Curating the naughty — 'The Dirty Show' turns 20

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Jerry Vile, founder of "The Dirty Show," standing in a multi-artist installation of a particular human organ (female) at Detroit's Russell Industrial Center. "Dirty" opens Feb. 8.

Just in time for Valentine's Day, "The Dirty Show" opens Feb. 8 for a two-weekend run at the Russell Industrial Center.

The exhibition, Detroit's annual salute to naughtiness that could make Cupid blush, turns 20 this year. To mark the salacious occasion, The Detroit News sat down with founder Jerry Vile to chat over what it's like being Michigan's most famous off-color curator. 

How big is the show this year? 

Vile: "It's being held in Russell's exhibition center. That's 50,000 square feet with two-story ceilings. We've got 300 pieces of art that we chose out of about 800 submissions."

Anything special?

"This year we’re working on an installation. The best way to put it is that Chicago has this massive walk-through human heart in their science museum, but our piece does that one better. It’s a walk-through, um, an organ. Female." 

Which raises the question — how old do you have to be to get in? 

"You have to be 21."

How'd you get into this "Dirty Show" business?

"I did a lot of nude portraits years ago, and was an early adopter of digital photography, because I didn't have to worry about getting the stuff developed. The forbidden element of erotic art is really attractive to me. I'm somebody who likes to cross lines and tick people off." 

Was it easy to launch?

"It was really hard to get truly dirty art for the first show. Maybe there'd be a breast or two peeking out here or there, but most galleries didn't let that kind of work in shows. The late Pablo Davis was almost in tears because he finally got to exhibit this one piece he'd painted in the 1970s — which today we could probably print in a newspaper."

Dirty Show entry 'Bad Bunny' by artist Peter Martin of Austria.

Times are different. 

"I'll say. Growing up in the 1970s, there was always a big pushback on sex. But today we get competition from the president. He talks like Nixon did behind closed doors, only he does it when the cameras are on. Society is much cruder than when I grew up. I remember when 'hell' was a dirty word."

"Record Lover IV" by John Meyer of Japan, in this year's "Dirty Show" at Detroit's Russell Industrial Center.

What's changed over the show's 20 years?

"We get so many more women artists now. The first few years, there was just Niagara and a few others. Now it's getting to be 50-50."

Do you see any difference in the erotic art women make, compared to men?

"No. I can't look at an artwork and tell you who did it. Every year, people ask what pieces are gay, and which ones are straight, but I can't tell." 

Do you get much gay art?

"We've always tried to get at least 10 percent, but gay erotic art has always been a tough find. We have to search it out. This year, however, we'll have our third homage to 1970s gay leather bars called the Daddy Hole — really just an old-fashioned bar with go-go boys and a sound system."

What about S&M?

"There's always a little S&M section where people can get spanked." 

"La Belle Chambriere 848" by Canadian artist Francois Dubeau is one of the tamer art pieces in "The Dirty Show" this year.

Have you been hassled by the authorities? 

"All the time. We get visits from the cops and fire marshals. Every year. But we know what we can do and what we're not allowed to do. We've also had the liquor control commission show up with the state police — they think it's some sort of orgy or something. Then they look around and say, 'Oh, this is mostly normal people looking at art.'"

Is your clientele really that white bread?

"No. We have a lot of really kinky, pervy patrons, too."

What's some of the most-impressive art you've exhibited? 

"About five years ago, New York artist Gregory de la Haba did three taxidermied horses with sculpted, over-sized genitalia. One stallion was rearing up 12 feet. It was a very, very unusual, show-stopping piece. By the way, it takes six guys to carry a taxidermied horse." 

What are some other high points? 

"For 'Dirty Show 16,' our first at the Russell, my childhood idol John Waters was special guest artist and speaker. He liked the show a lot. Unfortunately, you can’t have the same guest artist year after year. " 

Who's this year's guest artist?

"Glenn Barr from Detroit — he’s the first local we’ve ever had. I was thinking of great painters trying to figure out who we should get, and thought, 'Well, Glenn helped started the 'Dirty Show.' He was one of the core people. He called up friends, and was responsible for making the very first ones happen. And he's a world-class artist."

So now that the show's almost here, are you excited?

"Yes, but we know that during one of our weekends we're going to get clobbered by bad weather. We always do."

20th anniversary Dirty Show 

Special guest artist Glenn L. Barr 

7 p.m.-2 a.m. Fri.-Sat.  and Feb. 14-16 and 1-5 p.m. Sun. 

Russell Exhibition Center at Russell Industrial Complex
1600 Clay, Detroit

Tickets range from $40 for general admission up to $250 for hotel package, plus $10 for on-site parking. Tickets for Sunday viewing hours are available at the door only. 

Purchase online at or at Noir Leather in Royal Oak, Third Man Records in Detroit, Found Sound Records in Ferndale, the Road Show in Roseville or River’s Edge Gallery in Wyandotte

Show is 21 and older, except for Sunday viewing hours which are open to those 18 and older

Stage show schedule, all hosted by Jeez Loueez: 

Fri.-Sat.: Perle Noire, Chris Harder, Roxi D’Lite, Medianoche, Holly Hock, Eva Lafeva and more

Feb. 14: Dannie Diesel, Holly Hock, Deangela Showshannon, Ada Vice, Lady Sirene and more

Feb. 15-16: Dannie Diesel, Jett Adore, Roxi D’Lite, Medianoche, Holly Hock, Chris Harder, Perle Noire and more 

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

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