State of Arousal

An art exhibition tries to make St. Louisans act grown-up about sex

Scripted unobtrusively on one of the rough-plastered walls inside Washington Avenue's Monkey Building is an adulterated definition of Saturnalia: "n. Rom. Hist. The Festival of Saturn. Held in mid-December and characterized by general unrestrained merrymaking, the precursor of Christmas."

Linda Horsley, bundled against the cold in the unheated loft space, acknowledges that Saturnalia means much more than that: that it stood as a celebration of life for the ancient Romans near those darkest days of the year, a time when slaves were freed and children became heads of households. Not until late in the empire, after a few of those nutsy caesars had ruled, did the idea of the "Roman orgy" become part of the festivities.

Yet that "Roman orgy" concept, Horsley and her fellow exhibition organizer Shelley Pereda Silvey reflect bemusedly, is what the crowd that attended the opening night of Arousal had in their minds in mid-December, on one of the coldest nights of the year. Silvey describes the goings-on as "vulgar," but Horsley is more philosophical. The exhibition space became like a "sandbox" to the revelers, she says, and they "released in a childish way their sexual inhibitions."

A sound-and-video installation by Cary Horton and Jason Hoeing contained the sensual tease of film noir.
A sound-and-video installation by Cary Horton and Jason Hoeing contained the sensual tease of film noir.

Wherever the "line between erotic art and vulgarity," as Silvey describes the demarcation, may lie, it was crossed on opening night, and she and Horsley took steps to make sure it didn't happen again for Arousal's official closing. The rules of "no drugs/no fornication" that were in effect on opening night remained (although beer and wine were provided), but, more crucially, the nudity that gave distinction to opening night was curtailed for the closing party. The paintings of penises, the black-and-white closeup of lips pressed to a banana and the "Wheel of Porn" all remained on view, because, it seems, they didn't provoke the "general unrestrained merrymaking" that the naked people engaged in performance art did.

St. Louisans have an undistinguished record of getting all out of sorts when it comes to nudity. Permissiveness is not a St. Louis concept, and the body might as well be as distant as the planet Saturn. However, even without the worries of public-funding oversight or humorless religiosity, the opening of Arousal had its troubles -- not with the conservative guardians of moral virtue but with those who took the "unrestrained" part of the Saturnalia definition to heart a bit excessively. At that opening-night party, for example (and these reports have been cobbled together, Rashomon-fashion, from various eyewitnesses), the sushi-covered nude woman lying on a full-length mirror was, to those with an aesthetic view, "very beautiful," set up on a platform centrally located on the first floor. But then there were those who got silly after a few too many glasses of beer or wine and intruded on the invisible wall between performance and audience. They started to eat the sushi, which was not the intent of the artist, Andrew Hagere of Raw Catering.

Then there were all the nude models on hand for life-drawing sessions, as well as the models participating in an on-site photo shoot with Michael Draga. Horsley, dismissively, says Draga "wanted to cause a scandal." His photo session included some incredibly large-breasted models cavorting behind a paper screen fitted with small apertures, as at a construction site.

When the Arousal models were through posing, they took to the gallery au naturel. For Horsley, this confluence of life and art was almost revelatory: "I was standing there having a conversation with a naked woman, and it wasn't strange -- or what was strange was that it wasn't strange."

But those without Horsley's maturity of mind took to all that flesh like those caesars who ruled during the decline of the Roman Empire. Bob Cassilly must have mistaken the models for concrete turtles, for (according to those on the scene) he started marking on them with a tube of lipstick. At the close of the evening, despite the subzero temperatures, the naked folks -- marked and unmarked -- took to the street for a very brief, although liberated, streak.

Despite all this, says Silvey, even though some church folk had come to witness the goings-on, "no one walked out disgusted" -- although one performance piece, involving a mattress, a red-velvet blanket and a naked man, did generate a degree of disgust among the Arousal organizers. As conceived by Courtney Obata, the work was to be confined to the man's having erections, beneath that blanket, on that mattress, for a limited amount of time. But this performance, too, went beyond the bounds of designated space and time. The performer rose from the mattress and began rubbing up against a lead pipe (which caused some people to be concerned about lead poisoning). Eventually he made it to the platform where the sushi-clad woman had been and, as one person observed, began "fondling himself for hours." A woman joined him, and the two engaged in onanism until, near the climax of the evening, a crowd gathered and both performers, finally, got off. Says one observer, "It was more neurotic than erotic."

So before Midwestern civilization's rate of decline increased precipitously, Arousal's organizers tempered the Saturnalia. The guy on the mattress wasn't invited back. People were to keep their clothes on. This refocused the event from an Eyes Wide Shut display to a celebratory occasion slightly elevated above the usual wine-and-cheese gallery nosh. Performance was still included, this time with a man and woman fully dressed in Asian pajamas doing some Crouching Tiger moves, but many in the audience (with those stories of opening night in their minds) were asking cynically, "So when are they going to fuck?" When a third party entered the scene, spending a lot of time with himself and his sword, Horsley's criticism of much of the artwork came to mind: "Most of the work portrays sexuality in its singularity."

To the question "Have you been aroused?" the answer from most of those at the closing party was "No" or "Maybe twice." This doesn't mean there wasn't some interesting art on the walls or on the floor. A sound-and-video installation by Cary Horton and Jason Hoeing, on view behind black curtains, featured hushed whispers and peripheral images of stairwells and open doorways and people doing things that might be shocking but might not; it contained the sensual tease of film noir. Donald Rasch's "Wheel of Porn" was both funny and artfully constructed -- turn that wheel and land on an expressionistically painted body part, with Rasch in the background goading people on like a carnival barker: "Go ahead, take a spin." The oil portraits of cocks were colorfully rendered by the pseudonymous Thomas Rangdale. Silvey and fellow Arousal coordinator Bob Rocca constructed three windows in separate frames containing ghostly images of a female nude and a drawing of a penis from a turn-of-the-century medical journal, inviting the viewers to walk between the frames and create their own visual overlays.

Lots of pieces were little more than big yawns, though. Those lips and that banana pressed together made for a visual cliché. A performance poet going on about the journey of a sperm hadn't the wit or inventiveness of an old Woody Allen routine.

Arousal became a place to people-watch, for that was the most arousing display in evidence. Silvey says part of the point of the show was to create a space for people and ideas to commingle safely. So they did, less extravagantly on closing night. Attractive people, too, which might make for a better campaign for the city than "We Got It Good" -- maybe "We Ain't Half-Bad-Lookin', Either."

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