“Everybody has a sexual nature to them,” curator Amy Auerbach explained during a phone conversation. “Just because someone has a developmental disability doesn’t mean that sense of sexuality is non-existent.”
Auerbach works at Creativity Explored, a San Francisco-based nonprofit art gallery and professional working studio designed specifically for adult artists with developmental disabilities. The space, founded in 1983 by Florence Ludins-Katz and Elias Katz, encourages artists struggling with physical and mental conditions to hone a daily artistic practice and pursue careers as profitable visual artists.
“Some people think they are like children,” Auerbach continued. “The artists here aren’t. They have adult concepts and this is one of them.”
Every couple of months, Creativity Explored puts on a new thematic exhibition featuring work from some of the approximately 130 artists in their roster. The current exhibition, “Exposed,” revolves around nudity, sexuality and the human body. While the female nude has been a recurring image throughout art history, the Creativity Explored artists offer unorthodox imaginings of the human body, which is privileged not for its adherence to Western beauty ideals but for its smells, flavors, mysteries and desires.
The show features work by six artists, men and women, working in drawing, painting and sculpture. For some artists, like 36-year-old Antonio Benjamin, the naked human body isn’t necessarily equated with sex. Benjamin draws boxy bodies like paper dolls, which he describes as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, all existing in what he dubs a Neapolitan world.
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“When I’m drawing a naked body, it’s not sexual,” Benjamin told his visual arts instructor Judith LaRosa. “Mmm! Not about sex!” When LaRosa asked, in response, if the drawings were about what’s natural, Benjamin responded with an enthusiastic “yes.”
“Sometimes I like to draw people that look like me,” he added. “Brown like me.”
For other artists, however, the works do possess a certain erotic power. Like, for example, Camille Holvoet, whose pastel depictions of sugary treats and naked bodies bubble over with feeling of mouthwatering hunger. One of my favorite Holvoet pieces features two decadent slices of layered cake, topped with birthday candles. “I love you so much” is written on the first slice, “I like to hold your hand,” on the second.
For “Exposed,” Holvoet created colored pencil, ink and felt pen drawings on wood, depicting cross-eyed nudes with curly cue hair and drunken smiles. One, which she describes as a “fat goddess,” is a self-portrait.
“Drawing naked people reminds me of the dryer vent feelings,” Holvoet told Creativity Explored’s Ellen Dahlke, who relayed the comments. “It reminds me that I want to play with others. Go in their rooms if they leave the door unlocked and play with them, naked people.”
Holvoet went on to explain the intense reaction she experiences from smelling a laundry dryer, of feeling its heat. “I accidentally smelled it. I was too close. I smelled it, and then I went to Napa [State Hospital] again to get medicine,” she recalled. “It’s something connected to my brain with the laundry smell. A lot of people have connections like that between smell and sex.”
For the 65-year-old artist, who is often suffused with feelings and urges she is unable to control or consummate, art provides the opportunity to exercise some of this energy. Making work that explores sexuality, Holvoet explained, “makes me feel more relaxed, more like it’s the present instead of the past. Let’s make some more [wooden sculptures of] body parts so I can get this dream of mine from last night out of my head!”
“Let me put it this way, if there was no sex, there wouldn’t be nobody alive!” artist Thomas Pringle said. The 76-year-old, who has worked with Creativity Explored since 2006, uses expressive and imperfect lines to create drawings that provide insight into the full journey of their creation, missteps and all.
Pringle’s watercolor figures often drop off mid-form, leaving an arm or leg unfinished like a spool of yarn unraveling. “When I make something, like a painting of a woman, it’s about sex. I use pictures, and I try to make it as a real body. I look for one that’s good-looking,” he said.
For artists like Pringle, the physical act of intercourse is an impossibility, yet the feelings of erotic desire and curiosity reman. Creative expression provides an alternate outlet for lust to crescendo and subside. “I got news for you, there’s sex already happening,” he said. “With my disability, for instance, I don’t know how [to have sex], but I got it in my mind. I’m still having sex, but in a different way.”
“Exposed” features work by Antonio Benjamin, Andrew Bixler, Camille Holvoet, Jose Nunez, Thomas Pringle and Kate Thompson. Curated by Amy Auerbach and Stephanie Rudd. The exhibition is on view until Sept. 28 at Creativity Explored in San Francisco. The work above is available for purchase on Artsy.