Fetish at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery is just so nonchalant about the chains, handcuffs, phallic sex toys, and BDSM dungeon-like scenery you’re exposed to. It’s also surreal to see something like this being made in Nebraska, a state not really known for liberalism or sexual freedom like California and New York. But Larry Buller truly pokes fun at this by mixing Christian imagery and gayness into humorous and suggestive ceramic vessels. It feels like it should be controversial, but it doesn’t. Though, you wouldn’t want to bring your grandma to this show.
Overall, his ceramics feel anachronistic in two ways: that of the China cabinet and the socially repressed homosexual man. The former being represented through over-the-top Rococo decorative techniques, like abundant floral patterning and gilding that recall the overpriced and underutilized porcelain dishware every family seemed to complain about, and the latter, represented by the hypermasculine male figure of another era. Think the early 1970s-80s stereotypical representation of gay men: a buff beefcake, mustached, and dressed in the clone look.
Initially, this exhibition presents itself as a sex dungeon. You walk in and red lights flood a small room with hanging chains and three male busts propped on an elaborately gold-coated shelf. These busts all wear different gay signifiers. To the left, a man wearing a wig à la Freddie Mercury in I Want to Break Free, the center, a Leatherman, and to the right, another man wearing a leather dog mask, with a studded gilded leash. It’s easy to tell that Buller isn’t trying to hide anything in shame.
There are certainly more comical aspects to his objects that satirize American consumer habits. Don’t you remember a collection of knick-knacks or kitschy decorations lining a shelf in your grandma’s house? Well, Buller sets up shelves with ceramics not too dissimilar from a Precious Moments grouping, only this time, statues of the Virgin Mary, dandies, fruit, and images of Jesus, are surrounded by adult novelty items. On occasion, a golden studded toy is covered with a picture of Jesus himself.
Buller also jokes about functionality with his ceramics. They’re not just decorative – they’re just as functional as a vase or delicate China dishware, but it’s hard to imagine actually using many of these objects, not because they’re ceramics, but because of their relative size and decorative studs, spikes, etc. These absurdly goofy artworks have two immediate responses: “…how?” or “Ouch!”
Some more current references known to younger audiences include eggplant and peach emojis. In both millennial and zillenial vernacular, these two fruits are stylized euphemisms for male reproductive organs and human bottoms. Knowing this, Buller approaches these symbols with his elaborate decorative approach, glazing and gilding, which take on an exalted air of sophistication and refined taste, far from their original raunchy meaning.
Propping any object on a stand truly adds a feeling of refinement and distinction, and Buller does just that with his tickler toys. Again, we know what these devices are and what they’re used for, but through an astute use of blood red, lacquer black, and gold, the works appear like dignified tools. One of these ticklers made in 2019 looks more like a custom-made knife encased in a Japanese resin cover than a toy. As a jokester, Buller also made variations of these curved objects with pale yellows, purples, pinks and baby blues, with an excessive, but appropriate, use of cherub, cat, dog, and rose motifs.
More explicitly homoerotic is his dishware and canteens. On these objects are images of men from the torso up, shirtless, and looking at us. Burly and very masculine, these men are a response to the male gaze – in this context, they’re literally for the male gays.
These two works, titled “Beefcake Canteen” and “Beefcake Serving Plate,” present a dated, but culturally relevant view of men. In a literal sense, we’re encouraged to interact with these objects in a highly abstracted manner. In his serving plate, for example, the approach is to eat something off this obscenely overdecorated dish. We’d be forced to symbolically eat this man up. His canteen is equally suggestive, and this time, we would drink from a phallically shaped tube. It all feels like a lighthearted joke.
This lack of seriousness is truly what binds this exhibition together. It’s gay, it’s flamboyant, and it’s unabashedly about an oppressed minority group, but it’s not political. To Buller’s credit, being too loud would make this series seem too much like shock art, something these works are not. They’re suggestive, but they don’t hit you over the head (well, unless you want them too).
Larry Buller: Fetish runs through May 23rd at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery. Located at 1042 Howard Street in the Old Market Passageway, the gallery is open Tuesday-Saturday from noon-8pm and on Sunday from noon-6pm. For more information, please contact 402.341.1877, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Garden of the Zodiac page on Facebook.