This is the second part of the article “In the Game of Strip Poker, There Are No Losers.” Read Part 1 Here!
The below article was previously printed in an anthology of essays titled Cultures of the Maker: An Anthology of Subjectivities, Dis/abilities, and Desires, 2013. This book was created in conjunction with the San Francisco Art Institute and Creative Growth, an art center in Oakland for adults with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities.
Sexual acts and representations are recurrent themes in the work of Creative Growth artist, Juan Aguilera, whose mixed media drawings and ceramic sculptures are populated with nude women, flowers, female genitalia, and women’s panties and bras. Aguilera’s works almost exclusively depict bodies readable as women, but they are rarely normative in their representations. His women seductively display their denuded bodies, masturbate, pleasure one another, drink from one another’s full lactating breasts, and pull babies from their own birthing bodies. Some have non-normative features and bodies, such as women that are twice as tall as other figures and some figures have oversized clitorises that resemble penises, which make fitting them into neat gender and sex categories more difficult. Many wear their genitalia as literal undergarments, which can be put on and taken off at will.
Aguilera also creates collages of floral bouquets, in which hand-drawn and cutout images of flowers intermix with imagery of female genitalia. His mixed media work, titled Guana Juato Mexico City Mexico, from 2012 (fig. 2) falls into this latter category. Tentacle- and coral-like formations are assembled together in a fleshy peach, pink, and lavender bouquet of abstract imagery. Throughout this work, illustrations of vaginas, fetuses, uteri complete with fallopian tubes, and miniature figures of nude women are collaged on top of the foundation of the drawing. Like an otherworldly arrangement of undersea flora or an endoscopic camera tour through subcutaneous anatomy, this work is a tribute to the female form, both internal and external. Aguilera turns biology inside out and outside in with an almost clinical exploration of female form and bodily function. While many of the vulvas throughout art history point to either misogynist objectification or feminist assertion, the female genitalia in Aguilera’s work is morphed into a biological mélange that breaks down an inside/outside dichotomy. Interestingly, all but one of the vulva images are rotated upside down in relation to the rest of the work, inverted as if the observer is exploring them from the viewpoint of “down below,” looking up. In this work, Gustave Courbet’s 1866 L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) is mated with Georgia O’Keefe’s intimate studies of flowers and 1970’s feminist art, like Carolee Schneemann’s 1975 Interior Scroll. Erogenous zones mingle with imagery of wombs and fetuses, which appear to blossom off and hover around a bundle of tentacle arms (fig. 3). The work is clinical in its illustrations, but erotic in its luscious colors and velvety application of pigment. Like a flower arrangement that is meant to embellish an interior by bringing outside nature in, Aguilera’s bouquet is a beautifying conflation of inside and outside, evocative of pleasurable sensations both seen and unseen. It is a study that connotes a preoccupation with bodies while exhibiting a sensitive appreciation and an educational curiosity of female bodily workings and forms.
Taking up the other end of the genitalia spectrum, Nick Pagan’s handmade rug from 2010 of a larger-than-life penis, titled Power to the Boner #1 (fig. 4), provides a humorous take on the 1960’s slogan “Power to the People.”5 Depicting an anthropomorphized penis with a forcefully raised fist, and wearing a kelly-green sweater decorated with a rainbow — all against an explosively yellow and orange background — the rug is a tongue-in-cheek representation of the phallus. Playing with the domestic and decorative materiality of a shag rug, the work is ironic, but assertively so. The retro orange and green colors, combined with the shaggy tactility of the yarn, add to the 60’s association of the phrase “Power to the People.” However, the nostalgic feel and comic strip-style rendering of the sweater-donning boner are light-hearted. The tactility of rugs — the desire to touch, walk on, and sit on them — becomes simultaneously satirical and seductive when the tactility is transferred to a giant penis. Similarly, the rug confronts the viewer with the contradiction of hard versus soft, and the sexual connotation of “rug” as a play on women’s public hair is pitted against a representation of male genitalia.
In the world of Freud, the phallus is power, but Pagan’s phallus is less about male dominance and more about empowerment, albeit expressed in a cheeky manner. Both synecdoche and anthropomorphized body part, Power to the Boner #1 disrupts both “lack” and “excess” associations regarding disabled-and-sexed bodies by pulling the metaphorical rug out from under heteronormative ableism. Asserting its monumental existence and presence, the penis is anything but lack. Instead, the boner takes excess to the extreme, and it sardonically laughs in the face of notions of perversion and the carnivalesque. The rug’s mascot is both self-aware and in-your-face. The title signals that this penis is not just anthropomorphic, exhibiting human characteristics, but it is also a figuration of the activist. Standing erect on a soapbox-like set of hairy testicles, the head can easily be imagined as shouting its rally cry from its urethra mouth. Pagan’s penis rug deftly announces its un-ignorable presence. This oversized dirty doodle could be the sex organ of a man with a disability, but, as a synecdoche, it is also a substitute for the man himself. Empowered to own its desires and demanding to be recognized, this big dick is cocked and ready, and it isn’t going anywhere. In its monumentality, activist implications, and comedic anthropomorphism, the penis’s reference to 1960’s political activism is transformed into cheeky disability-and-sex activism.
As Anna Morrow and Robert McRuer note, fighting for “access” in relation to sex and private spaces raises a much more complex set of issues than fighting for access to public spaces, such as the installation of a ramp or elevator:
“Disability scholarship and activism, seeming to draw on the second-wave feminist insistence that the personal is political, have demonstrated that the cordoning off of certain categories of experience (such as “sex” and “disability”) as “private matters” is itself a profoundly political act, with often insidious effects.”6
The bedroom is a political space, and access to sex is a political concern for all people, those with disabilities included. A lack of access is co-constituted by both laws and social norms that treat disability as unsexy. Bethany Stevens, self-proclaimed “uppity crip scholar-activist and sexologist,” describes feelings of internalized ableism and self-loathing she had as a teenager:
“I would often ask my mother would I ever fall in love and would I ever sex [sic]. She assured me some wonderful man would, at some point in the far off future, be able to see past my disability and see me as attractive and brilliant. I didn’t know then that it is absolutely ridiculous and ableist…to suggest someone would see past what would become a core part of me.”7
As Stevens notes, to hope for a romantic partner who could see beyond, or overlook, her disability would be a disavowal of a large, indivisible part of her identity and the way she experiences the world. Critical disability theory and disability activism (also referred to as “crip activism”) emphasize that to focus solely on the ways that people with disabilities represent an oppressed minority and to pose disability as the “odds” to be “overcome” is to reinscribe the already pervasive views that disability is something to be cured and those with disabilities are objects of pity and lack. Scholars and activists, such as Margrit Shildrick, seek not only to record the oppression of communities of disabled bodies, but to show how disability represents a different, extraordinary embodiment and interaction with the world; thus, they reframe sexual lack and excess as sexual potentiality and interconnection. Shildrick, in particular, demonstrates in her work how disability productively challenges limiting normative paradigms of embodiment and can, instead, offer up an expanded model of fluid identity.8
Stevens’s remark above also significantly points to difficulties experienced with family members, who often struggle to provide meaningful support, particularly where sexuality is concerned. In an article published in 1993, titled “Don’t Mourn for Us”, the author John Sinclair implores parents of autistic children to alter their perspectives. He states, “…when parents say, I wish my child did not have autism, what they’re really saying is, I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.”9 In many cases, family members are the direct source of the majority of surveillance and regulation, including institutionalization, with regards to sexuality. For many of Creative Growth’s artists, the family who welcomes and accepts them is the community within the Center. Artist teachers, Center staff, and other artists with disabilities provide positive, meaningful relationships and contact that some may not experience elsewhere. Although Creative Growth must follow strict state-instituted rules governing contact, several romantic and/or married couples attend Creative Growth together. These individuals are able to engage in an atmosphere — perhaps the only atmosphere outside of their own homes — that allows them to exist in public as a romantic couple engaging in intimate contact without judgment, stares, or, worse yet, violence.
Despite the de-eroticization, institutional restriction, marginalization, and continual disavowal of disabled-and-sexed bodies, these artworks point to the potentiality of sex and disability through representations of sexual desires, positive erotic pleasures and practices, and corporeal affirmation. As art, these pieces are creative expressions of sexual and sensual experiences, imagined or real, at times humorous and others tender and seductive. As art by artists with disabilities, these works are a significant constellation that demonstrates the nuanced, complicated relationship between disability and sex as well as disability’s potential to radically explode the narrow scope of sex norms. If they are shocking it is not because they boast sex as their subject; rather, it is because the vibrant fantasy worlds of Aurie Ramirez shock one out of ennui; because the luscious botanical and other-worldly manifestations of Juan Aguilera shock one with the human capacity for deeply tender and eroticized devotion to the body; and because the punk activist energy of Nick Pagan’s rug cheekily shocks one out of complacency with its affirmation of disabled-and-sexed bodies.
I do not intend to presume that all disabilities are the same, are all experienced in the same way, or that all Creative Growth artists create or wish to create work expressing sexual desires. However, these artworks render visible positive intersections of sex and disability, making clear that the personal is indeed the political. Art has the potential for radically altering public perceptions and inviting imaginings of different realities — worlds where sex and disability go together, where disabled bodies are sexually desirable, where people with disabilities are powerful agents of their multiplicity of desires and have the freedom to publicly express those desires. These artworks imagine just such a world, and as active cultural producers these artists are significantly contributing to its being made a reality.
Watch this short MOCAtv video on Creative Growth with Aurie Ramirez, Director Tom di Maria, and others. Directed and filmed by Cheryl Dunn:
5 “Power to the People,” a phrase used as a rallying cry against class and racial oppression, is associated with the Black Panther Party; but, it also has been adopted by many groups and organizations in history since, to represent an empowered populace.
6 Robert McRuer and Anna Morrow, eds. “Introduction,” Sex and Disability (Durham and London: Duke Univeristy Press, 2012),7.
7 Bethany Stevens, “What I Would Tell My Teenage Self About Sexuality,” from Crip Confessions: Rants of a Crip Sexologist (December 2011), http://www.cripconfessions.com (accessed February 9, 2013).
8 See Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity, and Sexuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2009).
9 John Sinclair, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” Autism Network International newsletter, Our Voice, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1993), Cf. web.archive.org/web/20090329155049/http://web.syr.edu/~jisincla/dontmourn.htm (accessed February 9, 2013).