The western art canon is in no small part a parade of famous artists’ butts, from Mark Dierkson-Brayer’s 1999 black and white “Self Portrait LOL” to last year’s explosive full-color tour de force by Kevin Frist, “Gift for Trevor’s Mom”—and almost all of them have been by white men.
“Gift for Trevor’s Mom” was the object of great scrutiny—and even, from some feminists, outright scorn—when it debuted in the copy room of the Law Offices of O’Malley & Gunderson in Midtown Manhattan in February. Known for his easy, witty embrace of both the erotic and the sentimental, Frist was surprised when a feminist critic wrote in FartNet that “His choice sit on a 1996 DocuTech X is clearly an homage to some of the early greats, but it’s 2018, and audiences are looking for butt artists who can do more than take close-up images of their assholes on dated equipment.”
In Frist’s work, his cheeks often become a kind of dreamscape on which he has traditionally projected his masculinity, sexual power, and towering ambitions, but disguised them with whimsical, even ribald humor. “I was hurt when I read that review,” Frist told me. “I think a lot of this commentary is really missing the point of my work. I want to question the norms surrounding what objects are and aren’t supposed to go on the glass part of a copy machine. Taboo is the entire point. I think that if we’re running from that which makes us uncomfortable, we should dig into that. That’s where art begins.”
I reached out to several other prominent male butt artists, to find out if, in this post-#MeToo moment, there is still room for butt art at all. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few were willing to speak on the record, fearful as they were that the conversation around butt art has become too toxic even to touch. Said Tyler Dunne, known best for his washed-out, low-contrast images that include a little bit of ball, “I think we’re entering a new Victorian era for this art form, and it’s really sad.”
Dunne and I met up toward the end of March at the opening of his solo show, “Cheek/to/cheek” in the hallway outside the bathroom of his friend Nick’s apartment. His work has taken a turn for the ironic in these politically charged times—if not directly courting controversy, then perhaps winking at it. In a trio of what appear to be butts, for example, Dunne toys with his audience, revealing only with the title, that these are actually his elbows arranged to resemble human butts. Perhaps the most daring work in the collection is a nod to the firestorm Frist ignited with “Gift For Trevor’s Mom”: in the show’s capstone work, “Untitled,” Dunne’s butt appears with the words HI and MOM written across both cheeks.
I couldn’t help but ask Dunne what he thinks the future of butt Xeroxes is. He sighed—the question had clearly been on his mind. “One of my favorite butt artists—well, she really isn’t much of a butt artist at all, she’s completely revitalized, and I think really challenged the form—is Caroline Pinsky.” (Pinsky, known for scrunching her bra and pressing a single boob against the scanner at her office, then using the machine’s e-fax capabilities to send the art around to everyone on the “all staff” email distribution list, has excited many critics, even as some have questioned whether e-fax is a departure from butt art’s roots that has gone too far.) “But it’s sad to me to think that as a society we’re so, well, prudent—that we reject out of hand seeing a man’s scrotum smashed up against a smear-resistant surface now. It’s an expression of what comes from deep within the psyche, and sometimes that’s complicated.
“Honestly, I can’t even imagine the reception that Mark [Dierkson-Breyer] would get today,” he continued, staring morosely into his Coors Light. “It’s sad to say, but I just don’t think he could make a work like ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ or ‘U Suck’ in this climate where everything gets blown out of proportion.”
As I was leaving, I saw Pinsky come in. As she opened a beer with her teeth—also Coors Light—I asked her if she thought #MeToo had, well, ruined the fun of butt art. She agreed that being subjected to the brutalities of the male psyche can be tiresome, but she didn’t feel she could demand political correctness. “There’s definitely a way in which Frist and even Tyler—I say this even as I respect his work so much—seem to be almost rubbing their pubes in your face, especially in their full color work. The way they’re just so out there can feel very aggressive. But perhaps that’s just what it’s like to be a man. Butt art needs to have a real conversation about dealing with the masculine and the profane, but it can’t be one held back from offending people.” Pinsky recently returned from a trip to France, where she said “people there have much more comfort with the human butthole—it may be bidet culture—but what it’s generated is a wellspring of inspiring Xeroxes of people’s nude butts.”
Dunne had ambled over with a sharpie tucked between his ear. He nodded in agreement with Pinksy, “Butt art needs to be able to make mistakes.”