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A Surprise Serving of 'Beefcake'

Art * Arthur Tress' first O.C. exhibit resulted from an unexpected application to a show at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art.

September 01, 2001|BY VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art placed promotional ads months ago for entries into its juried show "Beefcake/Cheesecake: Sex, Flesh, Money and Dreams," organizers anticipated a good response.

But they never expected a major artist like California photographer Arthur Tress to submit his work.

More than 500 artists from throughout the United States, England, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Japan and India submitted their art for the show that opens today. It showcases more than 100 works of video, photography, painting, sculpture and installation.

Only 85 artists were chosen. Tress represents the top layer of icing on the cake.

"I was surprised that [Tress] submitted his work to the juried show," said Tyler Stallings, exhibitions curator of the Laguna Art Museum and a juror for the "Beefcake/Cheesecake" show.

'Arthur Tress is a high-profile artist. I'm not sure why he'd want to spend the time to enter this juried show, but I guess it works with his own sense of irreverence."

Photographs from Tress' long and prolific career--he is 61--have hung in museums and galleries around the world, including the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. His works are part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"I like to show my pictures anywhere," said Tress calling from his home in Cambria. While I can easily have a show in West Hollywood, I thought: Why not do a show in Orange County where it would reach new audiences and open up people's eyes a bit? I also like smaller venues because they have more flexibility. I often tell younger artists and photographers, 'Never be too snooty about where you're going to show.' The exposure is always good."

His decision has led to his first Orange County exhibition.

Twenty-five of Tress' small, gelatin silver prints taken from 1970 to 1997 will be viewed among the larger juried exhibition in a show titled, "Beefcake Plus," organized by guest curator Stallings.

Tress' images are sexual, theatrical and documentary, bringing gay life to the forefront of American culture. He knows he treads sensitive territory when it comes to mainstream curatorial taste.

The Orange County show coincides with an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, Tress' first large-scale retrospective in the United States. The show represents a change of heart for the venue. In 1989, the gallery sparked a national controversy when it refused to display NEA grant recipient Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of gay men.

Tress, who is openly gay, considers his art in the vein of Mapplethorpe. "Most American museums like straight documentary photography. I like to do psychological insights into people's, especially gay male, fantasies," said Tress, the author of 15 books.

"But none of my photographs are really shocking pictures. That was Mapplethorpe's thing. I do a kinder, gentler version of themes similar to Mapplethorpe.

"There's been a whole revolution and transformation of gay life, from one extreme of sexual violence and aggression to a photograph of my lover and his father. The gay life is much more integrated into the mainstream domestic and romantic life. There's a humanizing of the gay scene. I'm a chronicler of this gay transition," Tress said.

The images for "Beefcake Plus" were shot in New York City and San Luis Obispo and are selected from his books "Male of the Species," "Machinations" and "Facing Up."

The visually striking 1996 "Spinal Tap" is a nude figure of a male dancer viewed from behind, holding a fake spinal bone that snakes along the length of his back. "Boot Fantasy (1979)" shows a naked man with his head in a bucket and a boot pressing on his back.

The surreal images, built with layers of possible meaning, are characteristic of his work.

"I want my photographs to be slightly disturbing," Tress said.

He also has a penchant for humor and irreverence.

"I think it's good not to take yourself too seriously. A lot of erotic literature, drawings and videos are funny. And that's really healthy," said Tress. "It's called 'code.' Sex, especially gay sex, has always been a very coded expression, and so the way it's visualized is impish and playful."

His images are typically inside jokes.

"I think every minority in our culture has this kind of humor and their own special codes and language. For some of my photos, gay people get the humor quicker," Tress said. "But as an artist, you want to reach a more universal audience, so my photos are ambiguous, and there's a metaphorical statement about the human condition that people generally can relate to." From bowling props to fish tanks, Tress scours flea markets and alleys, searching for thought-provoking backdrops and locales. While Tress' portraits are centered on arresting male physiques, he doesn't use professional models. Instead, his subjects are friends and relatives.

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