The Art of Disappearing Porn 

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The erased porn genre of art making doesn't have it easy. Artists working in this vein can either be accused of relying to heavily on charged subject matter to unduly infuse their work with meaning or, conversely, that the subject matter isn't important at all to the artist and thus takes a backseat to the process. We tend to assume the opposite in the case of porn, of course, because the material is so sensitive. We don't consume or act upon it publicly, it's considered a taboo subject amongst many, and those in the industry typically suffer for their involvement. None of this screams banality. And yet, asking the inevitable question evoked by Stephen Irwin's erased porn exhibition at Invisible Exports—namely, why is that erect penis "not" in that other guy's mouth—still doesn't result in much conceptual content.

Filling the narrow gallery with pages drawn from vintage porn, the array of grids and other arrangements suggest sexual activity without ever explicitly depicting it. Irwin works exclusively with magazines printed in the 1960s, up through to the 80s, taking advantage of that era's standard gravure process (ink transfer through pressure), so he can easily remove parts of the photograph from his paper. The result is a lot of magazine spreads that look as though they have been painted white. Many of the remaining images looked a little too familiar to be interesting—they're obviously just vintage porn—but areas in which the artist carefully removed ink with steel wool subtly shifted in tone, and the weight of the objects themselves reads significantly.

Removing much of the explicit imagery can be interpreted a few ways, probably the most obvious being the idea that the added mystery makes the imagery a little more erotic. Arguably, this occurs in the case of Rubbed (below), a picture in which only the hands and towel remain. I suppose everyone enjoys a good cum shot, but most people don't need the messy visuals to find the fingers and rag a turn on too. Meanwhile, Stroke I and Stroke II, a grid of rubbings consisting only of vertical, prison-bar lines, vaguely suggest something entirely different—as if the imagery was covered due to some unnamed offensiveness. This interpretation is more of a stretch, but the works feel slightly dirtier than some of the others and there's something lurid about the artist's decision to keep parts of the imagery visible.

click to enlarge Vintage porn
Probably the most obviously removed pornographic content shows up in a series of removed blowjobs titled Choke. In each case, a cock is erased from another man's mouth, producing a fairly predictable drawing relying too heavily on pre-80s aesthetic nostalgia for interest. Like Laura Carton's porn locations minus the porn or Christodoulos Panayiotou gay orgy sets after the orgy, these pictures mean to capitalize on the missing energy of the act. Irwin achieves this as well, though I can't help but feel the genre is a bit tired. As artist Tom Moody outlines in a 2003 blog post, Kathy Grove erased Thomas Hart Benton's pin-up nude from his painting, Susanna and the Elders, Hungarian artist Istvan Szilasi erases porn expressionistically with Photoshop, while Arizona artist Jon Haddock attempts (and fails) to remove the stars seamlessly from their sets.

Like Haddock, Irwin's work suffers the most when the pornographic content and lack thereof reads as little more than a visual trick. The magazine rubbings in the back, which do away with the paper altogether to create positive space goblets and negative space male masturbation are probably the worst offenders in this lot, the artist's interests seeming to fall in line with a growing cadre of contemporary artists who only superficially connect to the source material. These artists include Steven Shearer, Josh Azzarella, and Casper Stracke.

The real intrigue in Irwin's work lies in what's been added rather than removed. The small gold nails affixing the paper to the wall add an extra layer of fragility and weight to the work. Many of the papers have had their undersides painted as a means of subtly controlling the way the piece moves forward and recedes. A small braille-like line of what appears to be lint softly connects one gallery with the next. Here, the artist's handling of the material is so careful and masterful, you almost forgot to consider whose cock is being put where. And like good sex, it is the complete immersion in its execution that creates the most memorable moments in this show.

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