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Special Collections' Dirty Little Secrets

Looking for love in the stacks of the Joan Flasch Artist's Book Collection

by Britany Salsbury

One of the great boons of art-making is that you can masturbate in a gallery, stick a Barbie doll in your ass in front of an audience, photograph yourself wearing a strap-on, or paint yourself having sex with your porn star wife without too many people accusing you of being a pervert. Much of the art of the past several decades–whether intentionally or subconsciously–has something to do with sex; more than perhaps any other practice, the act of sex and sexuality in general have proven to be increasingly useful and undeniably interesting lenses through which to view and critique cultural norms and ideals. And, they are still good at getting people excited in other ways. A number of works dealing with both the former and latter use of sex can be found in the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection (JFABC). Part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Special Collections, the JFABC is an archive of experimental forms of artistic production created from approximately 1960 to the present. Below are some highlights of a few works in the collection that are sexually fulfilling in one way or another:

Annie Sprinkle’s XXXOOO: Love and Kisses from Annie Sprinkle, Volume 1 contains 30 of what the feminist porn star, prostitute, and artist terms “post-porn postcards.” In the book’s introduction, she describes the cards as “all you need to become a Pleasure Activist.” Although it isn’t explicitly stated how exactly pleasure activism works, it is clear that the delivery of one of these postcards would be enough to raise the eyebrows of most mail carriers. Highlights include feminist hot shots, such as Linda Montano and Lydia Lunch, nude and in sexy poses wearing lingerie. Sprinkle’s Muff of the Month images are equally notable, as vaginas are decorated in a different theme for each month; April Showers, for instance, is covered strategically in a bouquet of flowers, moss, and greenery.

Much of Sprinkle’s mission over the past decades has dealt with removing the misogynist stigma from pornography and reclaiming the genre as entertaining and empowering for women as well as men. She does this most effectively in XXXOOO through the inclusion of several images from her Transformation Salon series. These works show adult film actresses before they prepare to be filmed or photographed and the final airbrushed, Photoshopped product of their work. Whether you’re anti-pornography or it’s part of your daily routine, Sprinkle’s before and after photos provide an unusual sense of humanity and a different kind of sexiness to an industry that doesn’t usually do so.
Published by Gates of Heck, 1997.
Call number 4.99

Food, Sex, and TV
The title of Robert Heinecken’s book, Food, Sex, and TV, indicates the author’s favorite pop culture tools. The few pages of breakfast pictures, however, aren’t quite as interesting as Heinecken’s works that juxtapose image and text. In He/She (1977), for example, images of a man’s penis in various positions under a pair of women’s underwear are combined with a conversation between a man and a woman, in which the latter dispenses the knowledge that “Every woman would much rather be fucked twice by a 5 inch cock than once by a 10 inch one…It’s always a matter of frequency and density.”

In Heinecken’s Hite/Hustler Fashion Beaver Hunt, Nr. 2 (1982), the artist pastes parts of the bodies of models from Hustler magazine onto those of fashion models and composes captions to accompany the images, with humorous results. The contrast of icy expressions on the models’ faces as they fondle themselves or wear any combination of lingerie, thongs, or, in one case, nothing but some sort of gold chain clash awkwardly with Heinecken’s texts. The model donning the gold chain is nude and wears pearl earrings and her hair in a WASPy bun. “When I wear this set it drives me crazy and I imagine myself completely bound up by large metal chains, as if I were the Wild Woman of Borneo, or some ferocious animal struggling to get loose,” the caption reads. Relying on the ridiculousness of the images’ construction, Heinecken creates interesting correlations between fantasy, sex, and consumption.
Published by the Robert Heinecken Workshop in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Heinecken: Food, Sex, and TV, June 1983.
Call number 1.34

The book webAffairs, published under the author’s screen name, Show-n-tell, uses a combination of personal commentary, image, and conversation to detail the progress of her growing interest in cybersex. Although she purchases a webcam innocently enough (to chat with a friend in Malaysia), Show-n-tell soon ventures into rooms with titles like “orgie ce soir,” “House o Cin,” or the more straightforward “Hard Cock for F.” While the author provides an informative narrative of her online journey, from chatting with a long distance friend to watching couples participate in group sex via webcam, the direct transcripts of chats are most entertaining. A user named PeterPan describes masturbating multiple times in one night to the author: “twice for PArti55 [sic]…and once earlier for an asian gitrl [sic]” whom he describes as having “the best body on a 45 year old ive [sic] ever seen.” “i [sic] liked her using the dildo and also her opening the lips of her pussey [sic] and exposing her clitoris,” he tells Show-n-tell. The accompanying photos vary from screenshots of ejaculation in progress, to men wearing thigh-high, red, vinyl go-go boots, to girls modeling lingerie, to people showing off prized sex toys. Although some of the materials contained within the book straddle the boundary between sexy and a little bit sad, webAffairs is undeniably juicy and revealing of just what everyday people will say about sex when there are–for the most part–no consequences.
Published by Eighteen Publications, 2005.
Call number 3.22

Really Erotic Dots
Really Erotic Dots: 28 Classic Teasers is a collection of works by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), described by the text as “the most nearly complete master of comic art that England has ever produced.”  Those not familiar with eighteenth-century British pornography will be surprised at just how explicit Rowlandson’s images are.  As the title suggests, the pornographic works have been modified to include sections in which dots must be connected to reveal their most scandalous elements.  In some images, such as one entitled The Model, it’s pretty clear exactly what’s going on.  This particular image depicts an artist’s model manually satisfying him while symbolic representations of art, a sphinx, and Greek goddesses, look on. 

Other images are a little more difficult to read, however.  In a work entitled The Nun’s Surprise, for example, it isn’t quite clear what it is that the nun finds so surprising.  A group of fellow nuns looks on with shock and amusement as their sister receives a surprise that renders her completely horrified.  Given the images leading up to this particular one, it’s safe to assume this surprise is any combination of genitals and gestures.  In many of the images in Really Erotic Dots, however, they aren’t just jokingly censored, and they aren’t as interesting, making them a little too much of a tease.
Connections book publishing, 1995.
Call number 5.92


The Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection is located on the fifth floor of the Sharp building, at 37 S. Wabash.  The Collection is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Friday, and 12:00 to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday.  Further information and a catalog of works in the collection can be accessed via the Flaxman Library’s website, or by calling (312) 899-5098. 


photo by James Stiles

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