A woman, her face underneath the shaft, licks a penis. An unseen man (well, sort of unseen) grips her neck. Highlighted by eye-catching lighting, this photograph greets everyone who enters The Dirty Show 14. Measuring at about three- or four-feet tall (the penis is approximately two — blown up, of course), the piece is titled “Choke”; perhaps named as such because the man chokes the woman, or maybe because she might choke on his dick? The artist was likely privy to both meanings. But, gingerly stepping into Bert’s Warehouse Theatre, I must say the photo lives up to its name in a profound way: It knocks the air out of you; it makes it hard to breathe. The giant penis leaves little doubt — The Dirty Show is dirty, proud and unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Introduced at the turn of the century, The Dirty Show is North America’s largest erotic arts exhibit. Strippers, rope binders, fetish photography, softcore photography, chains, cages, pole dancers, vibrating merry-go-rounds, watercolors of penises and vagina still lifes — you name it, the show probably has it. Twice a year, this wild potpourri of live performances, professional people-watching and interactive artwork blows up into a celebration of the human form — and the things it can do.
“I don’t think people realize they have shows of this scale,” says April Reed, a volunteer, as she leads me around the floor. “They don’t realize there is an erotic art show,” she pauses, “That goes a little deeper into the eroticism.”
Passing by the various pieces and exhibits, I begin to think that “a little deeper” might be a slight understatement. All manners of erotic expression line the walls, and barriers are set up to display even more art. Above the bar, which I regretfully gaze at (I seem to be the only one not drinking), stands a platform for rope binding. On it, a blindfolded man ties up a scantily-clad woman. The rope binds her hands behind her back, and she kneels in a sort of Child’s Pose. The woman smiles and glances at the crowd below. Across from her are soon-to-be-filled chairs and a glamorous stage.
A lively attendee shouts, “Dude, I thought it was a just vagina, but then someone said it was the Virgin Mary, and I was like, ‘Oh, I see it!’ ”
The discussed piece is a wine-cork portrait which, unsurprisingly, bears a strong resemblance to a vagina and the Virgin Mary. While this may not be art criticism at its finest, it still reminds me that each of these pieces inspires a dialogue between the artist and the viewer. Later on, a man in a leather skirt and hipster glasses gesticulates at a nude painting as he debates its “aesthetic sensibilities” and “contrasting colors” — for every person who gawks and smiles at the explicit content, there are two more who argue about the work. Porn never comes up in conversation because it shouldn’t. Most everything at the show is art, and the people here treat it as such.
Other notable pieces include “E2t Erotic Dessert Menu” by WOLVERINE (many artists use pseudonyms), which shows photos of various females’ asses covered in desserts (“Caramel Coated Apple Bottom” and “Sweet Cherry Pie” among others), and the giggle-inducing “Presidential Erections” by Marc DeBauch, a painting of Barack Obama ejaculating on the faces of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney (who seem to be enjoying themselves). Where’s Biden? It’s a mystery.
Message-charged works exist as well, such as “T-Bone” by Haley Scott, and Gregory de la Haba’s “Equus Maximus.” The first is a steak-filled outline of a women having sex from behind — a possible damnation of the tendency to objectify women. The second, “Equus Maximus,” is the half-million dollar centerpiece of The Dirty Show.
A life-size black stallion rears on a poker table littered with chips in front of two white mares that rest on their backs. Obviously, the horses have prominent sexual organs, and, as I approach, a handlebar-mustachioed old man with a short ponytail eagerly calls me over. His name is Butch, a volunteer “protecting” the art.
“Go ahead and touch ‘em,” he says, stroking one of the mares. I reach over and pet the fur. Butch nods with approval and describes the benefits of his job.
“Talk to a bunch of beautiful, naked women,” he says. “I’m having fun tonight, bunch of fucking gorgeous women — I’m getting this one here.” Butch points toward a masked woman who admires the horses from afar. Apparently, Butch and I are friends, and I guard the horses while he brings her over.
Her name is Renee, and she is at The Dirty Show for a field trip.
“I’m in a graphic design class,” she says, “And I’m trying to compare the pictures and kind of pick the artists they most emulate. It’s a new feel for me, but, yeah, it’s awesome.”
The trend of artists comparing and contrasting their work with the ones on display is prevalent. A palpable sense of community pervades, and every artist seems to know each other; they come to support their friends and to see what the erotic art “world” is up to.
Butch’s “seduction” doesn’t come to fruition, but, undeterred, he continues to call over every half-naked girl within 15 feet. But here’s the thing: The Dirty Show isn’t a bunch of swingers seeking a one-night-stand. Instead, couples are the most common sight. Holding hands, they gaze at what could be blush-inducing material. Could The Dirty Show be the ultimate Valentine’s Day destination?
I pose the question to Reed, as she leads me toward the “interactive” parts of the show.
“Every year, this is my Valentine’s date,” Reed declares. “Do you want to do the cheesy thing and buy your girlfriend or your wife chocolate? Not really. For a lot of people, the art and the show is a turn-on. Seeing all the people and the art,” — a ripped man wearing nothing but a kilt strides past us, Reed gestures toward him — “The human form … it’s a great non-traditional Valentine’s date.”
As we pass a whirling pole dancer, Reed describes the activities from years past: the aforementioned vibrating merry-go-round (which was assembled awkwardly in Reed’s garage) and the “spank rock,” on which participants could bend over and receive a spanking. This year, The Dirty Show has a green screen (Take a picture of yourself sitting on a giant penis!) and something called “Titties and Clitties.” Awesomely rhymed name aside, the activity itself is playful enough: Ladies paint the front of their naked bods, then they press themselves against a canvas. “Titties and Clitties,” get it?
Loud thumping bass starts up, and the shows begin.
“Everywhere you look, there’s something to look at,” Reed says. “It’s a celebration of sexuality, the human form, and being able to come out and express yourself.”
A male stripper, or maybe an erotic dancer (funny that I’m trying to be politically correct, here of all places) takes the stage. He rips off his golden thong and covers himself with a bowler hat. The ladies cheer. Roxi D’Lite, “The Bad Girl of Burlesque,” is one of the next performers, strutting and swaying, delicately removing her white garments. A graceful flamenco dance, a busty lip-sync — the acts are endlessly entertaining, but my eyes are drawn toward two girls dancing in the cages above me. One is dressed in a sailor-like outfit, the other has a horsewhip, and they both seem lost in their own little worlds. But, in a moment, they stop dancing and glance at each other. The sailor giggles and starts to thrust. Openly laughing, they both gyrate their hips, each toward the other. A man comes with a ladder, and lets them down from the cages. They link arms and start skipping away, still giggling.
It’s this strange tenderness and vulnerability laced with blatant sexuality that makes The Dirty Show special. Shame of the body — of desire — is challenged and laughed at by drag queens, students, married couples, people — “normal” or otherwise. Everyone belongs here, because no one seems above it all; we’re all human, so why not celebrate that?