Instead of recipes for alcoholic concoctions, or quaint farmer stories about growing chickens, you get, well just plain cock. This highly eclectic collection brings together artistic, erotic, humorous, sci-fi, even scabrous illustrations, photos, montages, plastic art works, cartoons, "living sculptures" and drawn from the entire pantheon of Western and Eastern art traditions.
We get some neo- (or almost-) anime; the inevitable Mapplethorpe tributes; some neo-abstract; some surreal, others as straightforward as a Colt calendar. Some are political: on facing pages, a group of black men are used like a human whirlwind (one of the very few to hide the book’s subject; facing this unsettling image of despair, which resembles the famous German expressionist painter Kathe Kollwitz is an uplifting image of two naked black men, facing each other and their mirrored selves.
As one might expect given such a subject, a lot of this art falls somewhere in the realm of the "erotic." Although what constitutes pornography is only defined by the gazing eye -- as a United States Supreme Court Justice famously informed us -- to this pair I’m looking through there was nothing that remotely came close to yah-yah-grind-grind pornography.
That’s not to say that some of the pictures aren’t damned sexy. My second-personal favorite is an oil of two men whom, I guess, would fall into "men of color" whatever that means. They’re in a locker room, dressed only in -- you guess it, white jock straps. A seriously handsome man is leaning against lockers while splayed in front of him is a man flashing the human equivalent of the male peacock’s brilliant feathers; namely a carved, hard bubble butt in the position I call "presenting."
I can only guess the artist’s medium of expression because the artwork index gives a postage-stamp reproduction of each work with the name of the artist. But the pages aren’t numbered, and there is no information given out on the work -- the artistic medium or tools, height, exhibition, reception. I realize that a book like this is far from a catalogue raisonee-type exhaustive research, but it would have been nice to had had one or two sentences about each photographer, rather than his current base of operations and website.
The artier photos mostly work well, especially the knowing ones that hark back to modern masters David Livingston’s penis flower is a witty counter to those Georgia O’Keefe paintings of flowers-as-female genitalia endemic to every college co-ed’s dorms.
The more sincere avant-garde ones, for the most part, tend to overstate the mark, such as Ron Amato’s super-close up of a penis head that looks like an elephant’s trunk; ditto Rodriguiez-Duarte’s penis-as-caterpillar. Byron Motley placed a t-shirt dominated by an image of Marilyn Monroe above an obviously erect penis barely contained by the cotton underwear struck me as the kind of artworks you see in undergraduate schools when photographer students minor in Gender Studies. In their defense, many could be art in-jokes that a rank outsider like myself would never be able to recognize.
The men portrayed throughout are as varied as their members. There are those examples of chiseled perfection known as male models. But there are also plenty of "regular guys." At least one seems to be caught in an off-guard moment in his car when, as we used to say in Southern Ohio, the animal got loose from the barn. Photojournalism? Or an ironic comment on it. (And is there a difference these days?)
Some of these penises sport Prince Albert’s; one at least, is encased in a condom. They’re soft, they’re hard. They’re straight, they’re bent. In other words, they are the human male penis in all of its strange amorphous glory.
Having not actually done an exact tally, circumcised penises appear to outnumber uncut ones. I suspect this had more to do with the cultural milieus of the artists and the construction of their models than with any grand political statement.
Actually, however, the book gives some credibility -- whether or not intended -- to those who support parents being offered the option of infantile circumcision or obey it for religious rules. When I leaf through the book, the distended forms of the folding glans make for images in stark contrast to the clean geometric lines of the circumcised ones. How great it is that our penises can differ from each other so fundamentally!
Everyone will have his (or her!) own favorite image. Mine? Mark Henderson’s photo of a man -- he definitely looks Cuban to me, but it’s not certain -- wearing a fedora that he’s pulling down onto his head, a white polo shirt and nothing else, unless you count the full-mast, perfectly shaped penis in the photo’s foreground that he displays with unmitigated pride.
Because if the book has a real message, it’s that man in that hat with that penis. Be proud! I remember the comedian Reno talking about how she did a play in New York where she played a man (or a transgender; I don’t remember). The director gave her a stuffed sock and told her she had to wear it everywhere for a week. At first, she recalled, she didn’t know what to do with it; it kept getting in the way. Then, after a couple of days, she got into the power it imparted.
The brains, the senses and much else may be a lot more complicated than the penis. But I’ll bet no other human organ has been subject to more interpretation, more praise hatred ... more of everything.
So here’s to you, to the Almighty Johnson, to the Pecker that Roared, to the source of so much satisfaction and so much grief. You have your very own picture book. I hope it makes you happy.
Photo book, with brief essay. 356 pages, heavy stock, hardback, hardcover, inset. $53, available from the publisher Bruno Gmünder