Uncensored: Liquid Sex at Art on Madison
Nico Pico Train’s “Uncensored: Liquid Sex Series” (on view through March 30 at Art on Madison) ingeniously poses more questions than answers about sex, American-style, circa the fall of 2018 and the winter of 2019. Her images of bodies and their parts in various states of sexual arousal make for a stunningly beautiful, yet awkwardly candid portrayal of sexual arousal.
On the surface, American culture drowns in “sex” that is sanitized and photo-shopped, but, in truth, the porn that is currently ubiquitous on screens is the antithesis of “Bye-Bye Miss American Pie”-white, blonde bombshell, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am heteronormative sex. While point-of-view porn is linked to new frontiers of the body image-beauty standard debate, as cosmetic surgery “menus” now include labiaplasty (one of the fastest growing procedures of the last 15 years, where “excess” tissue is cut from the inner labia, making the genitalia symmetrical, smaller, and “more attractive”), it also plainly depicts the intermingling and penetration of “real” bodies that bear stretch marks, back hair, tattoos, moles, scars, and razor burn. Perhaps it’s not just the beauty of the nonetheless “ideal” bodies engaging in sex acts that makes contemporary POV porn “work,” but also the hints of realness conveyed by the ordinary details of the bodies engaged in those activities.
Much of the work in Nico Pico Train’s exhibition (all of the photographs are “Untitled”) operates at this visual level, and the artist is particularly adept at framing her subjects, all of whom were sexually aroused when their photos were taken. Formally, the photographs are stunning; Nico Pico Train establishes vivid backgrounds for her bodies. The artist captures standing white woman’s thighs, pubis, and outer labia, as well as the fishnet thigh-highs she is wearing. At first glance, the subject is just another dismembered female nude in art. Cleverly, however, Nico Pico Train frames a vibrator between her subject’s legs, which sits on a floral, geometric bedspread. Everything becomes clearer as you look deeper: She is alone; perhaps she had the thigh-highs on for her own pleasure, maybe they were on all day and she didn’t want to waste quality vibrator time taking them off? Here, the artist gives us a taste of the beautiful banality of sex, circa the fall of 2018.
Nico Pico Train’s photographs also unapologetically conjure a problematically repugnant side of this banality. In an aesthetically beautiful image of a white woman’s deep-colored lips and powdery-white jawline, a black man’s hands enter the frame, his right squeezes her left breast, his hand—scars and all—is at her throat. The artist tells us that her subjects are in states of sexual arousal. Here you want to trust her, but simultaneously, and as a frozen moment, the “choke” is, if not fully disturbing, then—at the very least—unsettling for reasons subtle and obvious. Obviously, erotic chocking when consensual is fine—but if porn is leading the charge on what acts are on the sexual “menu,” is it a choice? Further complicating matters is the reality that the black masculine body and feminine body depicted in ecstasy in Nico Pico Train’s image are both under siege as subjects of contemporary and historical violence and subjugation. Throughout American history (and contemporarily, for that matter), white racists framed Black men as predators, a threat to their property, which in this context meant to their “pure” white daughters. This ethos still pervades, as does the female body as a site of control, particularly in the current context of reproductive rights. Finally, taken out of context, is the “erotic choke” another representation of violence against the feminine body and what does it mean in a society where a leading cause of death among childbearing women is murder by a spouse, partner, or family member? The artist is at her best when her photographic narratives conjure questions such as these.
But not all of the images are this layered. Nico Pico Train also shows us that at its core, sex is a biological need that can be mundanely fulfilled in the way that we sometimes go through the drive-thru when we are starving. Amid the pop cultural “spin” of sex—that it should last hours, that everyone is properly groomed and waxed, and that everyone orgasms multiple times and sometimes in unison—is another reality. In the only photo depicting a person’s face, a tattooed white man grasps the base of his penis as his gaze meets the viewer. Beyond him, the television glows, a bearded black man dominates, but shares the screen with another figure; their presence, along with the cross above them on the subject’s wall, illustrates a very real moment. If it were not for the two remotes next to the man—to his right, near his resting right hand—the scene would be almost sad. But, as most single folks will tell you, despite dating apps and bars and clubs aplenty, as the poor get poorer and the middle class dwindles, sometimes mundane, perfunctory sex in front of the big screen TV is as good as it gets.
It is this honesty that makes this show so seductive. Nico Pico Train tapped into the sexual ethos of our historical moment in “Liquid Sex Series.” The exhibition, which includes a storefront sculpture by the artist, is an edgy, thoughtful visual study of the sexual body politic, in an age of anxiety, desperation, and—ultimately—opportunity for destroying old sexual tropes and creating those that are at the very least, honest.
“Nico Pico Train’s Liquid Sex Series” is on view through Saturday, March 30, 2019. Because of the sexual nature of the work, viewers must be 18 years and older.