Pride Week: Ben Youdan – “LA is not a difficult place to find a show-off who wants to take their clothes off”
Kicking off Pride Week proper with some glorious queer art, Shaun Ponsonby speaks to Tom of Finland alumni Ben Youdan.
We have no doubt that most of Liverpool’s switched on queer community are aware of Ben Youdan.
A unique and distinctive artist, Youdan utilises a wide range of techniques to create imagery that explores identity, glamour and sexuality. His work is entirely handmade, through collage, photography, printing and painting.
Obviously, Planet Slop have never done much coverage of visual art – in fact, we’re pretty dense about it. But there is something about Ben’s work that has always drawn us in. Maybe it’s the themes he explores, or the distinguishing style.
His achievements are pretty staggering – from Madonna using one of his images on her Rebel Heart World Tour, to his recent time as Artist in Residence at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles. He has also been the subject of three solo exhibitions and been involved in an array of private commissions.
For this year’s Pride Week, we wanted to make sure we went beyond music, and Ben was the first person we thought of. So, we sat down last week to discuss art, the history of LGBTQ+ rights, gay icons, cottaging, homophobia, his time at Tom of Finland and everything in between…
Planet Slop: A bit of a basic question – but what started you off?
Ben Youdan: In all honesty, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making something. All kids do, I think. Most kids make stuff, mess around and draw and things like that, so I don’t think I was particularly unusual in that way. The first thing I remember doing vividly was getting my mum’s old Kays Catalogue and cutting out the figures and re-arranging them because I thought I could do better.
PS: [Laughs] Did you do better?
BY: Well, I like to think so! [Laughs] That is kinda the folly of all artists, or at least a factor, that the reason you create stuff is through a dissatisfaction that you think you can remake the world in a better way. I suppose that’s quite arrogant. But life sort of funnels you in a way, doesn’t it? I ended up in art college because it was better than getting a job and I just thought “Where are all the weirdos?” and I thought there were bound to be people there, and I was absolutely right!
PS: Where did you study?
BY: It was part of John Moore’s University but the School of Art was a separate thing at one time. So I did a foundation year, then I did my degree and I tried to keep up my education as long as possible so I did a Master’s Degree in the philosophy and history of art and another degree in architecture.
PS: [Laughs] Just trying to put off going to work for as long as possible!
BY: Well, much like Quentin Crisp, I’ve never had a proper job and I don’t intend to start now! I’ve done part time jobs and things to help me because I haven’t been able to make a proper living, but I’ve been very lucky that I have in more recent years.
PS: You’ve got a really distinctive style, so how did that develop?
BY: Well, it isn’t something you wake up one morning and think “Right, this is what I’m going to do from now on”. It’s a slow evolution. I’ve never really been far away from collage. For about 20 years, I’ve been trying to just paint, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I set out to do it, and then broken glass or glitter creeps its way in, it’s just instinctive really. The way I work now just evolved over the last 20 years or so. The style I was working in was a lot more rough and ready and loose. I was really influenced by people like Jamie Reid. I was very young when I discovered his work. I like the idea that you can find an image that someone else has made, and re-appropriate it. Make it mean something else. Any image is about its context, so if you change context you give it a new meaning. Especially the stuff he did with God Save The Queen – the swastikas in the Queen’s eyes and the safety pins and things. It was quite anti-establishment, that’s always appealing when you’re young.
PS: Was there any piece that you finished and thought “Ah, this is it – this is my style”?
BY: No, I don’t know an artist that would say that. I think the reason you carry on is that you just want to out-do yourself all the time. I think there are some pieces that get more attention that others, and some that generate more conversation. I always remember them because that’s interesting. It’s nice when you put stuff up on a wall and people come and talk to you about it. Most artists discover early on that about 2% of the world will love what you do, 2% will hate what you do, and the rest of the world just couldn’t give a shit. So, if someone has come to talk to you about it, then you’ve found someone in that tiny 2% of people who like it. Even if they said it was a load of bollocks.
PS: Well, they would be in the 2% who hate it.
BY: Oh, yeah! Well, you’ve found a reaction anyway!
PS: Surely the worst reaction is no reaction?
BY: I guess so, yeah.
PS: You went to Tom of Finland earlier in the year, which is huge. How did that come about?
BY: That was one of those rare things where everything just sort of falls into place at the right time. We were in Berlin, and you know when you go to a city and there’s these free magazines telling you what’s on and I bet nobody even looks at them these days because you just Google stuff, but I am one of those sad bastards who still picks them up. And I noticed there was a gallery about two blocks from the hotel we were staying in where there was a Tom of Finland exhibition, and that the guy who runs the Foundation was giving a talk. We got there just as Durk, who runs the foundation was arriving and it wasn’t open yet, so we just sort of stood on the doorstep. He was asking questions like where we were from, so I told him about what I did and it turned out that he knew people that I knew here in Liverpool because Tom of Finland had done some stuff with Homotopia. And he says “You do know that we do a residency, why don’t you get in touch?” So as soon as I got home, I emailed him. Didn’t hear anything back for like three to six months, and I was starting to feel a bit disappointed. Then out of the blue I get this email from him that’s just full of apologies, because he’s not one for technology either, and he referred me to someone else at the Foundation who deals with that kind of thing, so I made sure I spoke to him after that! [Laughs] He was much better and responding, so we were able to sort it out. I went out last December for three months. The Foundation was set up by Tom when he was still alive with a view to preserve it, but also to be a platform for queer, homoerotic artists. Although it goes beyond homoerotic these days.
PS: Just erotic, full stop?
BY: Yeah, they have a huge archive that isn’t just queer stuff or leather stuff. It’s really broad. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. There’s an official population, and a transient population, but they try to get people from all over the world. I think I’m only the second British person who has done it, as far as I know. But don’t quote me on that.
PS: What does the residency entail?
BY: It was really straightforward. They let the artist set the brief. So long as you’ve got something to show and you haven’t just sat on your arse and drank orange juice and watched the tele for three months – which would be tempting – they get that balance right between complete freedom, but there is support there if you need it. They came to me and said “What do you want to achieve?” And I said I wanted to make some portraits – it was a vague idea but all the idea was at that stage was people who were connected to the house. But obviously I had no idea who these people were going to be, which is totally different to what I normally do. Usually, I either know the person or it’s a remodelled image of a famous face.
PS: I guess that was a bit of a challenge to yourself, as getting the essence of a person is a lot harder when you don’t know anything about them.
BY: Yeah, absolutely. I had a studio in the garden because it’s warm all year round there, and I had a view of passion fruits and oranges. If you chopped the hedges down, you’d have a view of the Hollywood sign as well. It did rain a couple of days I was there.
PS: Well, I assume it rains sometimes.
BY: Only in January. It doesn’t rain the rest of the year. There’s lots of plastic grass. If you’re really rich in LA, it’s not denoted by having a swimming pool because practically anyone can have a swimming pool. If you’ve got a huge lawn, you’re rich. Because it’s expensive to maintain a lawn. It was quite wet for a week or so. Not by our standards. But the people I was living with were freaking out. I nipped out to the supermarket at the bottom of the hill and you’d have thought there was a hurricane coming and I was going to die! [Laughs]”You can’t go out! You can’t drive anywhere!” I said “If we were at home, we’d have our shorts on and consider getting the bar-b-que out today!”
PS: It’s so funny out of everything that happened at Tom of Finland, we’ve honed in on the weather! That’s such a British thing to do!
BY: [Laughs] That’s so true! Never mind the dungeon and the orgies!
PS: Well, obviously we have to talk about the dungeon and the orgies!
BY: Well, what can I say? There’s a dungeon!
PS: [Laughs] Is that literally “What can I say? What is printable?!”
BY: Yeah, use your imagination! It’s a funny place because it feels like the Tom house is a separate little bubble in LA, but at the same time it couldn’t exist anywhere else in the world, I don’t think. It’s the filthiest suburban house you’ve ever been to in your life. Aesthetically, it’s a classic American suburban house, with the front porch – you’ve seen them in every movie you’ve ever seen in your life. But filthy. It’s a magical place, I couldn’t imagine it in another city. I thought LA was fascinating, I’d never been before. Everyone said I’d need a car, but I don’t drive and just got the bus everywhere, which isn’t for the faint hearted.
PS: Well, I can imagine all the stories you’ve got just from the bus rides!
BY: There were two things I had no wish to experience; any gunfire and an earthquake. I had a conversation with a guy in the Eagle Bar, and he gave me some really good advice about where to sit on the bus so that you’ll be less likely to be shot because he was from Compton. He said if you sit at the very back of the bus, you’ve got a clearer field of vision if anyone fires and you can see people coming toward you if they wish to attack you. But never sit by the door at the back, because they’ll come on, stab you and then run off from the back door. So if you sit at the very back you’ve got the most amount of time to prepare yourself.
PS: [Laughs] Was that not a terrifying thing to hear?
BY: No, I’ve been to Bootle Strand! [Laughs]
PS: What was an average day like?
BY: Well, just as a little vignette, I was doing a photoshoot one day where one of the guys was being tied up and whipped, and this was going on up in my room in the middle floor of the house. This is all going on while guided tours of college students were being taken around the house, so they could hear the screaming and the slapping, and there was a life drawing class going on in the front room. And that was, pretty much an average sort of…
PS: That was a Tuesday!
BY: Yeah, and other days I’d be doing bondage shoots while the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were there. And the guys there were great. They just asked me what I wanted, and if I said “I want a fat guy and a bald guy”, they’d go “Oh, I know just the person!” I mean, LA is not a difficult place to find a show-off who wants to take their clothes off and get their cock immortalised and sequined. It’s a big ask in a way when you don’t really know someone, not just the nudity thing, but I think making a portrait is more intimate than seeing someone without their clothes on.
PS: Yeah, it’s immortalising someone through your interpretation.
BY: Yeah, we all have a vision in our head of what we look like, don’t we? And then someone else comes along and their image of you might not be the same as yours. But you could just sit on the front porch of the house and you’d meet people. There are a lot of fetish groups in LA who have their AGM at the top of the house and things. There’s the garden they call the Pleasure Garden which goes down the hill and is full of orange and lemon trees and hot, dark corners. Especially at night there are all kinds of twinkly lights. All kinds of stuff goes on in the shrubbery.
PS: [Laughs] I won’t pry.
BY: I’d advise you go and experience it yourself some time!
PS: I’d really like to talk about a few specific pieces that you’ve done.
BY: Well, since its Pride, I’d really like to talk about this Judy Garland piece. I did this the year before last just before Pride and found all the newspaper clippings from the period about the Stonewall riots. And, of course, you know the story that Judy died about a week before the riots.
PS: It was the day of her funeral, I believe.
BY: It’s just something that has passed into queer mythology that the straw that broke the camel’s back for the trans girls and the drag queens – you know, the police brutality and victimisation was one thing, but for Judy Garland to die, that was the straw to break the camel’s back. [Laughs]
PS: RuPaul even said it on the last All Stars as if it was fact.
BY: It’s always passed on as fact, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it was a small factor. It probably is no more than a coincidence in reality.
PS: It’s a nice idea though, there’s something romantic about it.
BY: It’s a great idea! It’s a bit of a tongue in cheek thing, and I’m sure there is no factual basis. But, she died that week…
PS: It was the day of her funeral, they were grieving.
BY: That is genuine, there would have been people grieving for sure. I mean, I’m sure it’s a lot more to do with the way people have been treated on a prior occasions. There was a lot leading up to that night. There had been minor disturbances throughout the weeks and months leading up to it.
PS: Do you think Judy was the first modern example of a gay icon?
BY: I guess so. I’m trying to think of an earlier one. In the contemporary sense of “gay” being an identity, that’s a post-war, or actually a post-1960 phenomena. Nobody came out in the 40s and 50s. Not that there weren’t people who were obviously gay and hid it. So, in those terms she probably was the first.
PS: She’s one of the first tragic Hollywood figures too. She unravelled so publicly, whereas the studios used to be able to keep those stories out of the press.
BY: Yeah, there were stars who unravelled before her, but it was more successfully handled. Because the studios had more power up until the 50s. I suppose Marilyn was a possible exception. She died in ’62, so it was only a few years before. But I think we can safely say that the extent of Marilyn’s problems weren’t as widely documented during her lifetime that they have been since. Whereas Judy’s were.
PS: Judy was a star for longer as well, since the 30s.
BY: I think Judy has been passed down through the generations as well through The Wizard of Oz. Every gay kid at some stage watches it. I hope they still do. I hope as we speak there’s some seven or eight year old little queer boy watching it somewhere, and falling in love with it the way that we did.
PS: I don’t think it’s just gay kids either, it’s a film that has become just a classic family movie…
BY: Oh, yeah, all kids do, but it’s the gay ones who stay with it. And that leads on to the Carnegie Hall recordings and the tragic Judy that we were just talking about – which again lights the fuse for us.
PS: Why do you think that is? I’ve read different interpretations of that, but what do you think?
BY: I really don’t know. This is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years! [Laughs] There’s a long, documented history of gay men wanting to be associated with strong women. I guess all things we admire are a reflection of either how we see ourselves or how we would like to be seen. Maybe it’s corny, but it’s probably corny because it’s true, but gay men who are closeted in the 40s, 50s, 60s or whatever couldn’t express their sorrow in any other way. It is something I’ve thought about a lot. I’m quite a stereotype with the people I’ve grown up with; Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich. I’m a textbook case for those people who read textbooks. And that’s instinctive. I don’t think I’m alone. We get fanatical about certain stars, don’t we? To the point of learning about the stars’ personal safety should ever we meet! [Laughs] Breaking into their house and stuff.
PS: Well, do you know about the drag queen who broke into Diana Ross’ house while she was on tour?
BY: That rings a bell!
PS: The maid came in and found them trying on all of her wigs and gowns. [Laughs]
BY: Well, you would! [Laughs] Who wouldn’t want to do that? I’m sure that person wouldn’t want to do harm to The Boss, but if I was Miss Ross I would be a bit freaked out by that. There is a line! But, as for the Judy and Stonewall mythology, you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Even something as important as that, and I wanted to make something that was trying to capture the fact that Pride is a protest, and I think that’s really important, maybe more so these days.
PS: Especially right now, with the spike in attacks.
BY: Yeah, the really important part for me is the march. Even if it’s the only thing you do, if you’re lucky enough to be in a city where there is one, to be so openly part of the community.
PS: Well, I think what’s interesting about that piece is that because it’s made out of collage of images from Stonewall, it’s almost like you have this dichotomy of the glamorous image up front, with the struggle behind it.
BY: I never thought of it like that, but that’s an interesting point. In a lot of my work I like to bring opposites together, so something like a benign, glamorous portrait of a movie star with an image of real struggle and violence, I tried to find as many awful pictures as I could to highlight the way it was reported in the news at that time. There are a lot of police mug shots in the background and people being bottled and beaten – I don’t see the point in shying away from that. It’s a story worth repeating.
PS: I’d like to talk about my favourite piece of yours, which is the George Michael one.
BY: It’s different to Judy, because that one has a sadness to it for lots of different reasons. But although it was sad what happened to George, this was a celebration of the unashamed way that he dealt with dirt raking tabloid newspapers.
PS: I’d heard him say that they always knew he was gay, they were just waiting for something scandalous to happen to catch him out.
BY: Well, George was in a period where being gay wasn’t enough to fuel a tabloid frenzy. It never affected his career over here the way that it would have affected a previous generation. You think of someone like Liberace who successfully won a libel case to prove he wasn’t gay. [Laughs] And that’s easy to laugh at now, but that would have affected his career.
PS: There’s that bit in Behind The Candelabra where they’re watching him perform and Scott says “Why do these people like something that’s so obviously gay?” And the answer he gets is “They have no idea that this is gay”.
BY: There is that, but it was also sexless. I suppose the difference is that George Michael wasn’t sexless. And particularly when The Sun, or the News of the World, or whoever it was wrote the story in the public toilets, that would have just made their day, because they could paint it as seedy. Gay people are alright as long as we’re not sexual in any way, and God forbid they should be into something a bit risqué. Was it George’s fault that people who read News of the World led such a sheltered life? It’s not his fault that they had never done a bit of cottaging. They might like it.
PS: They probably would! I usually think that deep down inside, they’re probably the kinkiest people. They’re just really repressed.
BY: I’d like to think so! But, yeah I decided to do this as a bit of a celebration because he became a bit of a poster boy for a bit of a sex enthused gayness in pop culture.
PS: It’s kind of interesting with the way he started his career in the 80s where he was presented as this non-threatening teen pop star.
BY: Yeah, that was quite sexless, I suppose. But, as you say, that was how he was marketed. Fabulous songwriter and musician, but never apologised or regretted…
PS: The defiance of when that all happened, and I heard him say when the press were jumping on him for years after that, he felt it was because they didn’t destroy him in the first place.
BY: Well, they wanted shame and contrition. They have a certain way of wanting a story to pan out. And that didn’t happen, so it wouldn’t have made him very popular with them. When I was in LA, I went on a pilgrimage to the toilets. We were going to make a blue plaque for it. Funnily enough, the toilets in the park, the house that is facing it is owned by Donald Trump. I think the road is actually Rodeo Drive. But I thought that was interesting; on the one corner you’ve got Trump’s house, and on the other the toilet where George Michael was arrested for waving his knob about.
PS: It was so entrapment as well!
BY: Of course it was! I remember it being reported in the press like “Right next to where kids were playing”, but the kids’ play area is at the other side of the park if you’re going to be pedantic.
PS: Obviously I can see this up close, but just for the purposes of the interview, can you just describe the images that you’ve used in the collage?
BY: Well, I just gathered together some of my favourite stuff from various porn sources based around people cruising in toilets. So there are a lot of urinals and up the bum fun in cubicles. I guess just imagined scenarios of what George may or may not have been into. I never met him, so I don’t know for sure, but you know…I wish he was around today to have this discussion.
PS: I bet he would have loved this!
BY: Well, I do know someone who did know him who said that too. So, that makes me happy.
PS: Even the song and the video too, Outside, just one of the greatest middle fingers in the history of music.
BY: Too right! So, it’s just a sort of celebratory piece, what I hope is obvious is that I do try to make stuff that is celebratory and queer.
PS: How important do you think it is to do that?
BY: I don’t know whether it is important. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It is instinctive for me to do it.
PS: I’m just thinking in terms of, it’s obviously important to protest – and that is what the Judy piece is about. But we want to celebrate ourselves too, so it’s almost opposite sides of the same coin.
BY: Yeah, I guess. And I’m very lucky that I can make things like this and not have dog shit put through my letter box. We’re very lucky – not that horrible things don’t happen, but the good thing now is when you see something in the paper about somebody getting attacked or beaten up, the vast majority of the response is disgust.
PS: Apart from the Daily Mail types.
BY: Well, we don’t count them. But most ordinary people aren’t bothered about who people go to bed with. In the grand scheme of human development, the period from the end of the Second World War to now isn’t that long, and things have changed. There’s still a long way to go, for sure, and there’s still terrible things that happen. I suppose it is important to have an outlet to say things in an elegant way. Andy Warhol used to say that an artist shouldn’t think about what they’re doing is any good or not. Let other people decide, just get on with doing it.
PS: Where do you tend to showcase?
BY: Well, usually the career trajectory of an artist is that if you’re lucky you’ll get to do group shows with people you went to college with. If you’re even luckier, you get to do a solo show. If you’re even luckier again, a museum somewhere will say “We should do a retrospective of your work”. Which usually happens about ten years after you’ve died. So I’ve had three large solo exhibitions, four including LA even though that was only six pieces. But I think we should include that.
PS: I think so!
BY: I’m now considered an international artist! Not just in Old Swan! [Laughs]So I’m very lucky to be in that situation, and I know people who haven’t got this far. So now I just have to hold on for grim death and show as often as I can, which is usually every year or 18 months. If I can cling onto the wreckage for long enough, somebody somewhere will give me a retrospective. There are some things lined up, but that’s all I’m going to say for now.
PS: That’s fine! We were just talking about homophobic attacks, and you had a piece that I saw recently that targeted the perpetrators, but I don’t really remember the attack.
BY: Yeah, they were a gang of lads, I think they were in Brighton. They waited outside a club and attacked people leaving the club with acid. So these were just the police mugshots that appeared in the paper. I love a mugshot anyway, it’s a great thing to re-appropriate. I suppose as an act of defiance as a punk-queer thing to give them a pink glittery makeover. It’s a bit of a passive way to express contempt for their actions.
PS: What are the collage images?
BY: Its stuff I scanned in from Tom of Finland archives, so a lot of porn, some of Tom’s drawings and some of the photographs I took when I was there. So, it’s all pretty gay stuff.
PS: As gay as possible!
BY: As gay as a gay sex act can be! I think it was the first thing I did when I got back from LA.
PS: I only vaguely remember the story, to be honest with you.
BY: I’d have to read it again, but it was proved to be a premediated attack on gay people coming out of a club.
PS: Was it a gay club?
BY: Yeah, they were waiting for them and I think there were witnesses who said they were shouting homophobic slurs as well. So they were convicted of a hate crime and given 14 year sentences or something like that.
PS: Is this something where you see the mugshots and the idea hits you, or did you decide to do it and then look for the mugshots?
BY: I saw the mugshots first. I read the story and it just came as simple as that. Sometimes you think about an idea for years, and it’ll gestate for years. Other times things just seem to drop out of the sky and that was one of those.
PS: Are the ones that drop out of the sky a bit more urgent?
BY: They can be.
PS: And this one is topical as well.
BY: You know, a piece like that will lose something in 20 years’ time.
PS: I don’t think it will lose meaning.
BY: No, but it might require a bit more explanation. Even now, months later, people have forgotten. As I remember it, it was all over the news, so it was well publicised. Probably not as well publicised as Pulse…
PS: …or the two lesbians in London.
BY: Yeah, the two girls. They crop up every few months. It could have easily been an image of those two girls. But I think I just liked the mugshot. It’s quite interesting to take something that looks so threatening and make it this slightly ridiculous glittery thing.
PS: Yeah, it takes the menace out of them.
BY: We like to think that they’ve just been conditioned to think that way, and that they could be persuaded to understand that what they’ve done is unacceptable but maybe that’s naïve. They’ve learned that homophobic reaction from somewhere, haven’t they? So I think in a situation like this, there is a sense of urgency and I think “I’ve got to get down,” which is very tricky because they are time consuming. They’re large portraits and they’re designed to be shown in the way that the mugshots appeared in the paper.
PS: How long did they take?
BY: To do all eight, it was about two and a half weeks or something like that.
PS: To be honest, I thought they would have taken longer.
BY: That’s working every day I suppose. I do work pretty much every day.
PS: Do you have an efficiency in doing it now because you’ve been doing it for long?
BY: I guess so, yeah. I’ve never had a problem with motivation, really. Essentially, every day I wake up, I make things, then I go to bed.
PS: And you wouldn’t have it any other way!