What exactly do I mean by “erotic art”? I have more questions than answers. Can a single body on its own be erotic, or is it two or more figures interacting that pushes an image into that realm? Is erotic art necessarily figurative – that is, does it need bodies to be erotic?
As with most artistic distinctions, delineating the “erotic” usually comes down to a classist high-low distinction. Some would define erotica as porn with cultural capital, wet dream fodder for the higher classes. The distance and space provided by time similarly redefines the (hazy) contours of erotic art. Images that would make a 1950s housewife and her husband faint now seem barely titillating in a society where Hollywood made S&M seem vanilla and porn is but an incognito tab away. In the words of artist Marilyn Minter, “Yesterday’s smut is today’s erotica.”
I argue that nothing is inherently erotic. And therefore everything can be erotic. Drawing boundaries around what is and isn’t erotic is kind of like drawing boundaries around what is and isn’t sex, what should and should not turn you on – you can’t do it for someone else. Erotica is, for all intents and purposes, in the eye of the beholder.
Below is a small selection of art I find erotic (and interesting) by young artists working in the 21st Century.
1. Claire Milbrath
Milbrath’s naive paintings and drawings focus primarily on the life, loves and sexual escapades of her character/fictional muse Poor Gray. His signature baby-hair curl and long curve of a nose are dotted throughout her oeuvre like an erotic Where’s Waldo. Milbrath’s voyeuristic eye is echoed in the gaze of the several household pets who observe her erotic scenes.
2. Ren Hang
Ren Hang was a rising international star in the art world who was often arrested and faced censorship and intimidation from the authorities in his native China.
The recently late Beijing photographer’s images are iconic – instantly recognizable for their unique play with nude bodies embedded in glossy foliage or atop vast urban architecture. The photos’ eroticism stems less from their nudity than from Ren’s sculptural approach to the human body. His subjects are molded into uncanny forms that bespeak a kind of erotic disquietude. His signature use of high-flash adds an element of abruptness, almost as if his subjects have been caught unawares, entwined in the wilderness.
3. Natalie Krim
Krim’s dizzying illustrations are like the ballpoint pen-based love-child of Egon Schiele and vintage pin-ups. Women are her primary subject – cavorting, fucking, masturbating. Scrawled gracefully on scraps of paper, the women in her drawings careen between hyper-femme and girlish. They are always brazen.
4. Monica Kim Garza
Monica Kim Garza is an Atlanta, Georgia-based artist whose works have been featured in publications such as It’s Nice That and LiveFast Magazine, and in exhibitions in Copenhagen, New York and West Hollywood.
Garza’s paintings are ebullient. Her subjects are strong, curvaceous, and unabashed. They are almost perpetually in action, and perpetually naked (or at the very least, ‘down to their skivvies’, so to speak). Garza’s women are cowgirls and pole dancers, they lift weights in platform slides, play team sports, ride bulls, nap, and paint one another. I can’t pinpoint what about Garza’s images exactly makes me feel so joyful, but there’s something about them, isn’t there? The eroticism in Garza’s paintings is an ecstatic one.
5. Maja Malou Lyse
Maja Malou Lyse is an aspiring gynecologist and performance artist whose work has been showcased at the Tate Modern and an event at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
You can’t really write about erotic art in the 21st Century without mentioning selfies. In particular, the highly contentious, routinely Instagram-censored, nude kind. Artists who make selfie art (predominantly women) are habitually subjected to slut-shaming, accusations of narcissism and of it not being “real art” – as if there’s been some kind of collective amnesia about the self-portrait as a pervasive and ancient art form. Maja Malou Lyse is one such artist. Lyse’s images often feature her aglow in neon light, or commanding domestic scenes like an anti-Venus (which she has referenced in her images) – indisputably gorgeous and femme, but never demure, and painted by a woman. Her images of herself are powerful not only because they are a confident depiction of the kind of body that has only just started to appear in magazines and other media (though barely, and oftentimes as a ‘token’), but also because they advocate a bold, unapologetic sexuality. I’m not tired of seeing selfies like Lyse’s. I’m not tired of selfies (in particular by people with underrepresented body-types and skin colors) because it’s a way to take control over your image and sexuality, to represent yourself on your own terms. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired.