Review: Fun to be had in works of Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland

Review: Fun to be had in works of Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland
Tom of Finland's "Untitled" (from "Circus" series), pencil on paper. (Museum of Contemporary Art)

Soft-core pornography has been a staple of Western art since at least 1538, when Titian finished his lusciously naked "Venus of Urbino" reclining seductively on a couch, painted for the bed chamber of Guidobaldo della Rovere, a local duke in waiting.

Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland aren't exactly Titian, but their erotic and often witty photographs and drawings, respectively, had an indelible impact in the second half of the 20th century, surreptitiously smuggled into hundreds of American bed chambers from coast to coast.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art's outpost at the Pacific Design Center, a large -- and frankly too large -- exhibition looks at Mizer's 1945 creation of the photography studio Athletic Model Guild in downtown Los Angeles and the development six years later of its small-format beefcake magazine, “Physique Pictorial.” Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen) began to contribute refined pencil drawings to the publication in 1957.

Over the course of five decades Mizer photographed thousands of young men in various states of undress, most of them anonymous but some who went on to become famous, including one future governor of California (Arnold Schwarzenegger). To make pictures of naked men that would be of erotic interest to other men required considerable courage, given the repressions of the era. (Mizer fell afoul of the law more than once.) But his photographs developed a strangely sunny, almost utopian fantasy world -- a “no place” where boys would be boys and good cheer was their norm.

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Like Tom of Finland, whose impeccable draftsmanship is sometimes startling, Mizer developed a repertoire of subjects that might be most simply described as anti-effeminate. Anything that ran counter to the ruling homophobic stereotype of the girly-man was given prominence or expressly exaggerated.

Without the cowboys, policemen and construction workers of Mizer and Tom, there might not have been the Village People. Muscles bulge, along with other parts of the male anatomy, and the narrow range of faces (almost always white) tends toward classical Roman, matinee idol or boy-next-door.

Something about the pictures, whether Mizer's invariably straightforward photographs shot in an even light or Tom's old-fashioned academic style of drawing, seems clearly related to theatrical drag.  That performance genre's amplification of physical traits such as hair, makeup, breasts, gesture and so on is often mischaracterized as a satire on women; in reality, it's a satire on the familiar trip-wires of heterosexual male desire. Like the hyper-masculinity in Mizer's photographs and Tom's drawings, it disarms establishment power through spectacle and humor.

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MOCA curator Bennett Simpson and artist Richard Hawkins, who organized the show, have assembled scores of examples by each artist, plus page layouts, story boards and vintage magazines. One revealing surprise is that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between works made decades apart. (Mizer died at 70 in 1992, Laaksonen at 71 in 1991.)
Sexual imagery does seem to get more explicit as social standards change over time, but otherwise time stopped circa 1960 in the Physique Pictorial universe. An artistic repetitiveness makes the show somewhat exhausting. There is much to be gleaned about serious subjects of sexuality, sexual stereotyping and survival from this work, but sometimes it comes at the expense of obscuring the humor.

Mizer and Tom could be very, very funny, the wit in their pictures of wizards, gladiators, devils and truck-stop denizens happily worn on their sleeves. More than anything, their photographs and drawings say, gay boys just want to have fun.

MOCA/Pacific Design Center,  8687 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood, (310) 657-0800, through Jan. 26. Closed Monday.