The Homo Ate­lier

Hello Mr. Magazine - - THE HOMO ATELIER - Text by Mark James Art by Rolando Rosler

A pho­to­graph of Scott O’Hara in black and white and noth­ing else hangs over the fire­place just a few feet from the makeshift model stand where I will be pos­ing tonight. O’Hara, the 1980s porn leg­end and au­thor, was the very first model for the San Fran­cisco-based group Gay Men’s Sketch, founded 25 years ago in this apart­ment south of Mar­ket Street. This was once an area that sym­bol­ized sex­ual free­dom, but now its sex clubs, bath­houses, and street corner pick-ups have given way to ex­pen­sive night­clubs and mil­lion-dol­lar con­dos. Now full of new ar­rivals that did not move here to share in the city’s pro­gres­sive val­ues, but to ap­pro­pri­ate them as a myth­i­cal lifestyle brand.

“AIDS was rav­aging the city, and gay men were look­ing for a place to con­nect that was still sex­ual, but not dan­ger­ously so.”

How­ever, in­side this flat, I can still feel that past. The cream light in the kitchen washes over the walls plas­tered with im­ages of the male nude in ev­ery con­ceiv­able pose and medium, the work of dozens of artists over the years. Many of the prints are yel­lowed and curled around the edges. This apart­ment is some­thing like a tem­ple ded­i­cated to the male body, its black-and-white draw­ings like re­li­gious icons. These nudes tes­tify to an ob­ses­sion with the male form in its en­tirety, a devo­tion ren­dered in pen and char­coal.

Started in 1987 by Mark I. Chester, a pro­lific fetish pho­tog­ra­pher, the weekly sketch group be­gan as an al­ter­na­tive to the art school mod­el­ing classes of the day, which used pri­mar­ily fe­male fig­ure mod­els. In those pre-In­ter­net days, mod­els were pro­cured from fliers placed on tele­phone poles: hus­tlers, fetishists and ex­hi­bi­tion­ists who were happy to ei­ther show off or make a quick buck. AIDS was rav­aging the city, and gay men were look­ing for a place to con­nect that was still sex­ual, but not dan­ger­ously so.

Much has changed over the last 25 years. The ex­treme threat of AIDS may have sub­sided, but it’s also left its scars. Gay men now feel that they can’t ex­press their sex­u­al­ity in an open and hon­est way, at least to the ex­tent they once could. The price of wider so­ci­etal ac­cep­tance has been sex­ual self-cen­sor­ship. Class dif­fer­ences also feel more pro­nounced to­day than in the past, which leads to less mix­ing be­tween dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the

com­mu­nity. When gay bars and meet­ing spa­ces are pri­mar­ily for hang­ing with friends and not used solely as cruis­ing grounds, we self-seg­re­gate by class. It’s as if gay men sur­vived the ex­is­ten­tial threat of AIDS only to aban­don the tra­di­tions that once gave our com­mu­nity life.

De­spite these mas­sive changes in the phys­i­cal and cul­tural land­scape, Gay Men’s Sketch has stuck around, bring­ing to­gether var­i­ous el­e­ments of the city’s gay cul­ture and at­tract­ing equal num­bers of artists, fetishists, and gawk­ers. It’s a distinctly old-fash­ioned way for men to in­ter­act with the male form, one that re­mains rel­e­vant in part due to its rar­ity. It doesn’t just pre­serve some of the more ven­er­a­ble parts of our cul­ture – it’s also a priceless way for gay men to ex­pe­ri­ence their bod­ies through art. One of the ef­fects of as­sim­i­la­tion has been the loss of queer spa­ces in San Fran­cisco. Thus I might have sup­ported it any­way out of a vague sense of obli­ga­tion to do my part by hon­or­ing a slice of gay cul­ture that came be­fore me, but my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence mod­el­ing for the sketch group showed me just how valu­able it re­ally was.

“Fa­mil­iar­ity and the de­mands of pro­fes­sion­al­ism in a class­room set­ting have re­moved any sex­ual un­der­cur­rent.”

I first did fig­ure mod­el­ing for a boyfriend while I was in high school. He was study­ing for his BFA and was tired of draw­ing nude women ex­clu­sively. Over the years, I’ve mod­eled for a few classes or friends. It’s a gym mo­ti­va­tor, and I do find the process of ges­tures and long poses to be med­i­ta­tive work. It’s also com­pletely non-sex­ual. Let me ex­plain: It has evolved into ei­ther a job for pay or work­ing for TFP (trade for print). Fa­mil­iar­ity and the de­mands of pro­fes­sion­al­ism in a class­room set­ting have re­moved any sex­ual un­der­cur­rent.

Hav­ing your nude body be de-sex­u­al­ized by strangers who draw it in de­tail can feel kind of odd af­ter a while. And so I was ea­ger to pose for the gay men’s group – I wanted to coun­ter­bal­ance the ef­fect on me of the straight guy’s gaze, which fears ren­der­ing a pe­nis, or that of a house­wife tak­ing a con­tin­u­ing ed class. Mod­el­ing in schools so many times made it seem nat­u­ral to me to think of a draw­ing ses­sion as non-sex­ual. In that re­gard, it takes the power away from the model and gives it to the view­ers. But the Gay Men’s Sketch meet­ings seemed like an at­mos­phere with no

pre­tense and no fear of the sex­ual. It was a sig­nal that it was okay for the act to be erotic, and in that way shifted the power back to­wards the model; I would be looked at sen­su­ally, with­out shame or fear. I was able to shed the pu­ri­tan pre­tense of the non-sex­ual so in­grained by art school di­dac­tics.

I ar­rive at Chester’s house, as in­structed, a few min­utes early, and am shown a room to put my things in and asked to buzz in the ar­riv­ing artists. In the art school world, artists and mod­els are usu­ally kept at arms’ length to avoid even the slight­est sex­ual vibe. Here, Chester en­cour­ages me to in­tro­duce my­self to the artists, with the ex­pla­na­tion that it will make me feel less “like a piece of meat”– though in the next breath, he tells me to take off my shirt. There has al­ways been some­thing of a class di­vide be­tween artist and model, even among the starv­ing artist set. But here, our shared sex­u­al­ity changes the power dy­namic. We are all gay men. There is no pre­tense about en­joy­ing other nude men. Our de­sires are laid flat on the ta­ble.

This is clearly a more re­spectable venue for view­ing the nude male fig­ure than, say, the Nob Hill All-Male Adult The­ater across town. Here, a mere fif­teen dol­lars buys three hours of se­ri­ous-minded nu­dity, in a va­ri­ety of ges­tures and poses – fruit and cheese pro­vided, thanky­ou­very­much. The men who ar­rive are a cross-sec­tion of Bay Area ho­mos, a di­verse group of col­lege art stu­dents and re­tirees, armed with can­vases, draw­ing pads, chalk, pens, and iPads. I rarely get the op­por­tu­nity to con­nect with older gay men, and I find the in­ter­ac­tion il­lu­mi­nat­ing. These are ho­mos of a gen­er­a­tion that has seen it all, and are not shy in shar­ing their sto­ries, or com­ment­ing breath­lessly, “I could just draw your nip­ples for days.” Dur­ing a break, one of the artists tells me that a lo­cal art school will call him when they have booked a par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive young fig­ure model that they think he would en­joy draw­ing. The mod­els can vary widely as well. Judg­ing from some of the mod­els fea­tured on­line, a hot body is not al­ways re­quired; at­ti­tude can tran­scend pul­chri­tude.

My ses­sion is more straight­for ward, art school-style nude fig­ure mod­el­ing, though the glar­ing cam­era lights and the bed sheets hung over Chester’s Vic­to­rian bay win­dows sug­gest a lurid Su­per-8 porno flick. For my first pose, I’m in­structed to keep on some cloth­ing. I de­cide on clas­sic briefs and gym socks, but Chester im­me­di­ately or­ders me to ditch the socks. Fetishism is rarely demo­cratic.

Through the course of the evening we work from sixty-sec­ond ges­tures up to longer twenty-minute poses. Look­ing around dur­ing the breaks at the sketch­pads, can­vases, and iPads, the qual­ity of work in the room is ac­tu­ally quite im­pres­sive. I also no­tice that no one is afraid to draw the pe­nis. Here, un­like the art school jocks hop­ing to land a job at Zynga, my fel­low tribes­men rel­ish il­lus­trat­ing it with­out shame. Their art sig­nals grat­i­tude for my shar­ing of self and a wel­com­ing into their com­mu­nity.

The com­mu­nity re­mains an es­sen­tial part of Gay Men’s Sketch. Some of the men here tonight were at the very first ses­sion, 25 years ago. The group has sur­vived the AIDS cri­sis, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and the lat­est tech bub­ble, held to­gether by the sheer will of the artists who at­tend. A unique blend of art, com­merce, and com­mu­nity has kept the group go­ing, week in, week out. And the idea has spread: Out­side of San Fran­cisco, the Les­lie Lohman Gay Art Mu­seum in New York, and the Tom of Fin­land Foun­da­tion in Los An­ge­les also host gay men’s sketch groups, though these groups have a rep­u­ta­tion for hir­ing mod­els based more on aes­thet­ics rather than mod­el­ing skill or even punc­tu­al­ity.

Per­haps this reads as a love let­ter to a by-gone era of gay male cul­ture that we are los­ing. Yet in our age of Man­hunt and Scruff, when so much of the “gay com­mu­nity” ex­ists on­line, the idea of a Homo Ate­lier re­mains rel­e­vant – a place in the real world for young and old to share and con­nect in per­son. Artist or model, skilled or un­skilled, it of­fers some­thing we can all agree on: the pur­suit of art, and need for con­nec­tion.

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