Graphic Art

By Darren D'Addario
Timeout NY, October 14, 2004

Thanks to a slew of explicit new movies, books and gallery shows, hard-core sex is slipping into the mainstream, blurring the line between the provocative and the pornograhic

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders readily acknowledges the discomfort he felt when he began photographing naked porn stars two years ago. It's not that he was wary of vexing any sanctified ghosts lurking in the converted East Village church rectory that has served as his studio for more than two decades. It's just that the mild-mannered photographer's black-and-white portraits had traditionally captured the likes of Jimmy Carter, not Johnny Wadd. For Greenfield-Sanders, who conceived the project in 1997 after seeing Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, the bare, oversize breasts and shaved testicles filling his viewfinder gave him pause.

"My pictures have always been about intellectual pursuits—artists, thinkers, people of accomplishment—so I was not initially at ease," he says. "But I got comfortable quickly, not only because my subjects—whether they were straight, gay, young, old, male or female—were very exhibitionistic, but also because I began to realize that porn stars are accomplished people. They're the best at what they do. They're the best at fucking."

The result of two years of shooting photos (which were patterned after Goya nudes) is the handsome Bulfinch Press coffee-table book XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, which showcases Jenna Jameson, Peter North, Tera Patrick, Seymore Butts and 26 of their most intimate friends. Supplementing the images is an impressive collection of essays about adult films, written by no less than Gore Vidal, John Malkovich, Francine du Plessix Gray and Nancy Friday, among others. XXX is already the greatest popular success of Greenfield-Sanders's career. In addition to an upcoming exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, the work has spawned an HBO documentary about the making of the book, and a companion CD of music that complements its theme.

"I'm stunned by it all," Greenfield-Sanders, 52, says of the multi-media juggernaut. "I've never in my career done anything that had such attraction for so many people. Publishers were clamoring to work with me on the project."

Greenfield-Sanders is by no means the only artist with a newfound interest in graphic sex; more and more, mainstream filmmakers, writers and photographers are focusing their attention on pornography or are incorporating hard-core sexual elements into their work. And they're finding a broad, insatiable audience. Cinema buffs at the recent Toronto International Film Festival could have been forgiven for thinking they'd wandered into a XXX peep show. A spurt of explicit memoirs is spicing up the shelves at your local Barnes & Noble. And art galleries are hosting crowded exhibitions that leave little to the imagination.

THE ID STAYS IN THE PICTURE From left, scenes from Lukas Moodysson's A Hole in My Heart, one of the printable photos from Terry Richardson's Terryworld exhibit, Jenna Jameson, and a shot from Stefano De Luigi's Pornoland.

Neil Strauss, the former New York Times music writer who coauthored How to Make Love like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale with Jenna Jameson, has witnessed porn's wide appeal firsthand. "When I was hanging out with Jenna," Strauss recalls, "she would be approached by all these 12-year-old girls and their mothers. It was always a mob scene. The girls had seen her on E! True Hollywood Story and would ask her to take photographs with them. The kids treated her like she was Avril Lavigne."

That's a reaction Jameson couldn't have imagined a decade earlier. Music chronicler Legs McNeil, who has played Studs Terkel to the adult-film industry for the past seven years while conducting interviews for his forthcoming book, The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, is blunt when asked if publishers initially encouraged his project. "I started working on it right after I finished [the punk-rock oral history] Please Kill Me, because I thought it was a great untold story," he growls. "But no one was interested in it at all seven years ago. I was the only one interested in it then."

Greenfield-Sanders credits Howard Stern, who recently decided to leave the public airwaves for satellite radio to avoid FCC fines, with introducing porn stars to the mainstream. But whatever the tipping point was, the presence of prurient art has never been more widespread. This year's Toronto film festival couldn't be mistaken for the annual Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, but it did display an eye-popping number of graphic sex scenes in movies by heralded filmmakers.

The young Swedish writer-director Lukas Moodysson's A Hole in My Heart examines the strange, highly charged dynamics between a teenager and his dissipated dad, who makes amateur pornography with his equally creepy friends in the family's living room. The movie includes some of the more shocking scatological sex scenes ever released by an esteemed filmmaker. Meanwhile, Michael Winterbottom—the respected director of 24 Hour Party People, who's now working on an adaptation of the 18th-century classic Tristram Shandy—showcased Nine Songs, a romantic drama studded with numerous hard-core sex scenes. And in Lisandro Alonso's much-acclaimed Los Muertos, the main character, a paroled murderer, receives nonsimulated oral sex from a prostitute whose children are playing in the next room.

While the Canadians were hosting their flesh fest, Andrew Repasky McElhinney's hard-core art film, George Bataille's Story of the Eye, started playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York. The Philadelphia-based director used intertitles culled from Bataille's surreal, sexually explicit 1928 novel to comment on both gay and straight sex scenes, a ménage à trois and a finale that features—duck!—a money shot straight to the camera lens. And still lurking in theaters is Vincent Gallo's controversial The Brown Bunny, an otherwise limp drama about a morose race-car driver that is the first art film to use fellatio—courtesy of Chloë Sevigny—as a marketing tool. Gallo's inclusion of a faux XXX rating in the movie's print ads was certainly intended to sell the grind house to an art-house crowd.

All of these filmmakers are likely emboldened to some degree by the libidinous oeuvre of French director Catherine Breillat. At Toronto, Breillat was represented by Anatomy of Hell, purportedly her final sex-themed film (see "Come again?," ). In the movie, porn star Rocco Siffredi and actor Amira Casar contort themselves into a variety of boudoir positions, he impales her with a garden hoe, and the two share a cocktail of diluted menstrual blood. Asked if she feels that she was ahead of her time in treating sex so frankly, Breillat points to Nagisa Oshima and his 1976 shocker, In the Realm of the Senses, as the originator, but doesn't deny her influence.

"I was, perhaps, able to go further, to explore more deeply certain elements about sexuality and sexual identity," she says, on the phone from Paris. "And I specifically examined what obscenity is and why it exists. Why do sexuality and obscenity preoccupy us so much?" Breillat admits that the explicitness of her material forced her to cast Siffredi, who also starred in her 1999 film Romance. (Siffredi is, no doubt, the only art-house actor whose Internet Movie Database entry includes such titles as The Ass Collector and Rocco's Best Butt Fucks.) "I started working with Rocco because it was very difficult to find male actors who would do my films," Breillat says. "Contrary to popular belief, men have a much stronger sense of shame about being nude or being filmed in sexual positions than women do."

Breillat has obviously never met the photographer Terry Richardson. Richardson, spindly and mustachioed, with large eyeglasses, a larger penis and a t-bone tattoo above his belly button, recently presented Terryworld, a show at Deitch Projects in Soho that resembled the creepy photo album of a sex tourist who just slithered out of a Bangkok brothel. As oldies by the Beach Boys and the Platters played—"They asked me how I knew / My true love was true"—a steady stream of art aficionados and gawkers leered at photos of Richardson, who resembles a horny R. Crumb creation, sticking his swollen member into the orifices of a variety of willing women—one of whom has the word slut drawn across her forehead—and ejaculating on their faces. Richardson apparently believes he's making some commentary about the Internet porn explosion, but his work seems mostly to be about an ugly, tattooed guy getting his rocks off, bullshitting his way to art-world acclaim.

In one series of shots, Richardson indulges in a venerable pornography trope (one that's especially familiar to those who visited the Quad Cinema last year to see the collection of vintage French pornos The Good Old Naughty Days): He's dressed as a priest while having sex with a woman wearing a habit. There's obviously no spiritual element to Richardson's gleeful mocking, but former Balanchine ballerina Toni Bentley is completely serious about her sexual and spiritual awakening in The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir. Bentley's story is every bit as frank as Catherine Millet's 2002 erotic memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. Equal parts revealing and witty, the book details how discovering anal sex with a lover moved Bentley toward the spiritual epiphany that she had pursued in vain since her childhood in an atheist household. The author, whose previous memoir was the ballet-themed Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal, says that she never believed that the book would see the light of day, and that's why it has such shockingly graphic accounts. "I'm a big diary keeper," Bentley says. "I made a lot of notes in longhand for this one, never thinking that it would actually be a published book. That was what gave me the freedom to write it. I don't think it would have been possible for me to write the book if I had a contract already. This way, I could do it without censoring myself."

Publisher Judith Regan saw potential—and, no doubt, dollar signs—in Bentley's immodesty. In the end (as it were), The Surrender will likely push the buttons of many different people for many different reasons. The author, who in conversation demurely refers to her favorite sexual act as "the A-word," acknowledges that her book is an extreme self- portrait. "I'm certainly not trying to proselytize, and I have no agenda," she says. "I just wanted to tell my experience, and I hope it will resonate with different people in different ways. I just like walking the edge between high art and low art.

"I mean, Balanchine used to go to a strip club in Paris, and he always said that vulgarity is useful," she continues. "Ballet and stripping are the two far-end spectrums of dance; I love them both, but I'm not really very interested in things in the middle—I'm an extremist. Besides, I do think that most people are too tight-assed."

Asses are anything but tight in another new photo book, Stefano De Luigi's gritty collection of snapshots, Pornoland. Accompanying the lurid images, which De Luigi took on porno sets in Berlin, Budapest, Los Angeles and other locales, is an essay by none other than Martin Amis, about the nastiness of the adult-film industry. De Luigi focuses his camera on the workaday aspects of making dirty movies: showing naked people preparing to couple, against a background of vacuum cleaners and strewn-about soda cans in the apartments and studios where they do their business.

POLE RESULTS Hats are on, but everything else comes off in Jenna Jameson's tell-all, How to Make Love like a Porn Star.

Porn is an ugly working-class occupation to this photographer's eye, and Amis's reportage about the lives of porn stars supports that notion. Toward the end of his essay, Amis states that porn—even though it's a billion-dollar industry—can never be mainstream. Of course, the fact that a literary light like Amis took notes while watching a three-way featuring the infamous performer Chloe (who appears in the Greenfield-Sanders book), or even that he wrote this essay in the first place, seems to argue the opposite.

Both Greenfield-Sanders and Neil Strauss do, however, largely agree with Amis, asserting that porn can never really become completely acceptable even if it's fashionable. "[Adult actor] Nina Hartley says porn is about arousal and it doesn't fit into the multiplex theater system," Greenfield-Sanders says. "And I agree."

"Pornography is popular," Strauss remarks. "But that's not the same thing as being mainstream. It has come a long way, though. When the first generation of porn stars went on TV talk shows, they were only asked questions about being in the industry. But Jenna Jameson just did all the morning talk shows and they didn't even ask her about porn. They asked her all the usual celebrity questions."

While actual porn may not be swimming in the mainstream, graphic sex has become a guaranteed way for artists to get attention. Vincent Gallo marketed his blow job in The Brown Bunny as if it were the Rosebud in his Citizen Kane. Strauss acknowledges that he was asked to write a serious biography with Jameson only after another author failed at a less-ambitious work featuring sex tips and such. For the video work Untitled, which debuted in New York in June at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, artist Andrea Fraser filmed herself having sex with a collector who paid her a "commission." Although Fraser has stated that she intended to criticize the power structure of museums and galleries, she was criticized just as vehemently for trying to shock her way to greater status in the art world. And three novels being released this fall that detail the sexual exploits of teenagers—Melissa P.'s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, Ami Sakurai's Innocent World and Helen Walsh's Brass—are being sold with provocative cover images or jacket copy.

Writer T.C. Boyle believes that more is often in play in this spate of graphic culture than just grabs for profit and attention. Boyle's new novel, The Inner Circle, is sex-based itself, examining the lives and work of the pioneering sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his young colleagues. (With director Bill Condon's unrelated film Kinsey scheduled for release next month, America's preeminent sexual scientist is having a major moment, 48 years after his death.) "Our sexual relations with each other are deep in our animal selves and in our emotional selves," Boyle says. "We're always going to be fascinated by this mysterious part of our being, especially now when we are living in a very oppressive and reactionary sort of time."

The "more bush, less Bush" philosophy may seem too tidy an explanation for the trend, but back in his studio, Greenfield-Sanders recalls having similar thoughts when he finally decided to go forward with his XXX project. "I could see at the time that the country was becoming very divided," he says. "There was the shame-based Bush administration's view of sex, and there were the people who were much more open to it. The John Malkovich essay in my book talks about how Internet pornography is out of the box—and he's right, it is out of the box. What are you going to do, shut down the Internet like they do in countries where religious fundamentalism runs everything? I think the reason why porn is so popular in art today is because when you try to push it down the way the government is trying to right now, it comes up in other places."