Inspired by his the day job of his ex-wife, Ilona Staller, – also known as Cicciolina during her porn star years - American pop-artist Jeff Koons spent the late 1980’s engaged in a project called Made in Heaven. The lavish collection is often represented by a billboard style image of the same name, which shows the loved-up couple posing like a pair of classical Hollywood stars. Each piece shows them in another sexual activity.
Staller, with her thick makeup, camp backdrops and stylised poses, is giving a nod to her old job but also alluding to the drama of 17th-century baroque art. Elsewhere in the collection, their sexual relationship is celebrated with glass oral sex sculptures and wooden carvings. It also features a marble bust of them naked and kissing; her bare chest covered in a string of pearls. Koons' love of kitsch and parody combine to push the boundaries of what we consider to be porn and what changes to make it art. Ultimately it’s our choice as the audience to decide.
The trial of Megumi Igarashi on obscenity charges began in April 2015 and polarised opinion in Japan. This most controversial of sex-positive artists was arrested after making a 3D computer representation of her vagina. She proceeded to use this model to create a kayak (now known as the pussy boat), a teddy bear, and various other cute mascots shaped like her vulva.
Igrashi denies that her work is pornographic. She frames it instead as a reaction to the stifling nature of Japanese culture towards female sexuality. She’s interested in why vaginas are considered shameful. In Japan, female genitals are frequently treated as something disgusting. Understandably, she wanted to challenge this. The beauty of this case is that in arresting one of the country's virtually unknown sex-positive artists, the Japanese authorities inadvertently made one woman’s vagina front page news. An irony that’s probably not lost on Megumi Igarashi.
All by herself?
No stranger to controversy or the darker side of love is the American photographer, Nan Goldin. She is one of the best known on our list of sex-positive artists. She first used a camera at 15. Her work documented her life in New York while coming to terms with the suicide of her sister and her intense sexual relationship with an older man.
Goldin had run away from home a year before, not wanting to follow in her sister's footsteps. She subsequently was placed with some foster families. Her first exhibition featured local drag queens she’d befriended along the way. In her 1985 book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, she began recording incidents from her personal life, especially the often painful mechanisms of relationships.
Many of her self-portraits bring private moments into a public arena. For example, Self-portrait with Brian After Having Sex, 1983, or the horrific Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984, were taken after experiencing domestic violence. The candour and intimacy she shares with the viewer are also present in some beautiful and kinky images of her friends. Especially noteworthy are David and Bruce After Sex, 1975 or Bobby Masturbating, 1980.
Catherine Opie produces kinky images that are lush in diversity, with vividly rendered gangs of drag kings and other icons of lesbian culture. She records moments that reference her own sexuality, but also that of other women on the S&M scene. One of her most unnerving pieces is Pervert. In this graphically sadomasochistic image, Opie wears a fetish hood and sits bare-chested with rows of needles piercing her arms. Into the naked flesh of her chest is carved the word ‘pervert’.
Opie focuses her lens on many other subjects, but has great affection for the alternative community she represents. “I’m glad that there is a queer, out, dyke artist that's being called an American photographer”, she says. Other sex-positive artists should take note!
One of the sex-positive artists who regularly draws the ‘art or porn’ question out in reviewers is the Japanese photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki. Japan has a history of extremely provocative erotic artistry. Araki draws on that tradition in his depictions of bondage and shibari, or erotic rope tying. His kinky images blend themes from modern culture with more traditional concerns. For example, geishas are shown swigging from bottles of Saki; tattooed women are suspended on intricate knots wearing just a kimono.
Araki's use of a Polaroid camera provides further nostalgic pleasures. It is noteworthy that his photos are almost exclusively of young women bound, gagged and sometimes being yanked by a piercing. As a result of these depictions, this led to him being accused of glorifying female suffering, but if you’re a fan of BDSM, it's not such bad thing.
Have we missed your favourite sex-positive artists? Let us know in the comments below or on the Fetish.com forum.
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The pleasures of the flesh have been celebrated in erotic art for millennia. In some paintings, the meanings are subtle and implied, but others are