Updated: Jun 9
Wired up with Diane Komater Feb-Mar 2023
By Malcolm Ryder
Are we over-exposed? Not in the highly sex-positive Bay Area of California, where erotica is not even taboo anymore.
But the notion of erotica can still have a special influence, either if it presumes to identify something even more exclusive than before, or because some audiences still haven’t really bought into x-rated material being “business as usual”. Either way, the more erotica that is easily available, the more variety it has, and the more likely that each person brings their own luggage to each encounter and unpacks it right on the spot.
Erotica’s high availability is a certainty. The internet has completed what pulp fiction and cable TV did earlier to blow the covers off its market and suppliers.
That seller's market includes lots of ways of legitimizing erotica's consumption, and in turn, that brings attention to whether producing it gets tailored specifically to the rationale permitting its use.
Spiritual leaders, professors, and new age healers all supply.
And of course let’s not forget Art. The dictionary definition of erotica invariably tells us to go find it in works of "literature or art"... Pre-Columbian craftsmen oblige, as does today’s Kara Walker.
So if erotica isn’t really taboo anymore, being neither prohibited nor restricted, then where’s the excitement in it? And how does X-rated art generate excitement?
Getting it to work
The key, I think, is still in separation -- in whatever is done to create distance between the desiring (you) and the desired.
In language, distance is the difference between what is said and what is referred to. The thing you read or hear – the utterance-- stands for something else – an idea -- and you think you know what that other thing is.
In pictures, standing for something else is again the trick. The item in hand is an index (pointer), an icon (likeness), or a symbol (code) for the other thing.
In visual art's form, that distance is going to be created through the difference that is evident between the fogging or sweating allure of immediately present “real” flesh -- and the artwork’s tangible material; visual appearance, or message.
Oxford Art online describes Kara Walker's work in a way that addresses this distance:
"“Walker initially seduces viewers with a polite, delicate, and feminine veneer; she compared the technique of silhouettes to the nature of stereotypes themselves, in which the complexities of an individual or situation are reduced and simplified into easily identifiable forms. As all figures are depicted in black or in shadows, racial identity can only be approximated by their profile or actions. As a result, viewers create their own narrative, thus implicating themselves in the creation and perpetuation of these stereotypes.”
The Artnet article, Keith Haring’s Art Has a Secret Language, identifies the way he plays with likeness and code:
"In Haring’s work, his fundamental message was one of devout humanism and love. Take his recurring embrace, which is often between two genderless and race-less figures, who are glowing as they hold each other."
I compare Walker and Haring here to show that works by both are iconic, but are nonetheless interpreted as experiences beyond what they are similar to. Pursuing the viewer's interest, Walker's icons also give us indices, while Haring's icons also give us symbols.
The abstraction that creates icons separates their appearance from their literal references but it still involves the viewer.
Taboo for You?
Iconography brings up the subject, but meaning relies on more. As eroticism, the work is going to have the intent to invoke desire. What seems unavoidable, with eroticism, is that as audiences we want desire and bring that with us to the works. When we arrive, the works remind us of that, but there is still separation, distancing.
The erotic artist knows this, but the table stakes to play have been raised. In our now very leaky world of things slipping across the line of permitted or not permitted, maintaining the "naughty" requires more than a line; it requires a container.
The container can be physical or psychological, and in fact a physical container can represent a psychological one.
There is “space” within the container, and that space can of course be literal but is an analog of the room for imagination, aspiration, or other emotional uppers.
And what goes in it? Explicit imagery, after all, is of course known for not leaving much to the imagination.
But one of the juiciest ways to enjoy a taboo is to watch someone making the taboo thing.
The making is itself seductive. Seduction still features heavily on the forbidden side of the line between tabooed and not tabooed.
That leads us to an up-to-date formula – to recover taboo's thrill we need the seduction to be in a container. But what will the container be? A theater? A tableau? A sculpture? An outline?
Space is the Place
We're pretty familiar already with "containers" that enhance experience, even if the reason why that works has receded almost entirely into our subconscious. The influence of the container is so strong that even in commercial arenas we find that we're given the choice to have them or not.
Whatever is in the container is interacting with it, and that interaction may or may not be wanted as part of our desired experience.
The Saks 5th Avenue Ballerina is made more precious by the protection it has in the bell jar. The clustered figures of the Kama Sutra 10 DXF File sexual positions from CNC Industrial's Laser Cut Plasma let us decide, with framing, whether we appreciate the positions more as daring or as willing...
One perspective that I have on the images made by Diane Komater is technical -- it involves the idea that a sculpture generates the sense of space around itself that is imaginatively activated, so its “container” is virtual, not necessarily seen. We think of it as a “sphere of influence” making us sensitive to how the work makes us feel about being in the space.
But with her example below, outlined multiple forms are all about the space between them, and the intensity of that little space. Meanwhile, the outlining,– namely drawing – pulls us as viewers into following along the process of rendering the forms, just as we follow along a musical melody to get to a full grasp of its shape.
We’re seduced; we experience the making of the thing that is taboo and yet within reach.
Komater's handling of wire is her way of sculpting by drawing.
In Komater's pieces, following her drawing already animates the sculptural form. But in some pieces, the container is drawn as well, as a stage, curtains fully open, the iconic gestures in the stage space exposed to us and animating it. We aren’t in it, except that even outside of it we share the space imaginatively, and we feel the process of creating it too.
Her piece represents an event, and that representation has only one purpose, to have us at least imagine being part of what’s going on. So we get to say, with a lot of conviction, that the presentation is essentially "recreational" – but included in it as meaning is experiencing joy. It's an imaginary experience – the icons outlining forms of coupling, and those forms flashing what we dare to hope for.
The Chapel of Love
Komater's show, X-Rated, starts out with the advantage of being in UMA Gallery, a building whose biggest offering is a chapel. It advertises its offerings as “odd art in an old mortuary.” As the host for the work, UMA flaunts the unexpected; and adds important distancing to our encounter with the work. But UMA's calling card is its attitude – a grand sort of permissiveness, at least in the interest of just seeing what will happen.
In a conversation I had with Komater, the thing that stood out most to me is the breadth of her view on how we relate to sexuality. Both her critique of that and her indulgence in it makes her work generous and multi-purpose – but like looking in mirrors, holding pictures of ourselves. She finds humor in our condition, but in being explicit keeps us from hiding, or hiding from, whatever is really in our minds.
Comically, she also established that in some works of erotica, size does matter. As you can see in the above pictures with no measurements given, the scalability of her technique is very large. That makes her decisions about size – including smaller sizes – strategic, a strong determinant of whether we get the feeling of being "invited in" by the work. The best way to see if she is right is to go to UMA Gallery and get in front of the pieces yourself.