Israeli-Danish artist Tal R first became preoccupied with the aesthetics of the storefront four or five years ago, when he walked past an art shop displaying a vacant frame in the window: “It is a bit of a cheesy metaphor, the idea of the empty frame, but it reminded me of a pop song,” he says, as he prepares for a new exhibition of his paintings at Victoria Miro.
This image of the unfulfilled display was the spark for a major project concerning the nature of the shop façade, where an individual has to make the decision to cross the threshold and discover what lies within. However, Tal quickly focused his attention to one particular trade: that of the sex shop. “These sorts of places are almost two-dimensional, because often the windows are blacked out, and there can be the extra layer of a back-room. You only know if you enter – otherwise it is up to the imagination.”
He first began painting the exterior of these particular vendors after spotting a shop in Vienna, which proudly displayed objects that had a certain abstract quality: “think about it. Remember that bar in Star Wars, with all those aliens inside that look so different? Well that’s not the same for us, for people, because we all look the same and have the same body parts. So these objects are going to each be for a specific purpose or place, and sometimes they take on an almost abstract form.”
Since this encounter Tal has used source material comprising over a thousand photographs from his own travels and those supplied by friends, in order to recreate these unusual windows in beautiful, vibrant colour. On first glance these erotic emporiums could be any other beautiful building, complete with coded kaleidoscopic displays – but the presence of names such as ‘Dirty Dick’ and ‘Venus’ hanging above the doorway gives the game away. Such is the extent of the project that Tal is now an aficionado when seeking out suitable subjects. “You will usually find these places behind the train station, especially in Germany in Holland. I have no idea why, but that’s always the first place I go.”
The artist is aware of the fact that the theme of sex shops is titillating for some, but off-putting for others. “Some will find it interesting, some will run away, but something conscious is happening and this is where you start.” The notion of unknown intrigue is extremely important to the artist, not just for this body of work, but also for his practice as a whole. “Many people think the artist is Mr Clever, that he knows exactly what is going on, but I’m not like that. If the artist thinks he knows everything then he is a stupid puppet master, because art is made from mystery. The real key is something that makes you go quiet, art that has an effect on you… Some people want to throw a grenade, but I think if you see a good show or painting it’s like a stone in your shoe, it stays with you, and something has really changed.”
Tal R: Sexshops runs from September 20 until December 20, 2017, at Victoria Miro, London.