Patrick Staff’s The Foundation is a film installation that looks inside the Tom of Finland Foundation. Part museum, part archive, part home, the foundation is a space like no other, and Staff uses it as the springboard for a half-hour film that incorporates choreography, sculpture, and documentary style examination. It’s an intriguing glimpse into the daily workings of an erotic art organization, and also a judgment-free study of the leather community as it exists today. The film is currently on view at Spike Island, an art center in the UK.
Tom of Finland is probably the most well-known erotic illustrator of the twentieth century, gay or otherwise. He’s been the focus of fancy art books and gallery exhibitions worldwide. (His home country even recently featured him on two postage stamps.) His images of muscly cops and enormously endowed bikers were hugely influential on a generation of gay men who discovered his work in homoerotic physique magazines and, later, mainstream gay porn rags.
Since Tom’s death in 1991, his legacy has been preserved by the work of the Tom of Finland Foundation (NSFW). Run by Durk Dehner, a close personal friend of Tom’s, its mission is to preserve Tom’s work while encouraging the work of other homoerotic artists. Housed in Tom’s LA residence, the space itself acts as an art archive, an office, a community center, a drawing studio, and the home of its director. (What other non-profit can you name that has an active dungeon in the basement?)
Staff’s film focuses on the Foundation itself, a close-knit group of leathery art lovers with a mission to promote the work of queer erotic artists. The Foundation incorporates footage of the building, along with site-specific sculptural work by Staff and choreographed scenes of a bearded leatherman performing.
A queer/trans artist from England, Staff was only four years old when Tom of Finland died. The younger artist, now in his late twenties, hints at the irony that Tom’s hypersexualized muscle gods now inspire the work of a generation whose bodies may not reflect those same erotic ideals. (To quote from Spike Island’s description, working within the framework of the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, “a backward glance can enact a future vision, fueling the transformative political imagination of a marginalized community.”)
Queer history is a dominant theme in the art world right now. There’s actually a Tom of Finland show at Artists Space in New York right now. Meanwhile, the erotic paintings of George Quaintance are currently on view in Los Angeles and the exhibition Art AIDS America is currently traveling across the country, to name just two of many, many examples. Existing at the intersection of the fine art world and the leather/fetish community, Staff’s film shows that a torch isn’t magically passed from one generation to another. Instead, it shows that younger and older generations have a symbiotic relationship, feeding off one another in equal measure.
The Foundation is currently on view at Spike Island in Bristol (UK). The exhibit runs through September 20, with an exhibition tour on September 19.