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Sperm Cult, a group show at LAXART, took its inspiration and its name from a 2017 book collaboration between artists Richard Hawkins and Elijah Burgher. The publication is a celebration of queer, male transgression that combines photographs of nude men enacting unknown sexual rites—some wearing crude, cartoon-like masks, their bodies painted— with Burgher’s drawings of mysterious symbols, and a text which reads like an orgiastic Lord of the Flies. An updated PDF supplement released to coincide with the show adds homoerotic collaged images from pop culture (a shirtless Nick Jonas), art history (St. Thomas fingering Christ’s wound), and pornography. Photos of a man ejaculating onto a bowl of fruit (literally spilling his seed) wryly counter the notion of non-normative sex as fruitless. Through the lens of the sperm cult, the well- spring of creative energy is located outside of traditional procreation. As the press release stated, “Sperm Cult is an unabashedly phallocentric affair,” though far from patriarchal.The exhibition built off of this foundation, featuring six artists or pairs that explored the nexus of queer sexuality, magic, ritual, and community. In their collaborative works, Ryan M Pfeiffer and Rebecca Walz drew on art historical and erotic sources, layering black, brown, and blue line drawings of ancient sculptures, architectural elements, Renaissance portraits, and gay porn. In one drawing, a nude youth strikes an elegant pose next to another male attempting autofellatio, both rendered with the same delicate hand. In doing so, they inserted these libidinous images into a more traditional pictorial lineage going back to fertility icons like the Venus of Willendorf.
On the floor, Burgher laid down drop cloths onto which he painted sigils, or occult symbols related to desire. The geometric forms resembled letters, but were essentially unreadable. Still, we didn’t need to be able to decipher the glyphs to recognize an attempt to conjure. A large red and black canvas was titled The Forrest of the Poets (2018), presumably a reference to Forrest Bess, the abstract painter who was obsessed with the idea that hermaphroditism was the key to immortality. Bess went so far as to perform self-surgery, creating an opening where the penis meets the scrotum, which he believed could result in the ultimate form of intercourse if penetrated. Elsewhere, Pfeiffer and Walz also paid homage to Bess, titling one of their works The Mystery Cult of Forrest Bess (2016).
Pushed to one corner, also resting on the floor—in a rejection of conventional, hierarchical presentation— were ektor garcia’s sinuous ceramic pieces, collectively titled desechos (2018), or “waste.” These shiny, black glazed objects were wound and woven into vulva-like forms, interlocking hooks, or looping snakes that ended in a tangle, offering a less literal interpretation of hedonistic coupling. Given the title, these coils of clay couldn’t help but take on an abject, scatological reference.
Placed around the room were four sculptures by Ariana Reines and Oscar Tuazon, based on ancient Greek herms—pillars that featured a male bust on top and a phallus carved at groin level—thought to protect against evil. These particular herms were crudely constructed from everyday materials—wood, buckets, candles, concrete—and covered in pages of Reines’ poetry. They too played with gender identity—a pair were titled Ma and Pa, another was The Lesbiator (all 2016)—and furthered the ejaculatory conceit. A bucket placed beneath an engorged protuberance in Old Spice (2016) was filled with liquid soap resembling semen.
In a small gallery space upstairs sat two cases filled with the Sperm Cult’s literary precedent, Canadian artist Scott Treleaven’s late-’90s “queer, pagan, nomad, punk zine,” Salivation Army. The eight issues that were produced of this collaged and photocopied publication reflect a search for new ways of living outside the bounds of the homogenous, capitalist status quo, being guided by “insurrectionary magick, radicalism, nomadism, sexual & social diversity.” It’s a world where romantic libertine Arthur Rimbaud, occultist Aleister Crowley, and grunge rockers Mudhoney exist side by side. As the zine’s title suggests, bodily fluids are seen as the lubrication for this liberation, and although cocks are cut and pasted throughout the issues, gender is less important than radicality. (Treleaven implores in one, “More GRRRLS Should Send Stuff In!”)
Some may have viewed this ejaculatory infatuation as nothing more than a puerile obsession with molten manspreading, an update to Pollock’s suggestive drippings. But that overlooks the emphasis on collaboration, community, and consent that was evident in much of this work, that offered a queer male rejoinder to the popular rallying cry, “the Future is Female.” In adherence to hedonistic pleasure, the sperm cult offered an alternative, not a support, of the status quo.
The show Sperm Cult thoughtfully fleshed out the themes explored in Hawkins’ and Burgher’s publication— offering conceptual as opposed to simply aesthetic links—but somehow left the viewer wanting more. So much of the work in the show seemed to have a performative aspect, of which these physical objects were merely mementos. Burgher’s sigils reflected ritualistic origins, as did Tuazon’s and Reines’ herms, one topped with dramatically melted candles. Even Pfeiffer and Walz’s drawings implied some sort of dance as the two moved around each other in a flurry of mark-making. Viewers could certainly glean the process implicit in these works, but absent a participatory invitation, it was harder to locate themselves within the ceremonial bacchanal. Perhaps that distance between the object and its origin was simply a function of the gallery setting, in the sense that all artworks are remnants of their making. But an accompanying dose of performative drama would have gone a long way in juicing up this mostly static vision of transgressive ritual liberation.
Matthew Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Carla, he has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Hyperallergic, Artsy, Frieze, Terremotto, and Daily Serving.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 15.