Desperately Seeking Sublimation

Christina Catherine Martinez on “The Pleasure Principle”

Jessica Emmanuel performing as Narcissister in The Face (Performing Male Facial Features), Maccarone Gallery, Los Angeles, September 21, 2019. Photo: Christina Catherine Martinez.


Sex, like going out, carries the risk of the anticipation being a more visceral experience than consummation. Art is supposed to save us from this sad gambit, but when you mix all three—as at the opening of the Pornhub-sponsored exhibition “The Pleasure Principle” at Maccarone in Boyle Heights—you may end up sitting in your car for twenty minutes, wearing a strapless top that smooshes your boobs, waiting for the place to fill up, trying to feel the vibe.

I had a sexting appointment with Karen Finley, one of the original NEA Four, as part of her Sext Me If You Can performance, where the artist live paints tiny portraits based on anonymous sexting sessions with willing participants. I signed up for journalism, of course. I had imagined that the session would involve me walking around the gallery or open-bar courtyard, trying to conjure some performatively cringey sapphic content—and I was not looking forward to it. Instead, I was taken to one of Maccarone’s bathrooms, handed a slip of paper with a phone number on it, and given ten minutes to “do or send whatever you like,” according to the gallery assistant. I sat under the white fluorescent lights of the tiny bathroom, a little bit at a loss (sperm donors: Is this what it’s like?). If I knew it was private I could have just brought a vibrator, I thought. I then texted this thought to Karen. Good opener! Who knew? Karen texted back plainly: Welcome. Cell reception in the bathroom was not so great. My dawdling and our initial exchange already ate up half the session, and Karen was supposed to be painting . . . this. I sat on the toilet lid, pulled my top down, stuck out my tongue, and took a photo that can only be described as a parody of a sext, making sure to crop out the top half of my face. I sent it to Karen. How’s that? I asked. Purrfect, she said. NO FILTER, I bragged. Hahahahaha, she texted in reply. I ran into painter Hayley Barker on the way out: “You sexted with Karen? She changed my life in the ’90s!”

Karen Finley performing Sext Me If You Can.

“No one’s listening to the videos,” Ann Hirsch said of the gallerygoers shyly buzzing around her “Cuts_” _series but declining to pick up the headphones connected to the screens. “They honestly make no sense without the sound—they just look like porn clips.” Indeed. She sifted through various porn sites (including the exhibition’s sponsor, bien sûr) using search tags such as “amateur” and “MILF,” and wove together supercuts highlighting visual and formal themes that, somewhat disturbingly, emerged from these searches, then included her own audio commentary. For example, an alarming amount of adult content tagged “for women” involves fucking a ballerina on a lily-white canopy bed. “I think this piece is porn-critical, so I’m glad that Pornhub was open to showing it. . . . I don’t talk about Freud in the butt one,” Hirsch said, adding that she has a hard time getting this work shown in general.

Artist Ann Hirsch.

“Why is ‘porn’ such a dirty word?” Michele Maccarone asked. “The art world has such a history of censoring.” We were in the ad hoc greenroom set up in the back of the gallery. Performers and VIP guests milled about, munching on sliders and sipping pink champagne. The iconic porn actor and director Asa Akira was about to undress for Delia Brown’s live drawing performance, taking place in a little room lavishly dressed to resemble a Paris atelier. Visitors could view the performance only through a tiny square window cut into the wall. Very Olympia meets Étant donnés. The adult-film stars sprinkled about the space for vibes were all sunny and friendly and warm. As were the rainbow-wigged performers from Trulee Hall’s SexyTime Rock Variations, 2019, who wandered casually around the gallery to complement her video of the same title. My friend Shelley was roped into donning a cerulean wig and fake fingernails after one of the performers couldn’t make it. “I’m performing right now,” she said as we shared a cigarette. A performer embodying Narcissister, wearing a giant nose as a backpack, posed spread-eagle on a humongous scrap metal assemblage as part of The Face, a performance involving her and various collaborators slowly manipulating levers and pulleys to animate a grotesque puppet of a man’s visage. Zackary Drucker complimented my lipstick.

Dealer Michele Maccarone.

“I’m feeling highly prudish and overdressed . . . #desperatelyseekingsublimation. That’s my hashtag for the night,” said Amy Bessone, whose contributions to the show included a nude ceramic torso and lovely abstract-ish paintings of figures rendered in a throbbing fuchsia pink, crouching and lounging freely in a Skittle-colored space. A polyamorous poet nailed the vibe when he commented, “There’s like a frisson of sexiness here, but . . . no one’s getting laid, you know?”

Artist Amy Bessone.

Artist Delia Brown and adult-film actor and director Asa Akira.

Artist Nao Bustamante.

Artist Kelly Lamb and Curate LA founder Shelley Holcomb. 

Artist Zackary Drucker.

Artist Trulee Hall.

Artist Katherina Olschbaur.