Candy hearts and red roses abound this time of year amid celebrations of Valentine’s Day.
Over at Alwun House, though, they’re going for a different vibe. There, on Saturday, February 13, you'll be more likely to see bondage or fetish fare than sentimentality and sweetness.
For more than three decades, the creative space that sits on the edge of Roosevelt Row has presented its annual Exotic Art Show, a blend of visual and performance art with an erotic twist for the adults-only crowd.
"Galleries were very prudish," back when the show started in the mid-80s, says Dana Johnson, who heads the Alwun House Foundation. "You couldn't even show a nipple back then."
How times change. Exotic Art Shows in the years since have included a triptych depicting a labial piercing and the hanging of a painting of male body parts, complete with fine brush strokes for hundreds of dark pubic hairs.
Johnson and Alwun House founder Kim Moody are working to continue these fine traditions this year amid a global pandemic that’s limiting the ways artists and audiences can safely gather for exhibits and performances.
They started by reducing the crowd size, reconfiguring the event footprint, and splitting the performance times. Instead of 400 people for a single show, they’ll have fewer than 100 people at each of two shows on February 13, all seated at tables for two or four patrons in Alwun's outdoor courtyard.
Even the art exhibit got scaled back to allow for social distancing. A popular basement gallery with stairs where people once paused to mingle won’t be open for this show, and there will be works by just 25 artists in the show. Typically, at least twice that number participate.
For entertainment, there will be a cabaret-style show featuring comedians Leslie Barton and Earl Ray, plus the variety act Romantasy Cabaret. Simple people-watching also qualifies as entertainment at this event, given that so many people show up in fancy attire or fashion with an erotic twist.
“We tell people to dress for success, but we say that tongue in cheek,” explains Johnson. Sometimes that’s an elegant gown; other times, it’s their favorite bondage fare. “It’s not exactly a costume ball, but it does allow for a participatory element.”
There will also be a different vibe this year at the Erotic Poetry & Music Festivus, which launched in 2004 and is scheduled for Saturday, February 20. Expect performances by local storytellers, musicians, poets, and comedians who infuse their work with erotic or exotic themes.
“The atmosphere is more sedate and people tend to come in casual clothes with artistic flair,” Johnson says.
Preparations for both events, from stringing lights in trees to draping ethereal fabrics around the 1912 house, are already underway.
And Johnson is relieved they found a way to make it work.
“There was a doom-and-gloom cloud hanging over our future when we wondered whether we dared to do the events this year,” he recalls.
Now, he’s busy with finishing touches, like making sure the nude torso sculpture sporting prickly cactus body parts gets just the right spot in the garden.
The Exotic Art Show happens at Alwun House, located at 1204 East Roosevelt Street, at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on February 13. Tickets are $50 per person. The Erotic Poetry & Music Festival takes place at 7 p.m. on February 20. Tickets are $25 per person. Seating for both events is at small tabletops. Get tickets online.
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