You’d be hard-pressed to find a queer person (let alone a queer creative) that isn’t prepared to cite Tom of Finland’s bulging Adonises as some form of inspiration. Born Touko Valio Laaksonen in Kaarina Finland in 1920, his iconic pseudonym would first be used in 1957 when his work was published in magazines such as Physique Pictorial. Depicting gay men as strong, confident, and unashamed in their sexual exploits was in stark contrast to the effeminate and feeble portrayals at the time. Having celebrated his centenary in 2020, his legacy lives on thanks to Durk Dehner, a friend and lover of Laaksonen who helped co-found the Tom of Finland Foundation. On a mission to position Laaksonen’s work at the height of the art and fashion world, the foundation has exhibited its archive all over the world and has recently collaborated with brands like JW Anderson and Diesel. Now the foundation is looking to do the same for the next generation of queer artists with its 27th Art & Culture festival, Tom Unites.
Upping the ante from its previous outings, this year the event will span the globe for the first time being held simultaneously in Los Angeles and London. Bringing together established and emerging queer erotic artists, as well as galleries and patrons the fest will take place at Second Home Hollywood and its London outpost Second Home Spitalfields. Dehner himself has travelled from his home of sunny Los Angeles to inaugurate the first international foray of the festival this upcoming weekend. ‘Our festival is uninhibited and comfortable – like our very natures. Collecting art is the ultimate 'thank you' to artists and the most genuine way of expressing yourself to friends’, explains Dehner. Ahead of the weekend’s festivities, we spoke to some of the most exciting names in queer art and friends of the foundation about the upcoming fest and Tom of Finland’s enduring legacy.
Kicking things off this Friday, Russian artist Slava Mogutin will be presenting Gay Propogranda, a curation of films by select artists and bonafide queer icons like Bruce LaBruce and David Hoyle. The title plays on the infamous gay propaganda law of his home country that was adapted in 2013, swiftly ushering in a wave of discrimination and legislation against homosexuals. ‘Coming from a very conservative and homophobic place, I remember being aroused and empowered with the way [Tom of Finland] portrays homosexuality in such a victorious, celebratory and hyper-masculine way – contrary to the Russian stereotypical view of gay people as indignant and effeminate,’ the artist explains. He applies a similar view in his work and has recently published a book of photographs with Vetements creative director Guram Gvasalia titled VTMNTS UNCENSORED. Notions of censorship are precisely why it was important for Mogutin to be a part of the festival. 'I see queer art being specifically targeted. Mainstream culture doesn’t want to acknowledge the fetish and kink community or radical, honest expressions of homo eroticism'.
The films will be introduced by fellow artist and filmmaker Matt Lambert whose own work, Butt Muscle starring visual artist and drag queen Christeene alongside designer Rick Owens and Michele Lamy, will be part of the lineup. Having grown up just around the corner from Tom House – the Los Angeles residence of Laaksonen where he and Dehner spearheaded the foundation – Lambert witnessed first-hand the world the foundation fosters in its founder's name. ‘He magnetised an entire community around him’ he explains. A safe space for queer artists to collaborate and express themselves it continues to be a hub that drives conversations among the foundation’s artists-in-residence. It’s also a mentality that Lambert applies to his work. ‘I love being able to teach people about queer culture, share, and bridge generational gaps. That exchange is really exciting to me’.
At the core of the upcoming fest is the foundation championing the talents of artists like Stuart Sandford who will be unveiling his first life-size bronze sculpture Adlocutio (Sean Ford). Sandford’s work was previously exhibited as part of the foundation’s All Together exhibits in Paris and Venice. This recent work challenges notions of the physical and digital realm, riffing on classical marble statues and the story of Narcissus, by depicting porn actor Sean Ford taking a nude selfie. The artist utilises 3D scanning to create a digital template to be made in bronze. Like many, Sandford notes it's the celebratory nature of Tom of Finland’s work that inspires his own creative output. ‘If you look at Tom’s drawings, everyone is having a good time, no matter what’s going on’. To him being a part of the foundation is about more than having a platform to display his work. ‘It feels like a warm embrace from a welcoming, talented family and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?’ he explains.
Along with the artists displaying their work at the fest will be friends to the foundation like Berlin-based photographer Florian Hetz who echoes Sanford’s thoughts. ‘When you look closely at Tom’s work many things happen outside. There is no hiding in dark corners. It’s a lot of nature. It isn’t just about a safe space, but bringing yourself, as a gay person, into society into the light and not having regrets about it. There's no shame. It’s sexuality that's fully enjoyed.’ His intimate portraits are defined by sensitive depictions of the male form. ‘I know a lot of people, especially younger people, have a little bit of a problem identifying with the Tom man. A form that's hard to fit in. But what we need to remember is that he created that man at a time when the depiction of gay men was as a victim. Something bad, a villain. He created a strong man that was standing up for himself.’
As the Instagram Age’s answer to Tom of Finland, visual artist Pol Anglada will be unveiling an exclusive mural as part of the festival. Celebrating homosocial spaces and uninhibited sexual activity in vibrant, inviting hues just begging to be tapped, Anglada has already captivated the art and fashion world thanks to his continued creative collaborations with JW Anderson. Speaking of Tom of Finland’s work Anglada explains, ‘his images still feel relevant today. It’s an unapologetic representation of his kinks and fantasies’. For him participating in the fest is an extension of the work the foundation does in building safe spaces for queer artists free from judgement while elevating erotic work within the greater art world. ‘Since I met the team at the foundation, they were very welcoming, very heartwarming. They embody this idea in Tom of Finland’s work about creating a community’.
Come Friday, London will be a playground for artists, performers, leather daddies, and art world patrons alike (as if it wasn’t already) to celebrate not only the immense queer talent on display but also Tom of Finland's legacy in fostering community. Along with the exhibited works are several events, including the foundation inducting activist, designer, and ‘living sculpture’ Daniel Lismore into its Artist Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Herb Ritts and H.R. Giger. The grand-prize winner of the foundation’s Emerging Artist Competition will also be announced after having their work judged by the likes of Honey Dijon and Glenn Martens. Following the tradition set by previous fests, barbers and tattoo artists from Scorpio Mars Tattoo and Toppins Barbershop will set up shop at Second Home Spitalfields in case any attendees are looking to embody Tom of Finland’s iconic leather daddies.
The Tom of Finland Art & Culture Festival takes place 8 October and 9 October. Get all the details here.