TOM OF FINLAND
by Evan Moffitt
David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles
Published in Gayletter, February 2015
Tom of Finland, born Tuoko Laaksonen in 1920, was the granddaddy of modern gay culture. His fetishes and fantasies, inked on paper and seen around the world, reconceptualized what it meant to be a gay man. A series of his drawings spanning 15 years are on view in the inaugural show of David Kordansky’s new space, and it’s interesting to see pornographic works made for back bedrooms and underground gay bars in the clean white cube of a contemporary art gallery. How times have changed.
Tom’s wartime experiences furnished him with the visual vocabulary of hypermasculinity. The show’s earliest works, completed in 1944 when Tom was serving in the Finnish Army, depict military men wearing butt-hugging riding pants in explicit sexual trysts. They’re a testament to Tom’s bravery and openness in a severely homophobic time, when drawing gay sex privately could have landed him in prison. Other graphite drawings show sailors, cowboys, and motorcycle studs with ballooning muscles and impossibly large cocks. In many the only “sexual” contact is passed off as locker room fun or friendly roughhousing, probably because the images were made for circulation and had to pass European censors. But the figures are beautifully detailed, each bronzed hunk glistening under imagined sunlight, further evidence of Tom’s expert draftsmanship. By 1972, Tom proudly defied censorship with Kake (pronounced Kah-keh), his leatherdaddy alter-ego, who appears in a comic strip storyboard called T.V. Repair, a centerpiece of the show. Kake lures a hunky TV repairman over by unplugging his set and, well…you can imagine what happens next.
Tom’s characters created a new gay culture that queered the masculine codes of straight society and made it possible for men to feel like men while loving other men. His masculine archetypes liberated gay men from homophobia, giving them confidence in a world that stripped them of it. After Stonewall, city streets around the world were packed with Tom’s sailors, athletes, and leather daddies. A new culture had been born.