Sir Durk Dehner Selects Four Game-Changing Queer Artists

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Sir Durk Dehner
Sir Durk DehnerPhotography by Elliott Morgan

Ahead of Tom of Finland Art & Culture Festival’s crash landing in London this weekend, the Foundation’s co-founder tells us the radical artists we should keep an eye out for

“I know my little ‘dirty drawings’ are never going to hang in the main salons of the Louvre,” Tom of Finland once said, shortly before he passed away aged 71. “But it would be nice if our world learns to accept all the different ways of loving. Then maybe I could have a place in one of the smaller side rooms.” Those ‘dirty drawings’ – his fantasy depictions of beefy, confident men clad in tight uniforms, their muscles bulging as far as their tumescent packages – may not have made their way to the walls of the Louvre alongside the museum’s various portrayals of scantily clothed women, but instead tour the world to reside in galleries and private collections to live on as revolutionary, uplifting emblems of underground queer culture. On July 22 and 23, the Tom of Finland Art & Culture Festival 2023 lands at London’s The Standard Hotel, bringing with it an immaculate roster of queer art – each artist advancing the indelible legacy of the Finnish artist. 

The festival, now on its 27th iteration, is the ongoing work of the Tom of Finland Foundation, co-founded by its namesake artist (whose real name is Touko Laaksonen) and his close confidant and muse Sir Durk Dehner in 1984. With the theme All Roads Lead to Tom guiding this year’s celebrations, the festival is an embodiment of Tom of Finland’s sexually liberated ideals, which exist more than simply to titillate, but to reflect an empowered queer culture that feels extensively marginalised. “There used to be a very strong definition that if [work] contained sexual expression it was pornography,” Dehner says, “then there was an opening of the concept that pornography could be creative in its development, so it might contain creativity and have merit within the artistic realm.”

These symbols of queer identity can spur validation in communities, but remain provocative for blurring the boundaries between art and porn. When Supreme Court Justice judge Potter Stewart was asked to describe his test for obscenity in 1964, he responded: “I know it when I see it” – but it’s a flimsy line that’s often tripped upon. “Michelangelo’s David has been banned in some American school systems,” Dehner continues, “then you travel to Italy and other European countries and nude sculptures are everywhere. Man has a constant desire to label identities.”

Opposing all forms of prudishness, the festival offers a safe space for queer people and kinksters in the erotic art field – for pleasure and freedom of the mind and body. Promoting Tom of Finland’s work in America and internationally, Dehner has worked for years promoting pro-sex attitudes through his film, publishing, photography and events, acting as a guardian of erotic art, preventing such work from discrimination and destruction. Here, with the landscape of queer art in constant flux, Sir Durk Dehner spotlights four rising artists to watch out for at the Tom of Finland Art & Culture Festival 2023 and beyond.

Marc-Aurèle Debut

“Marc-Aurèle has had a well-rounded educational journey. An interest in the human body led him to medical school where his mind wandered to the artistic side rather than clinical. In his sculptures, he questions the essence of human relationships, physical space, objects, and techniques to identify the bodies intrinsic reactions to structural and environmental influences. His sculptures reflect on the way he interprets his own queer identity where he finds he can process and embody his past traumas sparked by his sexuality to attempt the healing of his mental health issues of past and present. His work is complex and is deep rooted in scientific theory, such as the works of Foucalt and Bataille, contributing to comprehensive and exhaustive works.”

The Institute of Digital Fashion

“The Institute of Digital Fashion is an emblem for change, admirably reimagining what they call ‘a broken system’ which needs to be changed. They have created a platform in which they have the power to break down the intrinsic hierarchical systems that are currently in place and well known to bring about a sustainable and democratic way of marketing fashion. Their forward thinking and innovative platform, which is bringing about expansive new ideas of restructuring how technology and digital are used from creation to consumer, is an exciting concept that could spark a new era of the huge world of fashion.”

Matt Pagett 

“Matt is an artist who understands his influence when looking at the bigger picture of the ever changing and evolving world, and how certain creatives and artists fit into it. Whilst he focuses primarily on the drawings he has been making for the past ten or so years, this sparks the question in his mind of how he is supposed to keep up with the status and prevalence of the modern digital image. His self awareness is extremely important in this age and something to be praised since he is aware his relevance and audience is dependent on keeping up to date with the world we live in.”

James Davison

“Through colour and shape, James identifies human form whilst exploring digital methodologies. He is well-known in the London queer community especially after working closely with queer figures such as Jodie Harsh, Violet Chachki, and Troye Sivan. His work with Versace has broadened his audience and led him to many more private commissions including concept illustrations for music videos, fashion campaigns and portraiture. I love his way of capturing the glamour and high energy of the fashion world as well as the characters and well-loved figures of the queer community.”

The Tom of Finland Art & Culture Festival 2023 is on at London’s The Standard from July 22-23. You can purchase tickets here.