In what has become a winter tradition, Gallery 1313 is staging its latest Sex Show. There have been so many, in fact, this one is titled A Sex Show. As director Phil Anderson explains, it coincides with the Valentine Day season, and the intent is to celebrate sex. So often, Anderson notes, we hear reports of sexual assaults, victims of sexual violence and so on. Let us not forget that sex is as well a wellspring of love and great pleasure. Here is a chance to celebrate and reflect on this. Around 22 artists are featured in this year’s edition.
Installation view of A Sex Show, 2023
Immediately on entering the gallery the visitor is confronted with one of two raunchy fibreglass scupltures by Craig Mahood. This one, mounted on the wall, is a burlesque urinal which prominently features a erect penis. This is the sort of playful ribaldry one might expect in a show with this theme.
Craig Mahood, Pony Play, fiberglass, acrylic
Nearby hangs a much quieter piece titled Self as Venus by Candace Cosentino. Cosentino has photographed herself posing in a way deliberately reminiscent of Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting The Birth of Venus. Draped on one side the artist covers each her groin and her breast with a sea shell. The myth behind this picture is worth dwelling on, I think. The story goes that the Greek god Uranus was castrated by his own son, Saturn, who cast his genitalia into the sea. There the detached genitalia mixed with the foam from the waves to conceive Aphrodite, the Greek equivalent of the Roman goddess Venus. Born of the sea Uranus’s last child turned out to be the goddess of Love no less. The story reminds us about the deep connection between sex and violence, reflective of the close association between sex and death.
Candace Cosentino, Self as Venus, digital print, 12″ x 15″
The deep desires concomitant with sex are cleverly alluded to by Tommy Feiler’s photographic print titled I Want You. These are the words written in relief on a candy, blown up to many times life-size. Feiler’s work generally focuses on such everyday items. He encourages the viewer to scrutinize them. Here we enjoy the gaudy pink colour and the heart shape design around the words. It points to a delectable connection between food and sexual desire.
Tommy Feiler, I WANT YOU, archival digital print
Another aspect of sex highlighted in the show is what Yasmeen Kazak calls its sacredness. We are told in her statement that she “is largely inspired by her experience having struggled with shame and autonomy as a young woman, and eventually finding that her body, sexuality, and personal space are sacred to her”. She presents to us a shrine-like split-level construction, whose shape and colour subtly allude to a vagina, titled Altar/Sacred. On its shelves sit various objects associated with sex, the body and pleasure. Its scale perfectly communicates a sense of intimacy. A lovely work altogether.
Yasmeen Kazak, Altar/Sacred, mixed media sculpture
Of course, while sex is deeply personal it is also shared, and this aspect is brought to the fore by Callie DeWees’s thoughtful piece, Untitled 3. The theme, she tells us, is katoptronophilia. Not a word I was familiar with. It names the psychological phenomenon of desiring to perform things like sex in front of a mirror. In this photograph we see a naked woman holding a mirror between her legs, reflecting a floor and wall in the foreground. I was immediately struck by how her work echoes that of the late Francesca Woodman. Woodman’s work also features haunting photographs of herself in interiors. DeWees acknowledges Woodman’s influence, and happily DeWees’s work has its own qualities. I enjoy the irony of how the mirror she holds is turned away from herself. The image is arresting and quite beautiful.
Callie DeWees, Untitled 3, photograph
There are a lot of obstacles to navigate when dealing with the subject of sex, of course. While sex is linked to our deepest desires and is core to our identities for many of us, it is also – let’s face it – a banal preoccupation. As well, it is still somewhat taboo in our society. This is reflected in the fact that none of the works in the exhibition show explicitly sexual acts. Here I am thinking of the Japanese tradition of Shunga prints, that shamelessly focus on copulation and other sexual acts. I guess, for us, pornography casts its long shadow in this regard, leaving little room for sublety. Here rather, we get bawdy depictions of body parts.
Grace Dam, The Bath, Diptych, oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″
Within these limitations, there is much to see. There is Grace Dam’s theatrical painting The Bath, complete with chandelier; Tanya Fenkell’s Consent, with its wonderful eroticism; Courtney McKay Fairweather’s beautiful composition featuring a woman holding a flower, with the whimsical title Led Down the Garden Path; Farrouh Nooroney’s celebration of fleshiness in his abstract painting Coastal; Lillian Chow offers a study in the relationship between pleasure and aggression, in her painting Don’t Be So Koi. There isn’t the space to list them all. Best to see them for yourself. There are many little treasures to feast on in this show
Farrouh Nooroney, Coastal, 46″ x 38″ (left) & Lillian Chow, Don’t Be So Koi, acrylic on canvas (right)
Images are courtesy of Gallery 1313
*Exhibition information: A Sex Show, February 1 – February 12, 2023, Gallery 1313, 1313 Queen Street West, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Sat 1 – 5 pm, Sun 1 – 4 pm.