MOCAD hosts gay ‘Tom of Finland’ exhibition

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

It’s just about the gayest thing to ever hit Detroit.

“TOM House: The Work and Life of Tom of Finland,” an exhibition of male erotica by an artist who became an icon within the gay community, opens Thursday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. It’s up through May 19.

“Untitled (Portrait of Pekka),” by Tom of Finland, epitomizes the highly masculine figures the gay artist favored.

The imagery, mostly drawings, wood-block prints and magic-marker portraits, range from PG-rated studies of virile lumberjacks, motorcycle cops and other hyper-masculinized, mustachioed men to beautifully rendered scenes of similar men engaged in hard-core sex.

“It’s elegant pornography,” said Graeme Flegenheimer, the impresario behind El Club Detroit and the motive force in bringing the “TOM” show to the Motor City, as well as a co-curator.

“There’s real craftsmanship in the drawings,” Flegenheimer said. “There’s no denying Tom’s a real artist.”

The art is displayed in the Mike Kelley “Mobile Homestead” behind the museum, an appropriate setting, since the two men were friends.

The show consists of an intimate series of small rooms decked out to resemble the Tom of Finland house in Echo Park, a neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Guaranteed to shock some, the exhibition undeniably pushes boundaries in a metro area not known for highly visible signs of gay sexuality.

“That makes me very happy” said co-curator Marc Ransdell Bellenger of the LA-based Tom of Finland Foundation. “We even have a billboard (advertising the show) up near the Detroit hotel where I’m staying at Trumbull and Porter.”

Touko Laaksonen, the man behind the “Tom” brand, was born in a small town in Finland in 1921. He was, by all accounts, that rarest type of gay man in that era — never willing to hide who or what he was.

“Tom was never in the closet,” Bellenger said, “but Finns don’t broadcast. They’re very reserved about everything. Everyone knew, but no one talked about it.”

Moving to Los Angeles in 1981 when he was 60 revolutionized the artist’s life.

Tom worked most of his career in the Helsinki offices of the U.S. ad giant McCann Erickson, but once in California, devoted himself entirely to his artwork, which achieved huge popularity with its representation of gay men utterly untroubled by their homosexuality.

Tom died in 1991, but there have been recent moves to honor his legacy.

“We need to pay tribute to those people like Tom of Finland,” said Flegenheimer, “who gave me the luxury of not having to worry about paddy wagons, or walking down the street dressed all in leather. He’s a hero.”

Last year, the feature film “Tom of Finland” was the official Finnish entry in the foreign-language category at the Academy Awards.

Even more surprising, four years ago Finland issued three postage stamps commemorating the artist — stamps which did little to hide the sexual nature of his work.


(313) 222-6021

‘TOM House: The Work and Life of Tom of Finland’

Thursday-May 19

6-9 p.m: Opening reception

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward, Detroit

Hours: 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Thurs.- Fri; 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Wed., Sat. & Sun.


(313) 832-6622