The second edict of the Leslie/Lohman Erotic Drawing Studio reads in full: “If an artist finds the model so alluring that he cannot concentrate on drawing, he may not simply sit and gape. He MUST at least PRETEND to draw” [sic].
This rule is one of six to govern the behavior of sexually provocative male models and the men who love them or, at least, love drawing them. Its meaning becomes clear with the approach of the climactic, 15-minute final pose, in which the model finally sheds his (already progressively revealing) wardrobe, nude and fully erect.
The weekly three-hour amateur drawing session takes place behind an unmarked basement door in Soho a few blocks from the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation, a nonprofit gallery that pioneered taking queer erotic works seriously since 1990. In contrast to the pristine gallery, the walls of the drawing studio are grotty from the constant tacking and retacking of sketches. Participants draw on everything from hand-size sketch pads to free-standing easels. There are enough of them weekly—anywhere from 10 to 30, depending on the weather—to fill two rows of folding chairs that encircle a three-foot-high canvas-covered stage. The busiest nights are the monthly events that feature two nude models posed together erotically, notes Rob Hugh Rosen, director of the foundation.
On a night in May, co-founder Frank Sheehan is busy dressing shirtless model Kevin Ashlee, 26, in intricately patterned motocross pants behind a wall before class. He emerges to a cover of Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” booming out as if on cue. The handsome, dark-Irish model—definitely buff, but not overdeveloped—gives a demure wave, but otherwise remains stock-still as everyone hunches over and begins to draw.
Sheehan positions Ashlee into a “do me” pose on an upholstered armchair. Ashlee next faux-hikes a football; then he assumes the stance of a man cruising for sex, complete with Tom of Finland motorcycle cap. It’s during the cruising pose that the front of his jeans finally reveals cock cleavage. He breaks the ice during this pose (as well as the first studio rule: “There is to be no interaction between the artists and the model, when the model is ON the model stand”) by canvassing the room for a BlackBerry charger.
Things will eventually climax—all but literally—when Ashlee, completely nude, ass-up on some couch cushions, then flipped over, works toward shooting a load. On this night, there will be no happy ending, alas: Dolly Parton’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” blaring forth from the boombox apparently kills his buzz./p>
Noted queer historian Jonathan Ned Katz, quietly painting watercolors in the back of the studio, began attending in 2005 when the group was called the Queer Men’s Erotic Art Workshop. Despite the name change, it’s still gay-male-only—including the models. Rosen remembers the one straight model he hired. “He was just so beautiful,” he says. “But the second time, he discreetly placed a girlie magazine on the floor for his final pose. So that was that.”
During the course of the evening, some of the night’s output goes up on the walls, and it’s quite accomplished, good enough to be seen at the gallery proper’s group shows and in occasional publications like Dirty Little Drawings.
Katz is preparing for his own show at the gallery in 2013 to coincide with his 75th birthday. For him, the most unexpected thing about the studio was all the emotions it unearthed. “I was a teenager in the repressive 1950s,” he recalls, “and I’d been punched in the face once, on 8th Street, for looking one second too long at the wrong straight guy.” Today, he celebrates a safe space for the male-on-male gawking. “I am allowed to look,” he says, “encouraged to look, and encouraged to create a piece of homoerotic art based on my response.”
First-timer Carlos Pisco, an artist who teaches at the School of Visual Arts, finds the atmosphere a bit off-putting, however. “The model was handsome and sexy,” he says, “but certainly knew the script for the evening: build up the erotic tone pose after pose. I’d seen several of the drawings made during these sessions, featuring hard cocks and guys having sex, but participating in the process for the first time felt a bit odd.”
Even though everyone is actually drawing, Pisco sees it at as a possible cheap thrill for lookie-loos—a high-brow burlesque. “It’s like paying for some sexual titillation,” he explains. “Is paying to draw a nude model jerking off any different from paying for any other erotic service?”
Model Ashlee, however, considers it “an honor for me to see the amount of beauty these artists pulled from such a plain object. It was emotional, to say the least, but being drawn nude at the most vulnerable state was always on my bucket list.”
The Erotic Drawing Studio draws from a long tradition—part grounded in reality, party myth—of artistic voyeurism and nude models. “There’s a naked model and they start drawing, but it leads inevitably to wanton sex,” is how former Museum of Sex curator Grady Turner summarizes the way most people have viewed artists’ lives. Considering that, at Marina Abramovic’s MOMA show last year, many patrons were ejected for trying to get too friendly with the nude models, the artists at Leslie/Lohman’s studio belie two myths—that artists inevitably screw their undressed models, and that gay men are all sex-crazed predators in the presence of a hot, fully charged man.