SURVIVING IS THE BEST REVENGE:
An Interview with REX
QUESTION: “Your work has been enjoyed by millions around
the globe for decades now, and endlessly pirated in reproductions
and internet blogs across the globe. Last year a best-selling
hardcover portfolio of your work appeared under the title REX
VERBOTEN compiled by Bo Tobin Anacabe and published by Bruno
Gmunder in Germany. And yet officially you remain off the radar
in the academic art world both in the US and here in Europe. How
do you explain the decades long descrepency between your widespread
fame as a cult artist on the one hand, and being consistently
ignored by the art establishment?”
REX: Underground cult artists have always been at odds with the
establishment over censorship. This is true whether the offending
work centers on religious, political or sexual issues. Because
my work centers on the once taboo subject of homosexuality, the
status quo found it particularly threatening and unacceptable
to be shown in public and for many years or discussed in print.
Even today the mere mention of the word homosexuality makes Americans
squirm in their seats. The polorizing effect that homosexuality
still elicits in America makes it difficult for them to categorize
my work as either art, or pornography. It’s always been
much easier for the establishment to just ignore me.
I would not deny it is pornographic, but I also contend that
pornography is at the same time a legitimate genre of art just
as is landscape painting or portraiture. But up to now it has
been a genre that dare not speak its name in the American art
establishment. The legal definition of pornography is the depiction
of sexual penetration or portraying taboo sexual activity or fetishes.
This is not to be confused with soft-core pornography all over
commercial television and the media–which does not show
sexual penetration or genitalia, but rather suggests such activity.
It may seem a minor point to the uninitiated, but there is quite
a difference between the two in the eyes of the law. The criminal
justice system is rife with arcane laws on the books that dictate
what parts of the male body can be shown in what positions and
in proximity to other body parts, sexual positions or the presumed
age of the participants shown. Keeping track of this web of often
contradictory laws that define pornography in a legal sense is
made doubly confusing by the vague and ambiguous way these laws
are written, leaving them open to whatever wide interpretations
a judge wish to interpret them according to what mood he’s
in at the moment.
Oddly enough, many sexual activities which can be shown on film
or in literature, are “still” illegal to portray in
art. So there is a psychotic relationship between what we can
see in the real world, and what laws say we aren’t allowed
to see in the creative world.
QUESTION: “Because of the legal controversy surrounding
your subject matter, it seems however that your inimitable ink
technique is never a factor in considering you as one of the more
interesting American artists of the past half century. I mean,
you are right up there with your contemporaries Robert Mapplethorpe
and Andy Warhol in the eyes of many fans because of your influence
upon other artists and the public at large.
You lived and worked in Manhattan when you started, knew both
these men personally, and moved in the same intellectual and social
circles and yet oddly enough–unlike Mapplethorpe and Warhol–you
seem to have studiously been ignored by the art establishment,
as they were not. Instead you have garnered a reputation as the
Loose Canon of the American Art World: How do explain this dichotomy
between their acceptance in the art world and your rejection?”
REX: It’s because I wouldn’t play the game of the
New York art establishment: Mapplethorpe and Warhol pulled their
punches visually to a level acceptable to that establishment.
Their medium was primarily photographic and there is this odd
double-standard between photographic erotica being somehow more
acceptable than showing the same sex act in two-dimensional fictional
art. Both Mapplethorpe and Warhol were essentially domesticated
by the art establishment in order to market them to the public
as a brand name commodity. While their work was once considered
revolutionary and shocking, in hindsight for all its sexual ineuendo
it reads now as merely “risque” images burnished to
a glamorous sheen. Their work is titillating, but hardly takes
on any trenchant new perceptions about male sexuality that make
one sit up and take notice.
These once so-called shocking images today seem little more than
the investment instruments they were intended to be by their promotors.
And I would be the first to say they have proved to be very good
investments. In addition their work possesses a technical finesse
and originality that can not be denied or easily dismissed. Their
influence on the art world was profound. But the question still
remains, is this stuff really as good as we are told it is by
the critics? Or do they simply have a vested financial interest
in having the public believe so? I on the other hand aimed my
art exclusively for an audience interested in the blunt unvarnished
world of homosexual sex. The art establishment and investors weren’t
interested in handling art that honest, The truth is a hard sell.
QUESTION: Tom of Finland is perhaps your most famous contemporary
working in the same field of pornographic art, and the artist
you are most often compared with. Didn’t he also explore
the unvarnished truth about male sexuality?
REX: Yes he did, but in a romanticized and idealized way. On
that level it is much more profound and engaging on a more sensual
level than my work. His intellectual approach to male sexuality
is never mean or crass but positive and uplifting. Those are extremely
difficult emotions to convey when springing from a purely sexual
context. Tom studiously avoided portraying any degradation or
demeaning situations in his work. In his era it was important
to portray homosexuals as masculine Gods to lend self-esteem to
homosexuals that they were being denied from the wider society.
His drawings are suggestive of the Greco-Roman view of Men as
Gods. I’m am only interested in portraying mortals being
pereceived as Gods in those moments of suspensed disbelief that
can happen when we are in the throes of sex.
Tom’s work has a more universal appeal with a generic quality
which translates across all cultures where homosexuality exists.
His work is timeless. Tom’s prototype is blond; mine is
brunette. His men are absolutely clean and flawless, mine are
imperfect and soiled. And finally, his medium was lead pencil
which is soft and pliable, which lends his work a smooth satin
finish. My medium is pen and ink which is hard and unyielding,
incapable of half tones which give my Men a hard sharp edge. However,
in psychological terms I would never attempt to cover the same
mental territory he did. I work the other side of the street.
QUESTION: Was your work inspired by any other artists?.
REX: Actually, in visual terms I was more influenced by authors
like William S Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac or Charles
Bukowski. I felt more kinship to their iconoclastic writing tht
was also once considered taboo and dismissed as trash when it
first appeared, by the ancestors of the same clique of gate keepers
who keep my work from being seen. And to be truthful, my blunt
portrayals offend even many homosexuals because my work does not
validate themselves as they wish to be perceived–as respectable
happily married suburbanites emulating the worst aspects of the
straight bourgeoisie. These homosexuals flinch at seeing the unpleasant
truths of their secret desires on display in my work.
Yes, it’s disturbing work for many homosexuals, but life
itself unfortunately is disturbing at times and I see no reason
to pretend otherwise. Let’s not kid ourselves. Like those
writers I named, I portray the outcasts of society in my drawings;
desperate ignored men at the bottom of the feeding chain in life.
A class of men that the art world–and governments especially–like
to pretend don’t exist. I relate to these men because they
represent the majority of men on earth. Social and sexual etiquette
has little place in their lives. As outcasts, they are beyond
the rules of polite society. It’s my interest in these lower
class men that partly makes my work so repugnent to the art establishment,
and at the same time makes it so popular with the unwashed masses
who absolutely identify with my drawings as a reflection of their
own experiences in the world. The poor are seldom presented in
any medium as anything other then objects of ridicule or pity.
I show them purely as the Sex Symbols many of them are.
QUESTION: You don’t cater to upper or middle-class homosexuals
in your work. You seem to ignore their lifestyles in your art.
Your men seldom are shown in comfortable or beautiful surroundings,
clean beds or objects of material success. Rather, your men all
have holes in their socks, if they even have socks. Your backgrounds
are painfully utilitarien and pointedly unattractive , and yet
these grim settings are rendered with such great care as you show
viewers the real hidden beauty in the shape of something like
garbage can they never saw before. The men in your drawings seem
disheveled, to put it politely. But nowhere is there any indication
of a seemingly upper or upper-middle-class man to be seen.
Why is this?
REX: Some of my best friends are upper or middle-class men. But
as subject matter I find their lifestyles don’t lend themselves
to good pornography. And note I did not say they were not good
sex. I also think most artists like Mapplethorpe or Warhol direct
their work to upper and middle-class audiences who vicariously
like to go slumming culturally when viewing their “risque”
work. And mainly because those are the classes that can afford
to buy art.
Most of my fans are unemployed; jobs merely interfere with their
sex lives. The upper and middle-class tend to buy art they can
show off to friends and family underscoring their fine aesthetic
taste. On the other hand people who buy my art are terrified to
let their friends and family know they even own it, let alone
show it off. The minute collectors of my art die, their familes
rush in to destroy it fearing the scandal if anyone should discover
their son ever owned it. I think also because so many successful
artists come from upper or middle-class backgrounds they have
no access to the lower depths of society in any intimate or extended
sense. So they have no empathy with the class of men I draw, whom
I would charitably characterize as men most likely living under
freeways overpasses. They may be dangerous it’s true, but
they are also usually great sex and live by their wits with great
ingenuity, full of adventures the rest of us can only dream of.
The wealthy or upper classes are too civilized to explore their
natural instincts outside the protection of their own class because
they have too much to lose. The privileged are born into obligations
and expectations they must live up to in order to maintain their
material positions in society and fulfill the obligations of their
class. But in the process they often are scrubbed clean of their
humanity, and civilized to the point their primal urges gets bred
out of them. And of course I am making a broad generalization
that does not apply to all upper or middle-class men.
QUESTION: You’ve explained some of the psychological implications
of your work. But what about the technical aspects, which are
usually taken into consideration when judging art. Your pen-and-ink
technique is an extremely difficult and obscure medium, and one
seldom seen these days with the precision with which you have
mastered it. The technique is suggestive of 19th Century engravings
or other etching techniques. The best of your pen and ink work
is rendered in a virtuoso pointillistic style seldom seen anymore
in our time. One could argue it is of such a high technical caliber
it’s hard to believe such quality has been ignored for decades
by the serious art world who supposedly pay attention to these
Most who view your work in reproductions haven’t a clue
as to what medium you are using, it appears so enigmatic in both
shading and texture. Why hasn’t your work been championed
apart from the subject matter, on the other merits of originality,
design, style, composition, and technical execution?
REX: You must realize that whenever sex rears its ugly head in
America, the art establishment freezes like a deer caught in the
headlights. The high quality of my technique poses an ethical
conundrum in terms of objectively that the art establishment would
rather not deal with. By ignoring the technical aspects of my
work, these critics have lost much of their credibility in the
eyes of many as arbiters of what constitutes “art”.
The critics would rather have technical skill on this high a level
reserved for politically correct subject matter, and not upon
subjects they deem unworthy of such attention.
As long as critics continue to ignore the technical performance
of my work it will continue to be filtered thru the religious
and psychological baggage critics bring to their appraisals of
it. Indeed, some brave critics have tried to champion my work
on a technical level, but they are not allowed to discuss the
subject matter in print and that guts their whole defense of it.
What has gotten published reads like someone sweating bullets
trying to praise work whose subject matter they dare describe.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work, you would be clueless
as to what the art is about from reading these schizophrenic reviews.
QUESTION: But isn’t this a natural reaction, given the
rules of society or the editors they must answer to. Not to mention
receive a paycheck from.
REX: The problem with the art establishment is its inability
to face the fact it is just a handservant to the wider society,
and not the independent thinkers they fancy themselves to be.
They are part of the problem; not the solution. Art critics can
not get past the “sexual aspect” of my work because
in order to do so they must question their own sexuality. In order
to judge sexual art objectively it helps to be on familiar terms
with the subject matter in order to pass judgement on it. Few
art critics I’ve ever met have lived their lives as the
sexual athletes I portray in my drawings. And if not, than what
is their opinion worth to inform others about what they reviewing?
It’s rather like asking a toddler to review the technical
performance of a Lamborghini. He could probably do it (“it’s
fast!”) but what meaningful value such an appraisal would
have for someone interested in purchasing a Lamborghini I do not
know. My work is in a similar position; at the mercy of an art
critics evidently not moving in the same sexual circles my art
depicts. Therefore they are not really positioned to pass informed
judgement on what they are viewing.
My public on the other hand seems to recognizes the voice of
experience which is why it remains so popular–and growing
moreso as the world grows more disheveled with each passing day.
What was once considered fantasy is now beginning to look more
and more like the real world. I think if you are open minded enough
and step back a few sober paces you realize my work is not so
much about men or sex, but simply tableaux of Human Nature.
Art is like sex–what we admit to liking in public or among
friends, and what we actually “like” in private at
2:30 at night after the bars close, are two different things.
No one dare say in public they dislike Rembrandt or the Mona Lisa.
For to do so would border on intellectual heresy. Rather our stated
views on both art and sex are not so much based on what we really
believe, but always on our social conditioning and psychological
fears of how our peers will judge us if we dare express unconventional
views. So when people denounce my art in public, I understand
it is the only acceptable answer they could give due to their
conditioning. But in private they may actually be avid secret
collectors of it, as so many men around the world are.
QUESTION: You talk candidly about your work in political and
philosophical terms. You seem more interested in those aspects
than its sexual aspects. Why is that?”
REX: Well I think politics and philosophy go to the very heart
of the role art should play in the world. The philosophy behind
Walt Disney’s work was to give pleasure and delight. He
gave it to children; I give it to masturbators. Does it really
matter as long as the targeted audience is given what they seek?
In both those cases, the philosophical intent is to give pleasure
and delight. And in a political and philosophical terms that poses
the unspoken question, why don’t our leaders give us similar
pleasure or delight? Instead they give us rubber bullets and tear
gas on a daily basis.
If Walt Disney or I can figure out how to give people what they
want, what’s their problem? Believe me when governments
threaten to arrest you for drawing a picture, your art takes on
Political ramifications very quickly. That’s what makes
pornography such an exciting medium to work in because it throws
down the glove to Church and State and challenges them to question
their values. Ideally Art should lead, not follow thinking.
QUESTION: Are you bitter about being ignored by the art establishment?
REX: No, but I am truly amazed that after four decades of exposure
with an international reputation I am still not on their radar,
while so much mediocrity has come and gone in my lifetime that
has been praised to the sky. Also, I had no illusions about courting
the art establishment from the start because I knew my subject
matter was taboo in the art establishment. My was more interested
in the Walt Disney method of taking my art directly to the People,
and for them to decide whether it had any value as art. Walt Disney
and Norman Rockwell were much ridiculed by the art establishment
when they first appeared because the great unwashed masses embraced
their work, while the academia was trying to force Titian and
Velazquez down their throats. There is nothing wrong with Titian,
but he simply does not speak to the man in the street in their
time as did Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell. And if art isn’t
meant for the man in the street, then who is it meant for? Intellectual
Titian and Valazquez were no longer pertinent to their daily
lives, their lifestyles or belief systems. Those great artists
remain to be enjoyed forever, if that is your cup of tea–just
like Opera. But just like Opera, they are no longer in the mainstream
of contemporary thought as a movers-and-shakers of our times.
So much of what you see enshrined in museums today are works by
artists like Picasso or Monet whose work was once disparaged in
their time by the art establishment.
A century after their shocking “revolutionary” art
was created, it seems tepid because the world has caught up with
the future they were trying to flag down in their work. Once art
becomes acceptable it tends to have outlived its purpose as a
guidepost to new ways of thinking. Even Mickey Mouse has gone
thru many make-overs in order to remain relevant to todays audiences.
Have you checked recently on what he looked like in 1928?
QUESTION: Do you think that will happen to your work, that it
will lose its relevance?
REX: Probably when it no longer speaks to the times. When it
no longer poses a threat to the Establishment, its will have done
its job. But I will say that whatever art from the that still
attracts an audience usually has a highly erotic component: Leda
and the Swan or Michaelangelo’s David still speak to our
erotically-fixated world today.
QUESTION: Going back to the debate about your work as Art or
Porn, how do you categorize your art?
REX: I wouldn’t categorize it at all. It just is. Its purpose
was to target audiences who wished to view such material. I would
be the first to admit this work was not designed for the general
public. But that does not mean it should be deliberately hidden
from the general public either, by taking away their option to
see it in certain places if they so desire. I think it defies
classification because it is appearing at a time in history when
civilization has not yet matured enough to come to terms with
the central role sexuality plays in all our lives–for both
men and women. I think of my work as neither Art nor Porn specifically,
but merely lighting a kind of mental fuse that jolts viewers into
new ways of thinking beyond what Church and State order us to
think about human sexuality.
QUESTION: You’ve mentioned very little about your work
in strictkly sexual terms. Why is that?
REX: Well I start with the premise that the purpose of art should
be to challenge the political and philosophical status quo. But
in order to do that you must first find a way to get peoples attention.
In these times of information overload and attention span deficit,
getting people’s attention is not easy: To get that attention
I’ve chosen the oldest trick in the book; the male penis.
I focus on male sexuality because it lies at the core of all life
on earth. And at the core of male sexuality is the penis. Without
that initial breeding thrust, all humanity and most species on
the planet would cease.
Bluntly put, the penis is the primal impetus for all the institutions
and relationships that formulate the world around us. From weddings
to wars. And erotica is the quickest way I know to grab peoples
attention, and far more effective than pondering images of kittens
rolling balls of yarn. It has been my observation that when you
wave a stiff penis in front of nearly anyone you’ve gotten
their full attention–if only for the fleeting moment it
takes them to “react” and turn away in disgust. Bingo!
I have made my point, and created art that has “moved”
them which is supposedly the purpose of art. Either mentally or
in my case, physically.
My bottom line is a firm belief that sex lies at the very core
of our being, no matter how we wish to definite it for ourselves.
Nothing else trumps its importance although many would never admit
it. But to ignore that fact degrades the importance of sex and
really does humanity a great disservice. In my drawings I say
to Church and State–look–the penis is here to stay
and you’d all better get use to that fact and focus your
attention on more pressing issues that face mankind, then banning