Salon.com has decreed 2012 as the year in which the penis has become omnipresent. From its increasing exposure in movies to all out museum shows dedicated to the subject, suddenly, society has gotten over its collective hang up about the hung. We seem to be getting more comfortable with the idea that roughly half of all of us are walking around with a penis in our pants. And with that new found acceptance comes freedom. Historically, freedom is reflected in art, and it is now, in 2012 that an artist has emerged in the unlikeliest of all places – Tumblr – to point the way. Dicks on Tumblr (or Flickr or anywhere on the internet ) are not new, in fact it is that very accessibility that has laid the groundwork for raising society’s resilience for all things penis. Context is everything. Porn no longer shocks and titillation is seen as almost juvenile and immature. In today’s Internet photo environment, Mapplethorpe’s S&M esthetic no longer provokes, but is seen as trite and retro. Not to be disrespectful of impact, but Mapplethorpe’s work is more relevant as an allegory of federal arts funding, and less as pushing the edge of penis acceptability. At the time, his work shocked viewers who were not used to seeing kink positioned as fine art. To today’s more saturated and savvy viewers, it’s a case of seen it all before. It is into this world that the artist Venfield 8 has come. Starting with a small Tumblr page in May 2012, his images are professional and mature. With a striking combination of gloss and purposefulness, they are not the usual wannabe artist angst ridden, moody nudes nor are they wannabe fashion photographer fluff. There is an immediate gravity and sophistication to the beauty on display, but also a message more telling than just beauty for beauty’s sake. His work rises above the canon of beefcake or pretty boy pictures, the kind way too common on Tumblr and various other Internet sites. And although it can be explicit, it isn’t exactly porn either. An inherent gloss to the work makes it fashion-y , although deeply more substantive. Nor is it sexual enough to be porn chic. As indescribable is it is, with Venfield 8, mystery is an integral, and I suspect, deliberate, ingredient.
Take for instance, Venfield 8’s most popular series to date called Designer Dicks. They are exactly as you would expect, only more. In Venfield 8’s world of lust and consumerism, the ultimate status is label enhanced genitals. Why have something generic when upscale branding says something so much more. Presented as ads from a glossy magazine or billboard, it makes perfect sense. And that is what makes the work so striking – the sheer inevitability and sophistication of it. Why hasn’t LVMH done this? Feeding into a global hunger for all things designer by branding the most intimate part of your body is very 2020. Putting it on a gallery wall is very now. The images are fun, but not coy. Bold and yet subtle. The black penis used for Chanel’s “Resort” collection is a commentary on race and colonialism that might go unnoticed by less astute viewers. Whereas a Guy Bordain inspired Harry Winston ad will surely strike a chord with fashionistas. Interestingly, you are very aware that you are looking at a penis – but somehow, society’s emotional and cultural baggage that always surround such images is gone and is replaced by the association the viewer equates with a particular designer label. Shocking, these are not. Beautiful, strangely. Masculine, definitely. A quick perusal through Venfield 8’s catalog reveals an artist so confident in his masculinity, he doesn’t try to label it , or the manifestation or types, rather he just uses the symbols of masculinity as nonchalantly, but no less importantly as any other artist picks a color. In Venfield 8’s hands, (excuse the expression) the phallus does not provoke, does not threaten. It is not the subject of humor or derision. Venfield 8 just so matter of factly presents it, almost asexually and yet makes it still desirable – a feat that eludes most contemporary artists.
The rise of Tumblr which has democratized “dirty pictures” to the point where commercial porn, snap shots and soft core images have melded into a stream of online banality offering up images for visual ingestation no more substantive than a fractional second of satisfaction, then it is one click away to the next seemingly endless barrage of pictures providing quick and shallow thrills. A handsome naked man, a cute guy, a suggestive pose, an explicit act – all packing the same emotional power as one collects pleasing items on Pinterest, - eye candy indeed. And that, perhaps, is Venfield 8’s most unique trick. To take masculine beauty out of the objectification realm and instead offer it as currency in a post homo, post porn, or post fashion environment. The male body and its sexuality becomes a consumerist entity no less beautiful than when it is objectified, but less concerned here with its meaning in society past an accepted understanding that everything is a harbinger towards status and the acquisition of more. Venfield 8 doesn’t see the shame in advertizing. On the contrary, he celebrates it with a sophisticated understanding of branding that goes beyond mere gloss, desire or sexuality. The genius lies in the platform of Tumblr- he knows the audience processes this diaspora collection of imagery and doesn’t judge them as porn or fluff. But knows that this visual diet constantly streaming into a collective consciousness means he can subvert it into form that isn’t questioned, isn’t concerned with petty labels like “porn” , “fashion”, “gay” or “straight” but give it a purpose, no less noble than to use it to sell. Yes, there is an art to advertizing, and yes, you can deride the mission of extracting people of their money, but here in Venfield 8’s world, advertizing is not the means to an end, it is the end. Nothing more, nothing less. It accepts the conceit that consumers respond to sex, but without idolization or judgment. In the real world of advertizing, where someone like Bruce Weber, for instance, can only just allude to or tiptoe around sexuality and the phallus, Venfield 8 knows you won’t be shocked and assumes a “cock shot” is par for the course. It is liberation without coyness that makes Venfield 8’s work so powerful, so fresh and so thoroughly modern, that you can’t look away.
Calvin Hutchens, December 2012