The “Below-the-Surface Eroticism” of Mel Odom’s Illustrations

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Mel Odom, Charleston, 1985Courtesy of the artist

A new exhibition brings together 100 of the artist’s drawings made between 1975 and 2019 that showcase his wholly original approach to illustration

Growing up in Mayberry, North Carolina, in the 1950s and 60s, artist Mel Odom would sneak out of his room after his parents went to sleep, turn the TV down low, and watch old movies late into the night. Mesmerised by the sleek yet sensuous art deco aesthetic that defined old Hollywood glamour, Odom revelled in the cool sexuality that smoldered under the glimmering surface of these films.

Intuitively he brought this sensibility to his work as an illustrator, a passion that took root when he was just three or four years old. Born to a mailman and a housewife living in a small town, Odom found solace in drawing his own world. “As an adult I realised whenever there was something traumatic going on in the family or in my life, drawing where was where I would go to exhibit some sense of control,” he tells AnOther. “I would go to my room and draw for hours. My parents understood it was something that meant a great deal to me, so I had lessons from the time I was seven years old.”

After receiving his first commission in third or fourth grade to draw 36 place cards for a school event, Odom understood he could make money doing what he loved. It’s a passion that he’s pursued throughout his life, one that he reflects back on in the new two-part exhibition, Mel Odom: Hard Stuff, now on view online and at the Tom of Finland Store in Los Angeles. For the exhibition, Odom brings together 100 drawings made between 1975 and 2019 that showcase his wholly original approach to illustration.

Serendipity brought Odom to New York in 1975. While visiting a couple of friends from college for the weekend, he called up agent Peggy Keating, dropped off his portfolio, and returned home. A couple of weeks later, she called with a job drawing for Viva, a new magazine published by Kathy Keeton. “Viva was an off spring of Penthouse but for women,” Odom says. “They wanted me to draw a sexual fantasy. That was the only direction I got. I did an Erté-inspired drawing of a man and a woman – she was the dominant one. Without thinking, I gave the man an erection in the drawing, but it was all very art deco.”

With just one commission, Odom knew he had to move to New York. The next week he packed art supplies and headed north, ready for the big time. “New York was surprisingly kind to me,” he recalls. While strolling along Madison Avenue on a Sunday, Odom passed a gallery and saw the work of his idol, Erté. He looked inside the window, saw the legendary Russian-French artist inside, and made a beeline for the artist who elevated art deco to the pantheon of fine art.

“When I moved to New York, I had two books with me: one of Erté and one on Greta Garbo and I saw Garbo in that first week. I thought, I am meant to be here!” Odom says.

New York welcomed Odom with open arms. Between his day job as a window dresser at Lord & Taylor department store and the $300 per drawing Odom made at Viva, he could easily afford to live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side back when the neighborhood still had a Panic in Needle Park vibe. “I really didn’t know New York was kind of seedy and rough back then, it’s just how it was when I moved here,” Odom says. “I always felt I had angels with brass knuckles watching out for me because I was so naïve and such a hick. I was oblivious to the danger all around me.”

After publishing in Viva, Odom got a call from Blueboy, a new gay magazine published by Donald N. Embinder, a former ad rep for After Dark. The glossy softcore magazine commissioned Odom to create full-page illustrations that became some of the most personal work ever made. “My drawings for Blueboy were homoerotic,” he says. “I was just figuring out who I was and these drawings were done toward my discovering something about myself. It was my personal expression of what I thought was beautiful and meaningful.”

In 1979, Odom hit the big time when he received a call from Playboy. “They were wonderful to work with. It was like I had rich uncles. I was making $2,000 a page. You couldn’t find it today!” he says with a knowing laugh. “Back then Playboy was renowned for its illustration. The first piece I had published was for a Roald Dahl short story. I was getting great writers like Tom Robbins and Joyce Carol Oates. Playboy would enter everything into illustration competitions. My work didn’t look like anybody else’s work and I would win awards.”

In 1980, Odom won “Illustrator of the Year” for his drawing for The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a tragic short story of a young couple on their honeymoon. Odom stayed with Playboy for 17 years, leaving when his career making the glamorous Gene Marshall dolls took off.

“What makes my work still work is that it was so personal,” he says. “The works haven’t dated. They still have a below-the-surface eroticism that makes them seem very contemporary. My style crosses boundaries and appeals to men and women on different levels. I was completely unbothered by letting everyone know I was gay. This was a profession of who I was.”

Mel Odom: Hard Stuff is on view online and at the Tom of Finland Store in Los Angeles through June 23, 2021.