Contemporary art, Kinsey-style 

click to enlarge "Olympia (After Manet)," Niki Grangruth and James Kinser. Photo courtesy of the artists and The Kinsey Institute.
  • "Olympia (After Manet)," Niki Grangruth and James Kinser. Photo courtesy of the artists and The Kinsey Institute.

Walking through the Kinsey Institute Juried Art Show, on display through July 30 at Indiana University School of Fine Arts gallery, it's worth noting that just two decades ago such a show would have been a pretty far-fetched venture.

After all, it wasn't until 1997 that The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, the Bloomington-based multi-disciplinary research center which grew out of Dr. Alfred Kinsey's research on sex behavior, finally revealed to the public the full extent of its collections of art, photography, literature and other media. A show that year, The Art of Desire, held in the same gallery now hosting the Juried Art Show, functioned as a "coming-out party for The Kinsey Institute art collections," according to Catherine Johnson-Roehr, curator of art, artifacts and photographs at The Kinsey Institute.

And the Juried Art Show, which invites contemporary artists to submit materials pertaining to the interests of the Kinsey Institute, came along even more recently. It was first held six years ago in order to, in part, raise funds to finance other Kinsey exhibitions. The show has since become much more than a fundraiser, says Johnson-Roehr, who ticks off the its benefits to The Kinsey Institute as a whole: "We get some money; we become familiar with contemporary artists; and we get to build our contemporary collection, which we can't purchase things for."

In all, it's much easier to get a glimpse of the holdings of The Kinsey Institute these days — and the institute has become progressively more involved in creating the kind of spaces where artists can exhibit work engaging issues of gender and sexuality in honest, surprising and, sometimes, envelope-pushing ways.

Johnson-Roehr, who created the show with Kinsey associate curator Garry Milius, points out some of its most compelling pieces during a walk through its three rooms, full of sculpture, painting, photograph and video. On one pedestal sits Adam Allen's "Arttickle 1 (Take One)," an anatomically-correct tissue dispenser available in male and female versions, which, as Johnson-Roehr points out, is both visually appealing and functional.

(*See the accompanying slideshow "Juried Art & Storytellers" for examples of works in the exhibit and those discussed below)

She's proud to have Jill Greenberg's "Glass Ceiling,"because its inclusion is part of a trend towards more and more artists with representation submitting work. It's a striking photograph of a underwater female swimmer dressed in bikini and stilettos, either reaching for the water's surface or floundering beneath it. The staging was inspired by a photo shoot by Greenberg with the U.S. women's synchronized swimming team during which swimmers were at one point costumed in high heels — and not by Greenberg's own choice.

And Johnson-Roehr jokes about Christopher Carver's "Sharon and Sally," a potentially shocking, thumbnail-sized photo of two figures engaged in sexual congress. The photo is so small that viewers have to lean in and stare for a few seconds in order to decipher it. (We won't give the shock away, although the description beside the artwork does; "I hope they don't read the label first," Johnson-Roehr says. "There should be a little flap over it saying, 'Lift after you see this.'")

The Juried Art Show began life with the word "erotic" in its title, but it was excised after the first two years in order to broaden the show's horizons — and to avoid forcing jurors into the difficult task of selecting works based upon their appropriateness for an "erotic" show.

This year's show saw its largest-ever number of submissions, which were fielded by a three-person jury comprised of Betsy Stirratt, director of the School of Fine Arts Gallery at Indiana University; Christopher Bedford, chief curator of the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University; and Milius.

Artists were asked to submit work that somehow addressed a wide range of themes, including "sex, gender, sexuality, reproduction, sexual politics, romantic relationships and the human figure."

Stirratt has been a juror since 2010, the second year the show was held in her gallery (in the show's first years, it was held in the Kinsey Institute Gallery, but the show quickly outgrew that space).

"I'm always looking for something with a unique approach to the idea of sexuality or reproduction or any of the things we cover, with some evidence that the person who made the piece is engaged and professional as an artist, not somebody who is doing things on the weekend," she says.

"Olympia (After Manet)"

Some of the show's most striking pieces demonstrate that engagement and professionalism by reinterpreting work familiar to the average museum-goer. Zuleika Gonzalez-Tiernan's "Strong (A Tribute to Herb)," which depicts a butch lesbian carrying cement blocks, is staged and photographed in the style of Herb Ritts, whose work usually depicted musclebound, male subjects.

Most notable, at least according to the jury, is best-in-show winner "Olympia (After Manet)," a collaboration between photographer Niki Grangruth and performance artist James Kinser, which sees a male model (Kinser) taking on the role of the female nude in Manet's painting "Olympia." The photograph is from a series, untitled (MUSE), by Grangruth and Kinser. Another work from the sane series, Girl with a Pearl Earring, inspired by Vermeer's painting of the same name, was accepted for 2010's juried show and is now a part of the Kinsey's permanent archives.

"Oympia (After Manet)," hangs opposite the entrance to a 60-foot-long room in the SoFA gallery, an optimal position, according to Grangruth, who hopes her and Kinser's work will surprise certain viewers, especially those familiar with the piece upon which it's based.

"There's that point of entry because we're using these art historical pieces," she explains. "And then there's that moment of surprise because most of them, when you look at them from far away, you'll think that's a re-creation of such and such painting, and then when you get close, you'll realize that's a man and he has a beard and he's in this very feminine pose."

Grangruth and Kinser have fielded a few choice quotes from those seeing their work for the first time: an artist friend blurting out, "Oh, that woman has a beard"; a male attendee of last year's show mentioning to Kinser, "Oh, that piece is really beautiful, but I'm straight."

"The figures in the original paintings were supposed to be based on an ideal of feminine beauty," she explains. "So we're trying to create a visual language to express that beauty shouldn't be defined as just feminine and masculine and can be a combination of both — it doesn't necessarily have to be just the female figure."

Kinser, who is "unquestionably...passionate about sparkle," according to biographical notes on Grangruth's personal website, has another piece in the show: a football studded with rhinestones. He views his work as congruent with that of The Kinsey Institute and Kinsey himself.

"Alfred Kinsey was such a pioneer in formulating what our modern concept of sexuality is," he says. "I really feel that the work that we're doing is busting up that traditional concept of binary gender, either male or female."

Grangruth says that the juried show has enabled to the two to interact with their peers and show their work before a receptive, critically-engaged audience.

"Although we're also interested in showing the work in a place that might be more resistant to non-traditional ideas of gender, the Kinsey really expands on the dialogue of our work, and there's other people investigating the same ideas that we come into conversation with because of their work and our work," she says.

Stirratt was on the other end of the dialogue, as one of the jury members who selected the photograph for best in show. She explains why: "It's a recognizable image; people understand what it is, they recognize the historical value. The twist on that famous painting is, I think, witty, beautiful and executed perfectly, and I think we all kind of agreed on that."


The Kinsey Institute Gallery is a modest space, about the size of a small classroom on the IU campus. But as a part of The Kinsey Institute, it has an appeal for the intrepid traveler interested in accessing once-roped off places. Although never exactly off limits to the general public, the institute has only been open for self-guided, public tours since the mid-'00s, before which time occasional group tours were the norm.

To be sure, certain parts of the institute are still off limits to the general public, including labs and the archives, not to mention offices that it would be awkward for the average visitor to just wander into.

But thought was given towards making the Kinsey hospitable for tourists. A receptionist, who has won a Bloomington tourism award for her work in guiding the uninitiated through their first visit, greets guests when they step off an elevator, which is the only way for the public to enter the space.

And down a flight of stairs is the gallery, essentially the main attraction of a self-guided visit to the Kinsey. It currently hosts the exhibit "Storytellers," which features artwork and books that tell a story, including pulp fiction, illustrations from 18th-century erotic novels, hand-written manuscripts and erotic artwork.

From the beginning, according to Johnson-Roehr, Kinsey collected books and artwork with the notion that one can understand human sexuality in a broader way by looking at art as a facet of sexual behavior. She thinks Kinsey also appreciated the aesthetic value of the work he collected, beyond its importance to his research.

"Kinsey was able to acquire material that was donated by people he met on his travels across the country to interview people about their sexual lives," she explains. "They may have been afraid to keep it any longer, or maybe they may have acquired this material a while ago and they were happy to give it to him. So he was able to acquire this collection for his own research, but I think he was also aware that he was preserving it, as opposed to having it be burned or thrown away by a family member after the collector died."

But those holdings remained inaccessible to the general public, well after Kinsey's death and the entrenchment of the institute he helped to create.

"It's wonderful that today we can be so much more open," Johnson-Roehr says. "The collection is first and foremost a research collection — scholars, artists, students, academics, filmmakers can apply, and if they have a legitimate research need, they can usually use it without a problem. But if we only made it accessible to those researchers, that would mean that a lot of our permanent collection would just sit there until someone came along and wanted to research it. So that's why we like to do the shows."

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