Mike Kuchar: “Mike’s Men” – Erotic Camp in San Francisco
June in San Francisco ushered in an exhibition for the underground filmmaker and visual artist Mike Kuchar. “Mike’s Men: Sex, Guys, and Videotape!” was held at Magnet, a city-funded STD clinic in the heart of the Castro, that supposed gay mecca. In fact, the event proved to be one of the most successful attempts at bringing together queer men during Pride month. Superbly curated by Eric Smith, Mark Garrett and Margaret Tedesco, “Mike’s Men” was a collection of illustrations and four video shorts. The exhibition served both as a tribute to his lifelong career in avant-garde art, and an acknowledgement of Mike’s recent loss.
Just last September, George Kuchar, Mike’s twin brother and the co-director on many of his films, passed away from prostate cancer (our contributor Jon Davis posted an essay on Kuchar here shortly after). George and Mike were central figures in the 1960s underground film scene, screening their work alongside Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger. The subjects of Jennifer M. Kroot’s 2009 documentary It Came From Kuchar, both brothers were legends in the world of experimental film. But even within that innovative, anarchic world, the Kuchars upended the category with their brazenness, camp and DIY style. The Kuchar brothers had wide-ranging impact, influencing David Lynch, Rodger Vadim and San Francisco resident John Waters, who was in attendance for the opening. Waters credits Kuchar’s 1965 film Sins of the Fleshapoids as a major influence on his career. “It’s really what an underground film was,” said Waters, writing in the introduction to the brothers’ 1997 shared memoir Reflections From A Cinematic Cesspool.
Mike Kuchar created prolific bodies of work in both drawing and film, but “Mike’s Men” was primarily a celebration of his 1970s—mid-2000s homoerotic illustrations fueled clearly by the same mind that gave us decades of joyfully lurid proceedings in campy celluloid. These are images that appeared in underground sex comics such as Meatmen, Manscape, and First Hand, important titles simply because they were amongst the first to joyously celebrate homo desire. One piece in particular garnered much attention: The cover of 1981’s Gay Heart Throbs Issue #3. “Hi Dwayne, how are you today?” asks a cartoon Leatherman. “Horny!” replies a well-built young man in cutoff denim shorts (see exhibition postcard to the left). That porn legend Peter Berlin was the model for the young Daisy Dukes-wearing exhibitionist should serve as no surprise to those who know early 80s San Francisco culture. The fact that an aging Berlin was milling around the exhibit in aviator sunglasses and his signature tight jeans (with ample bulge) simply added to the proceedings.
Kuchar’s images make a compelling counterpoint to Tom Of Finland’s photorealist erotic drawings, which often project an almost hostile, in-your-face masculinity. Where Finland is criticized for supposedly projecting a fascist uber-masculine image, Kuchar’s men are far more playful, even bordering on himbo. Tom Of Finland represented an ideal of rough trade for gay men to emulate, yet Kuchar’s fantasies are ultimately more self-assured. Their allure is found in the playful mockery of masculine standards, an irreverence that was lacking in much of the gay male erotic illustration of the time. Universally muscular and identifiably working class, well endowed, uncut and tatted up for sure, his men are still as accessible as cartoon characters should be. Kuchar’s subjects invite the viewer to stare and admire so as to sexualize them. Thus these campy renderings are never standoffish but approachable, and nothing if not openly gay. In being so, the artist heralds a level of self-acceptance that is still not fully realized today in most gay men. There is not even the slightest concession to shame.
In a day and age where gay men often have had their sexual desires slowly washed out of their consciousness—first by the shame of AIDS and later by gay rights organizations attempting to convince the heterosexual majority of our normalcy—Kuchar’s overtly erotic work feels fresh again simply because it celebrates our innate homosexual desire. Kuchar’s illustrations are playful but they are also heartfelt, more like an attempt to capture queer male desire than to hide it away in a series of allusions. An ideal, sure, but the illustrations unapologetically present a version of open queer sexuality because gay men were the intended audience of these comics. Totally void of any attempt to mask our desire because he is speaking to a wider—straighter—audience, Kuchar’s images celebrate male beauty in its feral force.
Kuchar constructs an alluring world of idealized male beauty. These images portray a style of camp that knows nothing of repressed tragedy or irony. A literally naked rebuke to Sontag’s claim that camp is a love of the unnatural, they recall a time when gay men unabashedly stood before each other in their art and erotica, speaking openly to each other long before we felt any need to project our desires to the mainstream.
Kuchar still draws and produces films. In 2009 Kuchar directed Swan Song, a deeply homoerotic film about young man suffering from sexual longing and frustration. And as Kuchar takes over from his brother George at the San Francisco Art Institute, he continues to produce new chapters in modern experimental film such as 2011’s Midnight Carnival. This event was also an effort also to help Mike gain a financial foothold. After years of living very modestly, it’s a reality that his brother’s death has increased interest in Georges work and has provided Mike with some of his largest payments to date for a lifetime of artistic endeavor. More importantly, this event helped provide the more reserved of the brothers the affirmation that his work will stand on its own.
At a time when gay men are flooded with airbrushed porn imagery that takes itself too seriously, Kuchar’s illustrations remind us that the most erotic of all imagery isn’t the most realistic, but that which plays with the power of fantasy, too. By evoking a world fully saturated with homo desire, Kuchar’s drawings can more completely immerse us in a dimension of erotic playfulness. This is a more robust fantasy world, one that provides better tools, perhaps, for us to work out what a fully realized queer male desire might be.