Review – Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland at MOCA – PDC

I recently checked out the Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland exhibit now showing at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) – oh my goodness, you must go!!

Full disclosure: I am not arty at all. Thus, I have no idea what’s good about art or photos or anything. Hell, I really can’t even tell what *actually* constitutes art and what totally does not. (but let’s be honest – can anyone?)

All I know is if I like something or not, and I liked this exhibit.

First of all, MOCA has a space at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood (the iconic blue, green, and red buildings right in the middle of the city) – I didn’t know this!! It’s an awesome free-standing, two story structure separate from the PDC, out front by the fountain. It’s a beautiful way to spend an afternoon.

Here’s a little bit about Touko Laaksonen, aka “Tom of Finland” (1920-1991):

Tom of Finland is the creator of some of the most iconic and readily recognizable imagery of post-war gay culture. He produced thousands of images beginning in the 1940s, robbing straight homophobic culture of its most virile and masculine archetypes (bikers, hoodlums, lumberjacks, cops, cowboys, and sailors) and recasting them – through deft skill and fantastic imagination- unapologetic, self-aware, and boastfully proud enthusiasts of gay sex. His most innovative achievement though, worked out in fastidious renderings of gear, props, settings, and power relations inherent therein, was to create the depictions that would eventually become the foundation of an emerging gay leather culture. Tom imagined the leather scene by drawing it; real men were inspired by it, and suited themselves up.

I’ve long since loved Tom of Finland. This guy I used to know in New York had an amazing coffee table book that I used to pour over when I was very young, always blown away at how bold and raw the images were. The exhibit has a great collection of Tom’s men, and it was even more moving to see them in person.


(pictured: Tom’s men)

I wasn’t as familiar with Bob Mizer… Here’s a bit about him:

Bob Mizer began photographing as early as 1942, but unlike many of his contemporaries in the subculture of illicit physique nudes, Mizer took the Hollywood star-system approach and founded the Athletic Model Guild in 1945, a film and photo studio specializing in handsome natural-bodied (as opposed to exclusively muscle-bound, the norm of the day) boy-next-door talent. In his myriad satirical prison dramas, sci-fi flix, domesticated bachelor scenarios and elegantly captivating studio sessions, Mizer photographed and filmed over 10,000 models at a rough estimate of 60 photos a day, seven days a week for almost 50 years. Mizer always presented a fresh-faced and free, unashamed and gregarious, totally natural and light-hearted approach to male nudity and intimate physical contact between men. For these groundbreaking perspectives in eroticized representation alone, Mizer ranks with Alfred Kinsey at the forefront of the sexual revolution.

The amount of work this guy did is staggering, and to experience image after image on display at the PDC was intense. Two things struck me…

First, the level of oppression, repression, and danger – every sheet and every image included a date of production, some back to the 1940s. Now, none of the images were especially “pornographic” – they were sexy but not necessarily sexual, there was no penetration or anything. Just dudes being dudes, sometimes with other dudes. Sometimes there were costumes, sometimes silly ones. Sometimes there were props (sometimes silly ones). All of the images were joyful.

But all I could think about was how these photo shoots might have *looked* to an outsider, to a hater, and how if the “wrong” person came across them how much trouble there would be. That both made me sad and made me realize how truly radical Bob’s work was. It was a very emotional experience, thinking about how much he and the models risked for what were truly innocuous images.

The second thing I noticed was the evolution of the human body, namely how we preen and pose it. Some of the poses you can still see today, but others just looked… old!! Even without the dates (which ranged from the 1940s – the 1970s) or the context of the exhibit, even while gazing at some of the absolutely baby faces, you could tell the images were from a different era by how the bodies were shown and what was emphasized. It was an interesting longitudinal experience.


(pictured: the program, featuring an image by Bob Mizer)

If you’re around LA through January, you should definitely check out Tom and Bob – loved it!!



showing 11/2/13 – 1/26/14

MOCA LA, Pacific Design Center (8687 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood, CA  90069)

cost: $5 suggested donation plus parking

hours: Monday (closed), Tuesday – Friday (11 – 5), Saturday & Sunday (11 – 6)

more info here


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