‘Everybody Watches Porn’: Dealer Michele Maccarone on Why She Teamed Up With PornHub For Her Explicit New Show in LA

On Saturday night at Michele Maccarone’s Los Angeles gallery, visitors waited in line, taking turns to peek inside a mysterious plexiglass window that had been cut into the gallery wall.

The surprise waiting on the other side was the artist Delia Brown sketching a nude model reclined on a purple velvet chaise lounge. When visitors peered inside, some chuckled and quickly moved along, possibly having recognized Brown’s subject: Asa Akira, the award-winning adult actress who has starred in such films as “Sexbots: Programmed for Pleasure,” “Sailor Poon,” and “Asa Akira is Insatiable” (installments one, two, and three).

This was the opening for “The Pleasure Principle,” a group show about female eroticism curated by Maccarone and sponsored by the Canadian adult-video website PornHub, which describes itself as the “premiere online destination for adult entertainment.” The show includes numerous sexually explicit works, such as Tracey Emin’s neon-wrought aphorism “My Cunt is Wet With Fear” (1998) and Lynda Benglis’s nude, dildo-flaunting 1974 Artforum ad. But what really raised eyebrows was the show’s financial backer.

Lynda Benglis's infamous Artforum shoot. Photo: Janelle Zara.

Lynda Benglis’s infamous Artforum shoot. Photo: Janelle Zara.

News of the Pornhub sponsorship provoked mocking titters on social media, and one newspaper suggested it was a “gimmick,” but Maccarone says she’s brushing it off. “‘Oh my god, porn!’” Maccarone mock-exclaimed. Her aim, she said, had been the inverse, to reclaim a subversive mood from around 1991, when the publication of the book Angry Women introduced her to the work of feminist artists like Karen Finley and Carolee Schneemann.

“In the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking about doing exhibitions that remind me of when I was younger. Somehow in the art world you get caught up and you get further and further away from the things that originally inspired you,” she said. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s I remember seeing the Whitney Biennial and feeling a sex-centric, body-centric presence. I’ve been thinking, is that still happening? For some reason, I think there’s been a bit of a regression. I feel like now there’s a shame-based veneer, and a lot of content cleansing.”

Delia Brown, <i>Brinda (Carnations)</i> and <i>Katception (Foot Fetish)</i> from Live Drawing performances, (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone.

Delia Brown, Brinda (Carnations) and Katception (Foot Fetish) from Live Drawing performances (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone.

It seemed true that some visitors at the opening felt a sense of shame watching porn while others were watching. Anne Hirsch’s compilations of online pornographic clips, for example, had commentary playing through the headphones attached to the monitors, but many opted to simply watch the screens from a safe distance.

The show posited a lineup of female, intergenerational artists that challenge “the censorship of sexual imagery,” including Emin, Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, Marilyn Minter, Trulee Hall—all pioneering women artists of minimally intersectional scope. “To do something that was pansexual, including men, women, and transpeople, I would have added two years of research,” Maccarone said.

E.V. Day, Saarinen's Mother installation view. Photo: Janelle Zara.

EV Day, Saarinen’s Mother installation view. Photo: Janelle Zara.

The representation of women of color was also scant, limited to a television playing Nao Bustamente’s 1992 performance Rosa Does Joan, in which the artist successfully fabricated an exhibitionist persona to get on to The Joan Rivers Show, and Narcissister’s The Face (Performing male facial features) (2019), a monumental, mechanical assemblage of a moving eyes and mouth that required activation from a live performer.

Per the agreement between the gallery and the website, Maccarone “would choose the art—some 50 works in total—and Pornhub would ‘commission’ the show,” and pay for production and installation “with minimal interference,” according to Bloomberg.

Narcissister, T he Face (Performing male facial features ) (2019). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Janelle Zara.

Narcissister, T he Face (Performing male facial features ) (2019). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Janelle Zara.

“There’s always been a desire on the PornHub side to be seen as a patron of the arts,” brand manager Alex Klein said of the site’s interest in sponsoring the show. “I hope that this encourages other artists and creators to approach us to help support them.”

PornHub’s financial backing made paying for performances by Narcissister, Akira, and others possible, and for that, “Maccarone appreciates Pornhub’s initiative to commission a curatorial dialogue between pornography and art,” according to the show’s press release.

Maccarone expressed an interest in future collaborations with the site, including the possibility of a scholarly book, letting detractors think what they may. “Everybody watches porn,” she said. It’s just that “no one admits it.”

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