Glory Hole blog

Graeme Flegenheimer on TOM House: The Work and Life of Tom of Finland at MoCA Detroit

There is no shortage of recognition for Tom of Finland. There are dedicated books about the artist, a slew of exhibitions and even consumer products in almost every permutation. So what is there left to say about Tom, one of the most influential and celebrated figures of 20th century gay culture? Graeme Flegenheimer, the curator behind TOM House: The Work and Life of Tom of Finland resolved this conundrum by levering the artist’s rich creative and personal relationships to present a novel study of Tom, artist and man. Realized in collaboration with Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead at MOCA Detroit, the exhibition explores the value and influence of Tom’s network of collaborators, admirers and supporters. These individuals are often left unacknowledged, but Flegenheimer reminds us that artists do not exist in a vacuum, and are instead the product of a complex web of influences and support systems. For Tom, this included artists like Richard Hawkins, Robert Mapplethorpe, Raymond Pettibon, Jim Shaw, and John Waters, all of which are represented in the exhibition. The presentation also includes photographs, reference material, and ephemera, within a space that is designed to evoke the spirit of TOM House in Echo Park, Los Angeles. We recently caught up with Flegenheimer to learn more about the exhibition, his unique curatorial direction, and which admirer of today embodies the essence of Tom.


Congratulations on your show at MOCA Detroit! Can you tell me about the curatorial direction behind the exhibition?

Thank you! I am beyond stoked + grateful to be involved on this. Truly legendary... The show is all about relationships. People who were in Tom's life. People who entered the Foundation's life. And then there was the idea to merge these two incredible artist's home...Mike's childhood Michigan home, that is very suburban, gets taken over by Tom’s radical free thinking home for homos. Mike also admired + supported Tom. We have a couple blue chip artists who were very supportive of Tom, like John Waters, Richard Hawkins, Jim Shaw + Raymond Pettibon. Also, music is a big component in the show. You see punk flyers repurposing Tom Men on these Limpwrist fliers... They are truly amazing to see.. At the end of the day, the show is about relationships. Tom had a relationship with Mike Kelley. Tom spoke at Mike's CalArts class. So it makes sense for the show to take place in Mike's home. I know Mike and his partner frequented Tom House.



Can you give us some insight into the process of developing the show?

The project was conceived quickly. I was on the porch at Tom House, about to leave, walking out the door. I yelled to Sharp and Marc: "Let’s do this show in Detroit in 5 months at Mike Kelley's Homestead..." We brainstormed how we could make a great show in a very small, but special space. The restraints of Mike Kelley's Homestead dictated the show, which was helpful on such a time constraint. The house I think also offers a much more close up view of Tom's work. It's very intimate. No tall ceilings etc. It's very homey.



Did you discover anything new or surprising while putting together the show?

It truly takes a community to do this. It's been amazing to see friends, both old and new show up, to help pitch in and bring this show to life. It also is a massive undertaking putting these shows together. So support your local museums + support Tom of Finland Foundation! We cannot do this stuff without a community!

Tom had so many admirers, and the exhibition incorporates a small selection of these individuals. How did you determine who made the cut?

A lot of selections fell on Marc + Sharp. I was very vocal about including two of my favorite new queer artists: Jess Scott + Seth Bogart. They are making really beautiful art right now. I also thought it would be amazing to have a piece of John Waters’ in the show so I reached out to him... He gave us something really special...A wonderful tribute to Mike Kelley. Also, we have Martin Sorrondeguy, the vocalist of Los Crudos + Limpwirst, whose also visual artist. He has some punk fliers + self portraits in the show. He is truly a force.

The exhibition is set to evoke the spirit of Tom's house. Can you explain how you have accomplished this in the dedicated space?

Well.. Myself + 4 others spent a Sunday night for 12 hours painting the walls the colors of Tom House. We installed wood molding around the windows + ceiling. Put an ornate fireplace in, as that is the centerpiece of Tom House... We'll have a bunch of oriental rugs everywhere, as well as floor lamps. We asked to borrow stickley furniture from unassuming homeowners. We tried to make the space feel as welcoming + warm as possible.  It's been fun set designing! The 12 hour install wouldn’t have been possible without Dexy's! So shoutout vintage ADD meds.



Tom of Finland has received so many dedicated exhibitions. Did you encounter this as a challenge when developing your show?

No, because the restrictions of doing a show in the Homestead really made us think outside of "the house" on this show. We had all these other artists in the space, next to Tom pieces, so the idea was to really drive home that you were in Tom's House. While at the same time seeing other queer artists celebrated + hung on the walls.

How did you first come across Tom and what relationship do you have to his work?

My friend Cali Dewitt brought me over to Tom House or told me about it, I forget. But I went and fell in love with the home, the people who inhabit the home and the magic that embraces the home. For me, seeing Tom at 18 years old, when I was still coming to terms with my sexuality, opened me up to free expression within Gay culture. He flipped my head upside down. Marc, Sharp + Durk are like my gay uncles. They always listen to me and guide me. To me, Tom's work told me I didn't need to fit into some box within the gay world, I could be who I wanted to be. I could do what I wanted. That is something I still carry with me from the first time I entered the doors of Laveta Terrace.

Which queer artist(s) today are living out the Tom legacy?

Jess Scott + Seth Bogart.


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