Leave It to the Penis Gallery

"Hot enough for you?"

The next time some smart-ass tosses that tired one your way, direct him or her to Gallery 421 in downtown Fort Lauderdale, which is hosting "Hot Summer Nights II: An Erotic Art Show."

The show was originally intended to be no more than a weekend event in late July, followed by an invitation-only evening reception for the WildFyre Society, a South Florida naturist/nudist group for gay men. Sponsors used the theme "Expose yourself to art" to promote the, um, exhibition. (Just imagine: a bunch of naked men walking around looking at erotic art, a glass of wine in one hand, a plate of cheese in the other.)

But something went right. Gallery owner and sculptor Joel Shapses was so pleasantly surprised at the turnout -- he estimates 700 to 800 attendees as well as a dozen and a half sales during that weekend -- that he decided to extend and expand the show. And as he usually does, Shapses is donating a portion of the proceeds to a local organization, in this case the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of South Florida.

By now, the implication is probably obvious: You can expect to see the male member in abundance if you go to "Hot Summer Nights II." Women aren't entirely absent -- they turn up in a few paintings and photographs, and one of the dozen or so artists is a woman -- but the works included here center primarily on the male form. There's even what Shapses refers to as "the penis gallery," a small alcove off to the side that includes some of the exhibition's most explicit pieces; actually, only some of the most explicit pieces. By the time I visited the gallery in mid-August, the main hall included a trio of large, intentionally provocative acrylics by Tom Zoroya, and Shapses promised that more were on the way.

Zoroya works in bright, garish colors and an almost cartoonish style, and he seems eager to shock, although a more likely reaction is amusement. The Higher You Climb the Harder You Fall (1996) is his odd juxtaposition of a guy in climbing gear on a mountainside, looking back at what appears to be a woman. The seemingly female character is decked out in red pumps, floral stockings and gloves, red garters, a red and black bustier, and a green earring shaped like a dollar sign and is admiringly holding up a long gold boot. It was only when I got past the impressive getup that I noticed the large penis visible through "her" sheer, pale-red panties.

Zoroya's The Last Supper (1995) features a large black man about to be serviced orally by someone who hasn't quite completed gender reassignment, as in sporting breasts but retaining a penis. And in Rodeo Girls (1998), the artist gives us a backdrop of cowboys silhouetted against a sunset sky. Off to one side is a cowboy on a bucking bull, while in front center are two women, one white and one black, the former straddling the latter backward and exposing the black woman's nether parts.

There's a cheesy, pulpy kick to Zoroya's imagery, although he tends toward overkill. The Last Supper's black man and his companion occupy a sofa that's adorned with lots of penis-shaped cacti, for instance, and the rodeo girls are surrounded by orchids to remind us of flowers-equal-sex symbolism.

Ben Scott Sims also trades in the outrageous with his papier-mâché sculptures. Hugo starts out at its tail end as a large green, orange-accented iguana that, along the way to its forked red tongue, transforms into a large set of male genitals sprouting arms and legs. Likewise, Freedom, which consists mostly of a huge penis and testicles with arms and legs (and a big piercing ring), is backed by a set of angel wings.

Sims goes over the top for Medusa, Goddess of the Penis, a roughly five-foot-tall, freestanding, mixed-media piece. The upper half of a female torso sits atop a pedestal, with oversize light bulbs for her breasts, snakelike arms, and, instead of snake-like tresses, nearly a dozen penises of various sizes emerging from her head. Similar genitals appear to be writhing around her waist. The piece is both appalling and funny.

After you've confronted these all-out exercises in excess, sneak around the corner to the aforementioned "penis gallery." It's unlikely that your attention will first be drawn to a handful of roughly sketched charcoals by Ricardo Lozano -- including one especially fine rendering of a male back and upper buttocks -- because the alcove is dominated by several huge alabaster penises by Shapses. The titles speak for themselves: It's a Matter of Size, Big Kahunas, Little Squirt, Take This. For one called Purple Passion, the artist has embedded neon in cloudy crystal.

One wall of the alcove features several small mixed-media pieces by Jose Portal that also focus on the phallus. Portal works with realistic drawn and painted imagery that's layered with words and fragments of pictures from magazine and newspaper ads, usually material that plays off the piece's content. He too goes for titles that don't leave much to the imagination: In the Palm of Your Hand (with the words "Good for You!" and "Man's Best Friend" embedded), Your Time Has Come (with the ad catch phrase "got milk?"), Whip It Good.

Portal's larger pieces in the center of the main gallery are less in-your-face. He displays an exceptional feel for the contours of idealized bodies, male and female, and the way the collaged words and photo fragments seem to float in and out of the imagery is reminiscent of the waxy layers of encaustic. Sometimes, the borrowed phrases undercut the images, and sometimes he crams too many into a piece. Other times, the words become witty asides, as in an untitled piece adorned with "Pulling up the Rear" and "Unlike your co-workers, you like it when your butt's in a sling" accenting an impossibly perfect male back and buttocks.

The show's best work, however, is its most straightforward (gayforward?). It's by two locally based photographers, Vim Krüger and Dennis Dean, each of whom is given a sizable chunk of display space. Both work primarily in black and white.

Krüger, a South African who moved to the United States in the mid-1970s and worked as a dancer for 15 years before turning to photography, comes across as a more restrained Robert Mapplethorpe. His subjects -- most of them black men, some nude, some not -- are shot in highly stylized poses that confirm the influence of the dance world. There's a particularly striking composition of a man relaxing in a hammock, as well as close-ups of feet that hint at a possible fetish.

Dean, who was represented by more than 50 pieces when I visited (the show is constantly changing as some pieces are sold and others added), works more in the vein of Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber. Like those two highly successful photographers, he employs a slick, commercial sheen and is drawn to athletic subjects.

Occasionally, Dean gets a little cutesy. Rosey Cheeks features a prone male nude covered with roses, and Taking Flight is a gimmicky, full-frontal shot of a nude blond with angel wings.

But more often, he displays a great feel for composition and flesh tones. There are several selections from his recent book, Within Reach, a collection centered on the theme of polo, which is really just an excuse to take gorgeous shots of gorgeous guys around horses and barns. Dean is quite up to the task, but he's also capable of much more varied work. A shot of a pair of identically posed contortionists on a beach brings to mind the work of Diane Arbus. And one sepia image of a scrawny but well-endowed young man is similar to some of Larry Clark's flirting-with-porn art photography. Dean's photographs, in other words, are not the only reason to take in "Hot Summer Nights II," but they're easily the best.

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Michael Mills