I discovered artist Reuben Negron when a Facebook friend sent me a link to his Dirty Dirty Love series, a provocative and distinctive examination of sexuality. I was mesmerized by Negron’s ability to capture the erotic life of his subjects and depict it in such an honest, un-glamourized, thought-provoking way. A Contemporary Realism painter currently exploring Erotic Realism as a social narrative, Negron talks here about the impact of cultural norms on our sexual expression.
1. What drew you to your agenda about challenging sexual taboos? Did you ever struggle with your own sexual shame/repression?
I have always been interested in untold and under reported stories. As a result, much of my work has centered on social narratives. Some of my previous work has dealt with child sex- tourism, domestic violence and even the civilian casualties of Pakistan and India’s ongoing conflict over Kashmir.
When I was in my mid-twenties there was a three-year period when a few very good friends came out as members of the LGBTQ community. Listening to their stories opened my eyes to the struggle they’d been living with and the strength it took to finally live the way they’d always wanted. I started thinking about why it took so long for them to come out and what direct and indirect pressures they must have faced to conform to a heteronormative society. That lead me to examine cultural attitudes toward sex and sexuality and its impact on the formation of identity.
I grew up in a liberal household in the middle of a working-class, blue-collar Connecticut suburb. For all the work my parents did to cultivate an environment of tolerance, living under the shadow of the church and middle class white values still had an impact on my own sexual experiences. Loosing my virginity was followed by painful guilt and fear. It wasn’t until I was much older when I was comfortable enough with my body and my identity that I was able to fully enjoy my sex life. Part of that journey took place while working on Dirty Dirty Love. In learning about other people’s sexual practices I started to embrace my own.
2. How did you conceive of Dirty, Dirty Love?
Dirty, Dirty Love grew out of a few questions – What happens when we think no one is watching? To what lengths will we go to keep that part of ourselves hidden? In what ways do our desires unify us, rather than divide us? I wanted to document intimacy as a way to illustrate that the emotions felt between all people, regardless of sexual identity, were essentially the same. I wanted Dirty, Dirty Love to focus on what unifies rather than divides. To do this it important that I try to present sex in a way where my work wouldn’t be dismissed as exploitive or sensational. I needed to make the audience a part of the process so I made a conscious decision to tell stories about sex, sexuality and identity in a way that left many of the details unanswered. With implied narratives the viewer has to finish the story; it is up to them to use their own context to decide what is or is not happening in a piece. It makes it more personal. It allows us to debate and consider alternate realities in which we can be present or at the very least, witness to. Once I had all of this worked out in my head I started asking people to be involved and… well, here we are.
3. Your paintings are incredibly intimate portrayals of sexuality. How do you go about gaining your subjects’ trust, and creating a space where they feel comfortable to expose themselves to you?
It begins with an open dialog between the model and myself. I come to each painting, and in turn, each story, with an open mind and it’s my duty to communicate that so they know with whatever happens, it happens in a judgement-free zone. I also want the model to be a collaborator – to share their ideas on how and where and when to stage an image. I never want to dictate how a model should pose. I’m all about letting people push their own boundaries and I support whatever a model wants to do so long as they feel comfortable doing it. For my part, I always maintain a certain professional distance, and I don’t mean physical distance, I mean mental and emotional. When I’m working, my number one concern is my model’s comfort. After that’s established I then need to consider the lighting, the composition, the textures, the setting, the passing of time, physical and mental fatigue of both myself and the model… anything and everything that can affect the image we’re working toward. It’s always a challenge but it’s also always fun.
4. Tell me three things you learned about human sexuality while doing your Dirty, Dirty Love series.
A. Deep down, we are seeking a kind of connection and even though our activates may vary, our motivation for doing them is typically the same.
B. Anything we can think of has already been done before.
C. The general public is more apt to discuss sex and sexuality than we are lead to believe.
5. The censorship of your work on social media has impacted your ability to promote yourself. How are you publicizing your work now that you’ve been excommunicated from Facebook and Google+?
I’m no longer excommunicated but it has hindered my ability to reach people directly. Before, I could share an image on Facebook or Google+ and instantly reach thousands of people. Now I need to persuade people to visit my website by posting teaser-images. It’s the difference of only one or two clicks but in internet marketing that can mean all the difference. One thing I refuse to do is cover my images with black bars or otherwise censor my work. I’ll spend an hour finding a clever way to crop one of my paintings rather than mar it with pixels or blurs.
6. After your work was censored, you asked some important questions: “Why is a nipple more damaging than hate speech? Are a man’s genitals more threatening than firearms? What does it say about us that we are so willing to self-censor in the face of self-critique?” – Have you come up with any answers?
I’m saddened that we live in a society where acts of violence are more accepted than demonstrations of affection. Ours is a culture that vilifies sexuality (a demonstration of unity between one or more people) and champions violence (a demonstration of division between one or more people). We pride ourselves on our “1st Amendment Right” to free speech – even when that speech contains outright fallacy or hate – but at the same time deprive fellow citizens the full legal and social rights associated with marriage. A lot of this divisive thinking is spurned by religious conservatism and social ignorance. It has its roots in fear of the “other” and a self-hate that propagates the illusion that “we are not good enough.”
Human beings are creatures of fear. For however intrepid and innovative our species can be, our survival has always depended on caution. The vanguard is ridiculed, the outlier shunned, the iconoclast persecuted. New ideas are essential to our advancement and yet they are always met with suspicion and distrust. It’s easier to live one way publicly and another privately. You remove the potential of being cast out if you seem to conform, even if in reality you do not… and in doing so we have fostered an unhealthy disconnect with our environment, our neighbors, and ourselves.
When we are unable to accept aspects of ourselves, how are we expected to accept the challenges of others? It’s easier to remove the “other” from our lives than to incorporate their reality with ours, even when the impact is so minuscule. People use religion and politics to hide their real shortcomings. It’s easier to blame a book than to admit your own error because as soon as we do that we are faulted, we stand out. So why are we so afraid to change? Is it instinct or learned or both? I don’t know. Even if these questions aren’t answered definitively I think the process of asking them opens our minds to other perspectives.
7. What is the difference between Erotic Art and Porn?
In my experience it’s completely subjective. I’ve asked this question of many people and everyone’s response directly relates to their own desires. For me, Erotic Art and Porn both excite but in very different ways. Erotic Art uses the viewer’s own fantasies and desires to slowly coax a sexual response from within. Porn, on the other hand, is more up front, it’s more direct and seeks to stimulate from the outside, in. I do not prefer one over the other. Each has its place in my life and I typically choose one or the other (and occasionally both) based on mood.
8. Why is it important for the public to be exposed to realistic, artistic depictions of sexuality?
We live in a society where nudity is a sin. It’s shameful; something for which we’re criticized and told to keep hidden. Up until very recently images of mothers breastfeeding their children were banned from social media and artwork depicting the nude form is constantly under threat of deletion. To add insult to injury, the notions of nudity we are exposed to fall within a very narrow and false projection of an unattainable invention. As a result we’re disconnected from our bodies. We’re taught to conceal, lift, constrain, manipulate ourselves to match those body images deemed as “acceptable” by the media and ergo, the public. This negatively affects our psyche, it damages our sense of self and complicates our relationships with others.
For me, it is imperative to demystify the nude and in doing so open up a space for us to freely discuss all the issues surrounding our bodies, including sex. Sex is natural and should be treated as such. Just as we’re exposed to a narrow range of body images in the general public, we are limited in our capacity to discuss and depict sex. Feelings of shame, confusion, and prejudice abound when it comes to sexuality. Because it’s so taboo in our society it is often ignored and that’s extremely dangerous to us as a society – especially young people who are coming of age and look to the generations before them for guidance. It’s sadly easier for a young person to turn to the internet to help define their sexuality than discuss it with their parents. If we can take away the “dirtiness” that surrounds sex then maybe we can open up and deal with it in a healthier manner.