What does it mean to make “erotic art”? Is it a Duchampian nude, splayed in a field, espied through a peep-hole? Is it a tiny, delicate teacup (saucer and spoon) crafted from fur? Is it a tent, appliquéd with all the names of the people with whom one has slept?
It may be all and none of the above.
Eroticism in art has always been relatively fugitive and non-universal, as it is in most people’s personal lives. It has also often functioned in historically provocative and revealing ways, from the nude frescos of Pompeii to Gustave Courbet’s voyeuristic Origin of the World. Cloaked in metaphor, myth and the Bible (think of Donatello’s David), Western art that evoked sensuality had to serve dual purposes—storytelling and titillation—because of the long reach of the Catholic Church, and, later, in the post-Martin Luther era, because of emerging ideas regarding piety and excess.
Giandra Shepard, owner of Studio Zsa Zsa LaPree Gallery, is planning to mount her second erotic exhibition, Sexy Summer Day Art Show, on July 28. The idea evolved from artist Ashley Dickerson’s (aka Lostwithasset) innate inclination to make works that are charged and sensual. “A lot of the show ideas are from me and the artists I work with,” explains Shepard.
She continues, explaining that she tries to make the gallery a space where she says “yes” more than “no.” She sees the venue as a place that’s dedicated to showcasing emerging black artists. “I’m into helping people,” says Shepard, who sees a connection with the young artists she shows.
“I identify with having the feeling of not knowing if you are ‘good enough,’” she explained, regarding the young artists who often don’t feel as if they have their own space and place to exhibit and experiment. She observed that these artists often feel isolated and alone—and they don’t have anyone they can simply just ask: “What do you think about this [idea]?”
“When I opened, I said to myself, ‘Let’s just do this [first] art show, and let’s see how it goes.’” It went so well that, now, her inbox regularly includes information recommending a new artist, sent by that maker’s peers. And though her focus is primarily on emerging artists, she does work with more-established artists who have “grown to do great things in the city.”
“Our mission is to unite creators in this city,” Shepard says of the gallery’s purpose. One way she achieves coalescence is to place more experienced artists in the same space as emerging artists. “I like to introduce artists to one another,” she explains. For instance, the Sexy Summer show features the visual artists as well as poets and musicians. Among these is poet Moses West whom Shepard cites as an inspiration. “He is someone with a real platform,” she notes of his commitment to his craft (indeed, he opens for Keith Sweat at the Sweat Hotel Block Party on July 27 at Veterans Memorial Arena).
Shepard hopes that by commingling unseasoned, younger artists and more experienced ones, conversations, ideas and even possibly collaborations will spark and catch fire. In fact, the three artists she calls her “Day Ones”—Jasmine Aldershoff, KiAndra Jones and Lostwithasset—have all participated in, or are participating in the Black Opal event.
Olivier Zahm, writing for CNN Style, opined in 2017, “Erotic art is truly an image without context, a naked and pure image that transgresses the norm by making the private, the intimate and the sexual public, expressing the infinite power and beauty of the subconscious.” Perhaps Zahm has hit on something that Shepard, who has a master’s degree in mental health counseling, intuits: Showing artists love allows them to become comfortable enough to be vulnerable.
The first erotic art show that Shepard hosted was “very successful,” so, in addition to hoping that success is duplicated, she wants to be able to keep saying “yes” to artists and their ideas. “Here we do art in every form. I want [this place] to be a mecca, for all creatives.”
At the time of our chat, only a few works had been delivered in advance of the show. One of the pieces, the acrylic painting Enchantress (pictured) by Lostwithasset, is of a female figure seemingly drawn from depictions of Ndebele women. She’s at the center of the canvas, surrounded by a kind of whirling energy that may be a nod to Hinduism’s ideas of Kundalini energy. The image isn’t overtly sexual but, in the context of the show, a deeper read is apparent.
In her day job, Shepard works with “severely paranoid and schizophrenic” adults. It’s a fair call to imagine that her instinctive kindness and innate ability to listen are precisely the kinds of support the young artists need. Shepard anticipates that six visual artists and about six performers will highlight their conceptions of erotica at the show. “Let’s have fun with it.”