles where I visited the Tom of Finland house, I also saw Bob Mizer’s Ambition exhibition at M+B Photo. I’m very interested in that space where guys like Tom and Bob were assimilating their work into other spaces. The imagery was so blatantly suggestive in itself yet at that time being published in magazines that were considered to be men’s sporting periodicals. It’s such an interesting crossroads, when you think about how they were pushing at those boundaries in such a strong way without ever crossing them. It’s interesting for me to understand that narrative arc of the work.

DD: Really what Tom did was steal from hetero-society all of these imageries, and he gave them to the gay boys as a fatherly thing to help raise them. They took it, they grabbed it and they moved with it. They grew up and became well-adjusted gay men and gay women, too. It wasn’t limited to one sex as gay women became a huge fan base. It empowered them, and it continues to empower.

DT: Even if you look at the selection in these twin exhibitions, you cross into the non-binary space here with some of the artists as well, which is so important because it also shows how much has developed from Tom’s original aesthetic to something that still encapsulates that, yet goes into different places as well. Marcel Alcalá, for example, who is an incredible artist but whose work doesn’t fit into that original aesthetic.

DD: He came to the well, dipped into the well, drank from the well and then he created his work. That’s the foundation and the essence of taking from Tom, that kind of self assurance that artists don’t feel like they have to limit themselves. As opposed to being a dusty old place, it’s really a celebration we have of these present day artists.

Exhibition view, Studio Cannaregio Venice

Participating artists: A. J. Epstein, Al Urban, Andre, Annie Sprinke, Attila Richard Lukacs, Aurélien Nobécourt-Arras, Bastille, Benôit Prévot, Bob Mizer, Bruce Rapp, Carrington Galen, Chris Johnson, Dave Pibel, Domino, Don Bachardy, E.M.A. Studio, Emma Kohlmann, Etienne, Florian Hetz, George Quaintance, Gio Black Peter, Goh Mishima, Gregory Maskwa, Heather Benjamin, Hector Silva, Hiroshi Shimoyama, Jay Jorgensen, Jean Ferraro, Jess Scott, Jim French, Jim Shaw, John Waters, Johnny Smith, Kenny Knutson, Kenneth Anger, Link, Marcel Alcalá, Marcello Lupetti, Matt Lambert, Michael Kirwan, Michael Reynolds, & Martyn Thompson, Michel Laguerre, Miguel Angel Reyes, Mike Kuchar, Minoru, Mr Gruts, Nigel Kent, Olaf, Orsen, Palanca, Patrick Lee, Peter Berlin, Philip Core, Phuc Le, R. Daniel Foster, Rex, Rick Castro, Rinaldo Hopf, Rob Clarke, Sal Salandra, Seth Bogart, Sheree Rose, Silvia Prada, Simon Haas, Slava Mogutin, Stanley Stellar, Steven Reigns, Stuart Sandford, Sultan, Susanna Luoto, Suzanne Shifflett, Tank, Teddy of Paris, The Hun, Tom of Finland, Valentine, Victor Arimondi, Viktoria Raykova, Xavier Gicquel

AllTogether is on show at Studio Cannaregio, Venice & The Community Centre, Paris until June 26, 2022.

Interview by Dan Thawley edited by Albert Shyong. 

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