New York


Simon Watson Gallery

Some non-Western cultures have developed an erotic art designed to enhance and intensify orgasm. We in the West have, instead, a science of sexuality; we dissect our desires the same way we dissect cadavers. In addressing “erotophobia” through the visual arts, what the organizers of this group show attempted to create was an atmosphere in which we could examine our own sexual phobias—according to the press release, this was a “forum of sexuality” designed to open up a “dialogue.” Fear, however, took a back seat, making eros seem a bit too facile.

In some ways, what one saw was less a show about eros and our fear of it than a celebration of the male member in different phases of tumescence. Male homosexuality was certainly the best-represented sexual theme, but it was the proliferation of penises that created the impression that this show was really about cocks. Now that might have been interesting—just a cock show, nothing more. Ultimately, this focus weakened the show as a whole. Male sexuality emerged as the strongest subtext; perhaps the show would have been better off limiting itself to that.

Vito Acconci’s hilarious Trappings, 1973, for instance, a photograph of the artist talking sweetly to his penis (accompanied by the text of his monologue), is a brilliant illustration of male narcissism gone amok. The artist’s ode to his genitalia is pathetically moving. Acconci has revealed himself as a monster of erotic dysfunction in a world where abjection to the masculine, the phallic, is both omnipresent and unspoken. He acts out his abjection to his penis with terrifying honesty: what could be more revealing? Most of the other work in the show lacked Acconci’s insight and his daring.

Despite its conceptual weaknesses, “Erotophobia” was a timely intervention in the wake of the Jesse Helms censorship drive, and the hanging of the work of well known artists with that of lesser-known ones was unorthodox and encouraging. But the show did not present us with enough strong ideas about passion, our bodies, our fantasies, and the power of pleasure. It did not go far enough in terms of demonstrating that, more often than not, eros is produced in that tight space between fear and desire.

Catherine Liu