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Jack Cullen


When will art be ready for erections again?

It's time for art critics to pass the soap

While others avert their eyes, we toast Michael Kirwan on his fantastic book...

When Beryl Cook died four years ago there was a rush to celebrate her life's work. Cheerful obituaries sprung up in national newspapers and across major TV channels, she was a "national treasure". Yet throughout her career the art world refused to acknowledge Cook as one of their own.

Despite selling pieces out of her front room for around £20,000 on a fortnightly basis and receiving commissions from celebrity collectors, with no formal art education and no desire to write thought-scraping self-statements, Cook's amusing paintings of fat Brits and their quotidian pursuits were deemed appropriate only for postcards and calendars.

A similar thing is happening in the world of erotic art today. Look at Michael Kirwan's latest book Just So Horny, a glossy paged serving of over 100 of Kirwan's homocentric cartoony paintings. It is immediately obvious from just flicking through that he is a brilliant artist. The compositions, facial expressions, classical references and power dynamics. His work evokes a psychological landscape that goes beyond the explicit and into a new dimension of the suggestive.

Of course, he’s popular within a niche sector of the art world, hence Bruno Gmünder have given him this mid-life retrospective in hardback. Colourful Kirwan prints hang in the guest loos of many a well-off homo, but a major galleries still won't consider him.

You see his work features a whole spectrum of penises, ranging from the graphic gym-short bulge to the full-on lovingly renderered erection the size of a Tate Modern poster tube. If you can't find the dick in a Kirwan then it's most likely obscured by the male body taking it. Other common Kirwanian motifs include spread cheeks, gasps of sexasperation, scenes of torrential ejaculation and a whole carousel of imaginative boudoir positions that force the spectator to reassess the perimeters of sexual performance.

And fair enough, most people have no interest in seeing sex illustrations, gay or otherwise. Carrying a copy of Just So Horny on the train home it was impossible not to feel slightly anxious while opening it. What if the man on the other side of the carriage noticed? What if the tea trolley suddenly comes in? What if a cow in a passing field looks up? That fresh inky scent of a new book was sheer torture too as to push one’s nose into the pages of a Kirwan book is to risk all but being reported.

But this review is no attempt to re-invent the column, "kids can happily knife people on their PS3s but we still can't hang gouache sphincters next to our hallways hat stands" etc. GT ain't the sort of publication to sniff around the Barbican library for 30-year-old sociology MA disserations only to re-hash them as 2013 opinion pieces and then beg the gay Twitterverse for re-bloody-tweets. No.

We’re just saying Michael Kirwan is a brilliant artist and it's a pity we have to spend time boxing-out the lovely pink (and black and brown and beige and moonlit blue) penises in his work in order to publish an online review of his latest book.

Inspired by Tom of Finland, George Quaintance and Donald "Domino" Merrick, Kirwan has earned himself a place in the gay art hall of fame. One day his originals will sell for a lot.

The scenery and scenarios that his paintings offer give more insight than most gay fiction can manage in 20 pages. Businessmen arriving at lunch break orgies, affairs in council flats, peeping toms in roadside toilets, coitus in caravans and hustling in hotel bathrooms. We see friends and strangers, the before and the after, the consensual and the criminal. The image above is as tame as Kirwan gets.

The upholstery, curtains, carpets, floor tiles and wallpaper in Kirwan's paintings are always telling too. Tiny details in his work often indicate class, power and shades of gay identity. The spectator is treated to a rich sexual narrative about the relationship between the two or more men depicted.

There's something super-charged and sexually electrifying about good gay art like Kirwan’s that photography and run-of-the-mill pornography cannot capture. Instead of the dead fish eyes of Russian porn models on camera we see the hopes, fears, fantasies and intrigues spiralling in the irises of these fictional men on canvas.

Just So Horny is a wonderful book that we highly recommend and a perfect gift for a cool friend. Leave it on your coffee table and you won't be disappointed by the bulge it will give to any gentleman visitors.

If you'd like to see an online directory of Kirwan's older work then have a browse on his website here: Kirwan Galleries Online. Obviously it's a #NSFW "Not Safe For Work" website. We have to tell you that because you're probably sitting in an office full of nouveau-puritans who judge your work performance on how well you can pretend to be a Victorian while sat at your desk.

Buy Kirwan's book HERE from Prowler, £19.99.

Words by Jack Cullen. Follow Jack on Twitter @jackcullenuk

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