Tom of Finland. Cary Kwok. Antonio Lopez. All in show of fierce radicalness opening this week at the ICA. Curator Sarah McCrory tells all.

On Tuesday night, the ICA is opening a new exhibition.

It is called Keep Your Timber Limber, and is about drawings and works on paper.

But not just any works on paper.

Super radical and fierce works on paper.

Like this.


(©Tom Of Finland Foundation)

The curator is the amazing Sarah McCrory, the new director of the Glasgow International festival, who spent the past three years as curator of Frieze Projects.

She’s the one who made all those amazing things happen at the fair. Like Lucky PDF’s onsite TV studio. Or the Grizedale Arts food coliseum. Or Simon Fujiwara’s archeological dig.

Sarah’s work as a curator is active and inclusive, provocative and genre defying.

It is super, super exciting that London is getting a show this summer with such innate agitation.

She’s installing the show right now. I grabbed her for a few minutes on the phone to talk through it all. I was sat in a Starbucks. She was just walking away from the ICA. As I started typing, she is talking about how the installation is going…

SARAH McCRORY: All the works are out of the crates pretty much. I’m. Not. Nervous. At. All. [She laughs]. I’m just really excited to see it all up. And they’ve made the gallery look very chic. They’ve painted it a warm grey. It’s treated with the respect it deserves.

ME: Which rooms is it in at the ICA?

It’s the main gallery downstairs, then the top galleries. The theatre is preserved for Anal House Meltdown, natch [Anal House Meltdown are playing records at the after party].

You’ve got someone drawing a site-specific work, right?

Judith Bernstein. It’s exciting. I did a talk with Judith last night. She’s a fireball, she’s great, a totally brilliant New Yorker. She’s 71 and she’s up a ladder making her drawing and being brilliant and complimenting everyone and all the install staff.

What’s she drawing?

About an 8 metre long penis with an American flag coming out of it called Fucked By Numbers. It includes figures from the Iraq and Afghanistan war. It’s an update of a piece she made called Fucked By Numbers about the Vietnam. The penis is a gun. Initially it’s funny but it’s also quite tough, it’s quite intense.

[Here’s one of her other works in the show, called Dick In The Head]

ICA, Keep Your Timber Limber, Judith Bernstein, DCK IN THE HEAD Series, 2010

Tell me how the whole show came about.

When I left Frieze I thought I was going to be unemployed. I was going to work freelance, so I went and had a meeting to pitch a show with Gregor [Muir, executive director of the ICA] and Matt [Williams, curator of the ICA], which they accepted. It was going to be more around the sort of artist I usually work with – emerging to mid-career artists – initially around performance, but Gregor had wanted to do in his grand plan a works on paper show. That really appealed after three years of Frieze and working on big projects. In fact I haven’t made a show like this ever.

How did the show evolve?

The starting point was a couple of artists. I’ve had a photocopy of an Antonio Lopez drawing on my desk since I was an intern six or seven years ago at White Columns [the super legendary not-for-profit space in NY]. I’ve always wanted to do something with Cary Kwok, and I’d been roughly talking with Nicky [Verber, gallerist of Herald Street in London, which shows Cary Kwok] about doing a show. We’ve been talking about how Antonio and Cary would have a nice relationship, both of them coming from a fashion background.

What’s Cary’s fashion background?

Cary did fashion at Saint Martins. And of course Antonio Lopez was not just a fashion illustrator, but a character on the NY scene, and he managed to digest that into his work.

[Here’s Divine, Neon Woman by Antonio Lopez, featured in the show]


That was the starting point. Then I went to the Tom of Finland Foundation in LA which I highly recommend to anyone. Firstly it’s run by two incredible men, Durk Denher and Sharp, just Sharp, one word. They were just really generous and showed me round the foundation which is also their home, a living breathing foundation with eroitca all over the place. It’s become a bit of a mecca for a lot of people, they’ve got lots of great tales and they get sent things all the time, an amazing archive of letters and art that is sent to them unsolicited. Pre-Internet, coming across a Tom of Finland coffee table book was a lot of people’s first encounter with homoerotic art, and for a lot of those guys, seeing it was the first time that they were like, oh. OK. This is great….
Those were the starting points. It was also looking at how people use drawing, which is often seen as a precursor to painting or sculpture, not viewed as a medium in its own right. All the artists in the show are in essence quite political, whether that’s sublimated politics, or overtly outrageous in a Judith Bernstein way. There’s a lot of scales really to how direct the work is. Tom of Finland is inherently political. When he was making it, it was illegal. Also he was one of the first people to show men engaged in homosexuality activity as proud and happy and healthy and not shown as deviants or perverts or shameful or angry. It is very much a positive view of gay men. There’s a sense of humour and the leather look now is kind of kitsch, but then it was really empowering. Stuart Shave of Modern Art is opening a Tom of Finland show of sketches on 5 July, so it’s a good time for Tom of Finland.

Tom of Finland is interesting, because the images are so familiar, yet because you see them all together in big coffee table books, you think of them as a blur, rather than individual drawings.

Exactly. Also those coffee table books are not a great way to see the work, because the reproduction doesn’t represent the work. They’re blown up in those books, while actually the works are actually quite small and intimate. They haven’t been contextualised much ni the fine art world. They’ve been seen as illustrative or, like you say, really well known but they he’s known for its style but not as individual pieces. One thing is that from the very beginning, it was always explicit and erotic. He didn’t start one way an then get more and more erotic. They’ve always been that powerful and out there.

It’ll also be unusual to see it contextualised with other work.

We’re probably making quite a mad juxtaposition, in some ways. He’s going next to Marlene McCarty. She was a member of Act Up, and they produced a lot of materials that I’d the language of advertising for their AIDS work, often with billboards or those methods of display. Tom of Finland came from an advertising background. He was really successful at advertising in Finland before the war. Marlene’s own work is very different from Act Up, but she’s looking at gender and sexual power and how people exist within the sexual world. She’s been looking at women who work with primates and their relationships that have broken beyond ethical and moral boundaries. Women who have been looking after apes and let them sleep in their marital bed, either as if they were children or in different ways. She’s looking at confusion within sexual roles.

I love the amount of tension there seems to be in the show.

I suppose you shouldn’t set off for this stuff. I hope that they end up being an interesting tension. Some of the work visually has these crossovers. Some of Cary’s work feels influenced by Tom of Finland. Then there are turn-offs. Margaret Harrison, like Judith, is a 70s feminist. Both had shows closed down for the content of their work. They both come from similar worlds but are also different, Margaret being British, her work draws on advertising and the language used to describe women who are really being objectified. Not just advertising but Pop Art too. Words like delicious or juicy. So she literally took that and drew women in food or hamburgers or holding exploding lemons. It’s all to do with sexual language.

[Here’s a work by Margaret Harrison in the show – Women Of The World Unite You Have Nothing To Lose But Cheesecake]

Woman of the world_LOWRES

The key pieces from Margaret is a re-gendered Captain America in heels and basques. He’s having his power and gender questioned. He’s in an action pose but has on these heels and a basque, items of clothing that are really restrictive but women are expected to do everything the same as men but wearing these restrictive items that sexualise them and demean them. These are all very 70s conversations, but when you walk around today, it hasn’t changed. Men stride along and women are still in body con with mile high shoes, that you’re only meant to get into a cab in.
Many conversations in the show are really dated but haven’t changed. The George Grosz work shows rich people as the fat cat [it’s called Stickmen Meeting Members Of The Bourgeois].

Keep Your Timber Limber, George Grosz, Stickmen meeting members of the bourgeois, 1946

The language has changed, now we talk about the 99% and the 1%, but nothing has actually shifted. The nice aspect is that the one thing that has changed, is the position of gay, bisexual and transgender people. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s the main thing that does make Tom of Finland look in some ways dated. But the position still stands.

Cary’s work looks amazing.

He doesn’t talk very much about his work, and sometimes it might seem that it’s quite flippant, but it’s not. We’ve got these three religious pieces by him in the show that are really tough. There’s a Hassidic Jew, a Catholic and a Buddhist all jizzing over themselves [the piece is called Muscle Toss].

ICA, Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper), Cary Kwok, Muscle Toss, 2010

It feels like a nice counterpoint. Judith Bernstein is talking about male sexual power, and Cary is almost the opposite. He shows men in this unifying moment when they’re at their weakest, when politics and religion is removed, just that minute when a man is completely weak. It shows the flipside of that power. Cary’s the youngest in the show. I think we cover nine decades through eight artists, with George Grosz at one end and Cary at the other.

I think it’s so exciting to have such an actively curated show.

If people want to rip it apart they’re welcome. It’s not a thesis. It’s things that I’d really like to see, and things I’d really like to see together. You could try to spin it to be really tight, but it’s not. When you talk about the tension, that’s the positive. The negative could be that they don’t work. It’s alright if it’s shit sometimes. But all the work’s banging. I’m still excited.

It’s amazing that the ICA is being super radical again.

They’ve been really great. There have been moments with things that have been a challenge or a conversation, but when I have really said, Inthink this is important, they’ve gone with it. They didn’t like the title at first, they wanted it to be more generic, but this show is meant to have sense of humour as well.

Where does the title come from?

It’s from a Judith Bernstein work that is in the show. I think the piece is called Fuck Face Sally. It’s a woman with a head that’s a vagina talking to a man on a toilet. It says something like, “KEEP YOUR TIMBER LIMBER”, then underneath “DON’T LET YOUR MEAT LOAF”.


[And with that, I let Sarah go]


Cannot wait to see the exhibition itself.

Fantastic Man are hosting a razzy cocktail on opening night.

Then there’s an Anal House Meltdown.

Then the show opens to the public on Wednesday, until 8 September. Click here for more info etcetcetc

And expect more here from Sarah McCrory as next year’s Glasgow International get’s closer…

I might just move to Glasgow.

Cannot wait.