Lorena bobbed it on June 23, and ever since, John B.’s dong has gotten more press than Annie Sprinkle’s cervix could ever hope for. No longer is the word “penis” spoken sotto voce; these days, the trouser trout is a conversation piece. But, according to curator Alison Maddex, the sudden popularity of the penis has little to do with her new exhibition, “True Phallacy: The Myth of Male Power.” The timing, she insists, was coincidental.
“I put it together in less than two months, but the idea’s been there,” she insists. “ “Male nudes’ was on my mind, but I was tired of that whole idea, whether it’s championing homoerotic art or homoeroticism. I wanted to…deal with strictly the universal symbol, something beyond the earthly act [of having sex]. So the penis came to mind.”
Maddex’s brainchild found its share of supporters, not least—and not surprisingly—“new sexism” proponent Camille Paglia. “She’s not involved [in the show]; she’s my significant other,” says Maddex. “But she will want to give us a few soundbites on the penis” when she speaks at the opening this Friday. Maddex clearly realizes that for maximum controversy value, it never hurts to invoke Ms. P.; publicity-minded references to“Camille” crop up regularly in conversation.
Even minus Paglia, a show on the penis stands to generate strong reactions. For starters, why would a woman glorify the male organ when there are still people who would arguably be more startled, even disgusted, by the image of a vulva? “That’s been done,” Maddex dismissively says of female-genitalia art. “The 1970s and ’80s feminists were all about making vagina paintings…for the worship of other women and to celebrate the vagina, the earth mother….I don’t think that’s as much of a taboo in this society anymore, what with so much porn out there and mainstream feminist art that has claimed that image.” This reasoning, however, fails to take into account the scorn that greets “mainstream feminist art” (Georgia O’Keeffe’s “flower” paintings notwithstanding); the humiliation that may attend a routine gynecological exam; and the continuing market for lewd, Penthouse-style “beaver shots.”
Maddex apparently prefers the male member’s mystique. “I don’t know if there’s so much of a taboo in the New York or LA art world, the urban art zones, because…of homosexual art,” she says. “But there’s a problem with that art, because I think that it is really out there in the face of people saying, “This is what we do, as painful as it looks or as derelict or sick.’ They put these things out there, and people immediately just want to block it off.”
“True Phallacy” is intended to counter notions of the penis as sex tool or weapon, be it attached to a man who’s homo-, hetero-, or bisexual. First, by presenting the phallus as her central concept, Maddex removes much of the object’s shock value—her audience arrives forewarned, fully expecting to see frontal nudity. Second, she asserts, “I’m not looking for “pinup’ at all.” That said, she feels a need to justify her inclusion of a Marilyn Minter piece, painted on a small white metal box, that depicts a disembodied hand, mouth and penis engaged in fellatio: “This is the “sexiest’ piece in the show in terms of phallus and orifice meeting, and a hand on the phallus, but it’s on a first-aid kit. I feel that’s the culmination of the show.”
Despite her stated intent to avoid sexual connotations, Maddex has selected numerous works portraying erections, including E.R. Malmstrom’s Parallel photo of two men’s lower torsos; it’s difficult to regard a woody without imagining its purpose. “I guess there are a lot of erections [in the exhibition],” admits Maddex, claiming that the flaccid-to-stiff ratio is “about half and half.” However, “those with erections focus on something else within the piece rather than something really pornographic—they’re cropped so it becomes a formal consideration.”
Also included in the show is a Joe Shannon photograph of a woman in mesh hose, pumps, and a jet-black strap-on dildo. She stands defiantly, feet apart, as if the penis she wears gives her a power she doesn’t otherwise possess. Without the schlong, she’d be any sexy dominatrix; with it, she’s presumably dangerous. “I think deep down there is some sort of envy,” explains Maddex. “Madonna says, “I have a dick in my brain, I don’t need one down there,’ but the idea of projecting”—Maddex extends her arms as illustration—“the idea of being out there—as a symbol I think there’s a lot of envy of that.”
“Testosterone…makes men move forward and fast; peeing is like that,” she continues, gesturing to describe a liquid arc. “That’s what makes them build bridges and create monuments, [while] women are kind of low to the earth, squatting.”
So-called squatters who take pride in their internal plumbing might beg to differ. And Maddex acknowledges this. Still, she believes that some women occasionally desire “something other than the hole. I think that is why we say the clit is a little penis.”
On the other hand, books like Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power (from which “True Phallacy” takes its subtitle) argue that today’s males are made to feel self-conscious about their [insert your favorite penis-synonym here]. “The straight white male is psychologically castrated right now,” says Maddex. “Women have become strong and are now saying, “We don’t like penises’ or “All sex is rape,’ you know, the date-rape crisis and the whole sexual harassment thing. Men are becoming very afraid and treading on eggshells.”
She offers a metaphor for what she perceives as the decline of good old-fashioned machismo. “It’s like in The Wizard of Oz, when the Wicked Witch is melting,” she says. “You’re glad to see it happen, but you sort of regret it, too.”
An opening reception for “True Phallacy: The Myth of Male Power” will be held Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Michael Clark and Co. Gallery; the exhibit will run through Jan. 2.