Sex Sells at Alwun House's "Exotic Art Show"
Brightly colored undraped bosoms. Long, dangly scrotums. Swollen clitorises. If it's February and you're staring at a giant painting of some guy's ass, then you must be at Alwun House. And this must be the venerable institution's annual Exotic Art Show.
"People always call this the Erotic Show," says Alwun artistic director Kim Moody, who's amused that art fans think the show is only about sex. And yet both the exhibit's reputation and nearly all its artwork are sexual in nature.
It's deliberate, Moody admits. The show was inspired in 1984 by the late art maven and ASU Art Museum curator Rudy Turk, then on the Alwun House board. "We were looking for a fundraiser," Moody recalls, "and Rudy said, 'Lots of artists are creating sexy work they can't show in Scottsdale. If you call it exotic, everyone will think erotic.' And of course, he was right."
Sex sells, and this annual show is Alwun's big-ticket event. The gallery, housed in a hundred-year-old house at the northeast corner of Roosevelt and 12th Streets, is the graying grandfather of the downtown art scene, older than the scene itself by a couple of decades. When Alwun (a play on "all one," the hippie-dippy we're-all-in-this-together maxim the gallery has long clung to) was founded in 1971, this artist enclave was the downtown art scene. Gritty wood floors; a wide back porch filled with mismatched furniture; gardens full of peculiar sculptures and a pond with a giant carp who reportedly likes to be petted. Alwun, categorically reeking of patchouli, has barely budged, aesthetically, since the '70s. It's a good place for an "exotic" show.
Because artists pay to be in this juried show, there's a lot of work that can be politely called "up and coming" — paintings and sculptures that are less about quality than they are about titillation.
"There are lots of men's body parts this year," Moody says with no trace of irony, and indeed, some of the pieces submitted — nearly all of them figurative — resemble advertisements for porno sites or "massage parlors."
There are some standouts this year. Rachael Pitts' Milkbone Frida is a Kahloesque portrait of a spaniel-faced woman wearing a dog biscuit around her neck; Julio Cesar Rodarte's 69 Pink offers an acrylic-on-paper homage to that famous sexual position. Photography is popular in this edition of the show: Tom Stephenson's Silence is a manipulated montage of intertwined lips and tongues, French kissing and floating above a pair of melting handguns. In Michelle Miller's Muse, a naked girl embracing a cello is shown in mirror image.
Most of the work is local, although Alwun always attempts to cast a wider net with its call for artists. "We send the call out nationally every year," Moody says, "but somehow it never gets listed on any national websites anywhere. I don't know why. Maybe our grand prize of $250 isn't considered worthy enough."
Or maybe because both Alwun and its annual sex show appear, in a burgeoning new art scene that is straining for credibility, to be more than a little retro. Art fans looking to discover emerging artists or new work by established names typically look elsewhere; the Exotic Art Show is aimed at people who want to look at giant ceramic penises and then get trashed while watching a drag show on Alwun's string-lit garden stage.
This year, the headliner for Exotic's kick-off was Annie Sprinkle, the porn star turned '80s performance artist best known for then-shocking performance pieces in which she invited audience members to observe her cervix with a speculum and a flashlight. Additional Alwun fun was provided by a burlesque troupe, a body painter, and someone named Joe the Balloon Pimp.
If it's difficult to get Kim Moody to talk about why time appears to have stood still at Alwun, he's not being cagey. He appears not to have noticed.
"The contemporary is always current," he sort of explains. "New blood, fresh new ideas. Alwun House is about inclusion and artists pursuing their work, and learning to make it attractive and worthy of being in someone's home. We've always drawn the outsider, both as artist and viewer. It's what we're here for. Lately, we're also drawing a more diverse crowd. College kids. Newbies. Businesspeople."
"Absolutely," Moody says. "And it's just amazing when someone in a three-piece suit buys a vagina. You just don't expect it."
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.