A gay artist, even historically, isn't that hard to come by. Between the Michelangelos and the Warhols and, heck, the Cukors and Sondheims and Diors, we’re not that unfamiliar with top billing. But artists who are explicit about their sexuality are much rarer, and few artists were as explicit as Bob Mizer and Touko Laaksonen. The former, a photographer and publisher was best known for his posing-strapped photos in his magazine, Physique Pictorial, and the latter, as Tom of Finland, for the drawings that were first published in the magazine’s pages. Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland, at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, is the first American museum exhibition dedicated to two LA-based artists and runs until January 2014.
This past weekend John Parot's site-specific solo exhibition, Endless Stare, opened in the coastal town of Del Mar, a few miles north of San Diego. Parot's visually arresting, colorful drawings, sculpture, and collage draw heavily on the work of Bob and Tom, as both influence and source material. We caught up with LA-based artist after a party at the Tom of Finland Foundation (a private house in Echo Park) to talk about the groundbreaking exhibition, and why their work still resonates today.
Mike Stabile: Where'd you first come across Bob and Tom?
John Parot: Well, I was growing up in the suburbs of the Chicago, and I was a bored teenager and we'd always go to these flea markets. We were arty kids in the mid-'80s and we were always looking for things that were, you know, '60s psychedelic. We were obsessed with rock & roll and Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground. The flea markets were a cheap thrill, because you could buy pornography there too, you know, Playboys and Playgirls from the '70s. They didn't care who they were selling it to, they were making a sale. And I remember seeing these Physique Pictorials, and they were cheap. The dealer wanted to get rid of them. And I bought him out.
Did you get them more for Bob or Tom, do you think? Bob Mizer always has left me a little cold. I don’t get the same visceral reaction I do from Tom of Finland. It always seemed campy…but as art? It's on par with I Dream of Jeanie. But you seem much more into Bob, so I’m curious.
Well, at first, Physique Pictorial was just a way for me to get to see Tom of Finland drawings. I'd never seen drawing like that. The technique, the style. I've been drawing since I was eight, and I'd never seen anything like that! The photographs that Mizer took were more or less like random beefcake photos. And when I saw the magazine, I just thought, you know, Oh, this is just the beefcake photography that was going on at the time. But then I started finding the 4-by-6s [the photos], and looking at the text, and reading about him and I thought the feat of doing this magazine was amazing. There's also something about him being a working artist, trying to get things done, that I really connected to.
And I think about the man, Bob Mizer—wanting to connect with these boys. And as an artist, it's always about wanting to connect. Some of the narratives are a little campy, a little out of control, but some are completely beautiful. You know, the Mizer photographs are so powerful that it prompted David Hockney to move from England to L.A. They're very much about what it's like to be a gay artist living in L.A. in the '60s, and I love that. You can see his process: "Oh, I'm at the hardware store and there are these concrete blocks that I could use as a background"; "Oh, I wonder if I could rent a monkey for an afternoon?"
You can see his mind working, you know, and that's what excites me. With Tom of Finland, it's all about the technique—but you know what you're going to get. With Bob [laughs], you never know. There was a whole series in the show where the men are in occupying a space station. Gays in space? Nudity in space? It may not be the most successful series in the bunch, but you can see the artist's choices.
"Libramoon" by John Parot
And because he's imperfect you're getting a sense of the man. Whereas Tom of Finland, the man, might have been different from the artist. He could have been a nelly queen, but you can't really tell from the art. Even at the Tom of Finland Foundation, there's that bedroom of his with the drafting table but everything is so Tom. There’s the uniform and the black and white bedspread. It’s so on-brand. You kind of want to see an Agatha Christie novel or some quilt that doesn't go.
Tom of Finland always makes me what me to know more. He's a mystery. It's like Bruce of LA, where it's always about the controlled environment. "How can we make this boy look absolutely amazing?" He really put his models on a pedestal. He wanted them to be icons and adored. With Bob, you look at some of the photos, and [laughs again] you think "Oh, he's trying to do something …"
With Bob, if there's masculine drag involved, he's not really passing.
Exactly. And I think that's why I'm more attracted to his photography. I think there's something to learn from his work. Because he did it for such a long time. As an artist, I can relate to Bob a lot more. I have no idea about Tom of Finland's personal life or struggles with being an artist. He looks like he’s having a great time. Whereas with Bob Mizer and Bruce of L.A.? They were working. Poor Bob was taking a picture of anyone who walked through the door, you know, sometimes having to polish a turd. "Oh, this is who I got today? Please. Oh-kay. Get on the horse. Put the sailor suit on. Let's see what we can do."
You can tell when you look at the magazine, it’s definitely more ramshackle. It’s less of a complete gay image, which is charming. Because we all know people in the gay community who don’t want you to see anything that’s less than perfect, who don’t want you to see the man behind the curtain. Which is a different version of the closet.
You get the sense at Tom’s house that they want him to live up to the myth. And any artist knows that it’s not the real case. We may never get to know the real Tom of Finland. Maybe they don’t want you to. I think you saw that at the opening of the show. They were all these people dressed up like one of Tom’s characters. But Bob, you know, there’s a lot of artifice but he’s not caught up in all that masculinity. I think that’s very compelling both as an artist and a gay man.
So how does that affect what you do? Because you're taking these images they've created and re appropriating them.
Well, I think that with my work, and with Endless Stare, it’s about the every day gay things that really inspire me. You know people would buy the magazines and keep them, and leer at the images. And this installation is about that phenomenon. I want to recognize the things in our culture and in our history that don’t change … and staring is one of them.
Endless Stare, at the HELM Solo Art Exhibition, 1660 Lugano Lane, Del Mar, Calif. JohnParot.com