“Growing up, I always assumed every store had an over-18 section. It was only when I got older that I realized my parents were in the business of hardcore gay porn. This was a completely strange thing for me, because this was not the world I knew to be of my parents: straight-laced, boring, and in my mom’s case, religious. The world of sexual deviants, gender nonconforming transgressives and weirdos, that was my world, not theirs…
“And yet, it took me leaving Los Angeles for over a decade to fully comprehend what a massive role their two Circus of Books stores served for the community. It took making a documentary film to realize that they had nurtured a second family to the family they had at home. They had carved out their own special place as trusted shop owners who never judged anyone who showed up in their surreptitious aisles, even as the rest of the world cast down condemnation, to say nothing of other parents at our school. As the store was closing last week, a Vietnam veteran walked through the doors and stood, unmoving in front of the register. My mom had protested against Vietnam, and she proceeded to tell him how terrible the Vietnam War was, and he looked at her and said, ‘Thank you. This store is part of my history, and some of the best years of my life happened here.’ ” — Rachel Mason, producer and director,Circus of Books*
The original Circus of Books—called “Book Circus”—opened in West Hollywood in 1967, followed by the Silver Lake location at Sunset Junction. An exhibition celebrating the communal culture and backrooms of Karen and Barry Mason‘s adults-only emporiums—fifty years of getting off—is now on view in Manhattan.
The show—curated by David Fierman with Rachel Mason—features artwork by Wilder Alison, Ron Athey, Adam Baran, Bengala, Erik Bergrin, Michael Bilsborough, RaynesBirkbeck, Seth Bogart, Chris Bogia, Kathe Burkhart, Deric Carner, Chivas Clem, Scott Covert, Vaginal Davis, Anne Doran, Thomas Dozol, Zackary Drucker, Ruben Esparza, Tom of Finland, Karen Finley, Benjamin Fredrickson, ektor garcia, Mariah Garnett, Mark Golamco, Jeff Grant, Michelle Handelman, Charles Hovland, Scott Hug, David Hurles, Stephen Irwin, William E. Jones, Wayne Koestenbaum, Mike Kuchar, Bruce LaBruce, Dawn Mellor, Lucas Michael, Billy Miller, Bob Mizer, David Mramor, Narcissister, Dominic Nurre, Mel Ottenberg, Jack Pierson, Breyer P-Orridge, Pre-Echo Press, Fay Ray, Mariah Robertson, Dean Sameshima, Stuart Sandford, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Margie Schnibbe, Michael Stipe, Chris E. Vargas, Mark Verabioff, Jan Wandrag, Karlheinz Weinberger, Jimmy Wright, and Dorian Wood.
From top: Vaginal Davis, Ascyltos of the Satyricon, 2016, ink on paper; Dominic Nurre, ValeofCashmereHead, 2017–19, coconut shell, coconut oil, salt lick, and acrylic; David Mramor, PinkStar, 2019, oil, acrylic, and inkjet on canvas; Wayne Koestenbaum, David at Leisure, 2019, oil and graphite on canvas paper; Lucas Michael, G5CR, 2017, neon; Dawn Mellor, Southend Beach, 2013, oil, Tipp-ex, and marker pen on linen; Jimmy Wright, Griffith Park, LA, 1973, graphite and charcoal on graph paper; Seth Bogart, Faggots, 2019, ceramic; Mike Kuchar, Liquid Dreams, circa 1980s–1990s, pencil, pens, felt pens, and ink on paper; Scott Hug, Untitled (STH_PW_003), 2018, collage; Jeff Grant, Snow and Holes, 2018, archival inkjet print, staples, and clearlay; Karen Finley, dickless, 2018, ink on paper. Images courtesy the artists and Fierman gallery. Special thanks to David Fierman and Rachel Mason.
“My aim is not to create an ideal but to draw beautiful men who love each other and are proud of it.” — Touko Laaksonen (Tom of Finland)*
Uniforms, muscles, and same-sex abandon aside, a key component in the liberating force of Laaksonen’s art was the smiles his lumberjacks and leathermen exchanged while they went about their business, giving and taking pleasure.
Laaksonen’s imagery provided a necessary tonic to the “tragic homosexual” narrative that marked much of the twentieth century’s imagery and literature. By creating a shame-free culture, and “eroticizing the symbols of heterosexual musculinity and making them rebound onto themselves, Tom challenged the qualities read into them by straight society… He largely canceled out the image of the male as eternally dominant by consistently shifting the balance of power… His hyper-masculine universe is not a confirmation of male logic, but its violation.” — MichaRamakers**
Tom’s life and work can be seen on the big screen in the new feature TOM OF FINLAND, directed by Dome Karukoski. Tom is played by Pekka Strang, who will appear in person on opening night.
TOM OF FINLAND, through November 2.
AMC DINE-IN SUNSET, 8000 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood.