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April 1, 2005

An art gallery or a piece of furniture?

Three books bring excellent art to living-room tables

A simple fact has held true throughout humanity’s existence, into the ages of prehistory: people like to be surrounded by pretty things.

Whether that meant painting pictures on the walls of their caves or commissioning artists to create chapels with ornate murals, mankind has enveloped itself in attractive images for millennia.

In the past century, art has moved from the domain of the wealthy and elite to the living rooms of the masses, as inexpensive prints and affordable art books enable more people to enjoy the beauty in their own homes.

Take the work of Keith Haring, for instance. In the space of ten years, he went from renegade graffiti artist to massive mainstream acceptance, world fame and great riches. Of course, none of that could prevent his death from AIDS in 1990, at the age of 31.

However, the body of art he left behind, some collected in the new volume Haring by Alexandra Kolossa (Taschen, paperbound, $9.99), survives to this day, never having diminished in popularity even fifteen years after his death. Kolossa’s tome not only collects dozens of Haring’s works, but also has a number of photographs of the artist himself, working on pieces, in the middle of pieces, having just finished pieces. It’s an interesting perspective on him, especially given the ease with which one could forget that, besides being an artist, Haring was a person, talented and flawed and so very human, something that one doesn’t necessarily connect with just by looking at his paintings or sculptures.

Even before he was diagnosed with HIV, he worked for AIDS awareness and funding. He fought apartheid in South Africa. Much of his work was done in association with charitable organizations, like his Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death poster, hanging in virtually every AIDS service organization office in the country.

Sometimes art is more anthropological, creating beauty out of found items. That’s the case with David Deitcher’s Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918 (Abrams, paper, $17.95).

Over a hundred photographs provide an interesting look into the past, from the introduction of photography in this country to the end of World War I. The most fascinating aspect of many, if not most, of these photographs is the easy intimacy between the men posing. They are holding hands, hugging, with perhaps a hand lightly, comfortably resting on another’s thigh. The religious right would probably have these men burned at the stake if these pictures were taken today.

At the time, though, either it was seen as far more innocent than it would be now, or people were simply more laissez-faire about such things. In a few cases, love between men might have actually been encouraged.

“Romantic friendship between American men acquired a different kind of social prestige and meaning within the context of the Civil War,” writes Deitcher. “No sooner did young recruits leave the shelter and ties of home and family than they were thrust into the mutual dependence, care, and collective terror of being comrades in arms.”

“Intimate ties were tacitly encouraged as a result of the soldier’s need to steel himself for battle, to prepare emotionally for the prospect of injury and death, and for having to inflict such suffering on others,” he continues.

While certainly a change from current Pentagon policy, it is a classic concept, reflecting almost the Sacred Band of Thebes, the division of soldiers in ancient Greece composed of male same-sex couples. Their leaders believed that the men would fight more fiercely to protect their lovers and to look good in their lovers’ eyes than they would in normal circumstances. The band was a feared force for many years, finally falling to Alexander the Great.

Finally, proving that straight doesn’t necessarily mean narrow, there is Terryworld, a massive collection of photographs by Terry Richardson, fashion photographer and son of fashion photographer Bob Richardson.

Interviewed by queer underground filmmaker Bruce LaBruce for Index magazine in 1998, the younger Richardson said, “Most people when they meet me think I'm English and gay.”

While he’s as American as apple pie and as heterosexual as . . . well, as any heterosexual man can be, his aesthetic is certainly highly developed, and his subjects run the gamut, including just about every letter in the unpronounceable acronym representing queer folk and their friends.

Terryworld has it all--transvestites, transsexuals, same-sex couples, opposite-sex couples, and one photo of what one desperately hopes is simulated sex with a very unhappy-looking sheep.

Richardson tends to treat his models reverentially, even when they are in absolutely ludicrous poses. When he photographs himself, however, he at once sexualizes and ridicules himself. His view of the world is fairly easy to suss out: he loves beauty, whether male or female, and believes that sex is meant to be fun, not serious business.

Interspersed with the “naughty” photos are pics of celebrities like Vincent Gallo, Juliet Lewis, Eddie Izzard and the band Rancid, along with photos of “regular” folks or soldiers. The subject matter is varied, but it’s all very, very Terry.

Of the three books, this is the one that should be locked in the liquor cabinet when kids or the parents are over, but it’s beyond a doubt the most free-spirited.

Not so very long ago, photography was an expensive business, and any artwork by a known name would be far beyond the reach of the working class. These three books, however, place art firmly in the grasp of those who need it most.

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