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Saturday, 3 November 2018

The Art of Colt 1 - Beach Boys

I first mentioned Colt in this blog in an early article about Images of Sailors, which featured the splendid Sailor in a basket chair (of which more later). That was in 2009 and I'm surprised it's taken me so long to get around to looking properly at his work. He was an accomplished artist and a major influencer in the era of gay liberation. His images were published in the 1960's when gay men were starting to make their voices heard and freedoms started to be granted, but restrictions on publishing nudity, let alone explicit sexual imagery, were still very severe (especially in the UK).

Arion - Fire Island Ferries

Colt was the final artist name adopted by Jim French, but his earliest pictures were published under the name 'Arion'. That name alludes to classical sensibilities, a technique often employed by gay artists in the 50's (e.g. Spartacus) to help cloak their wicked erotica in respectability. However, French, in the picture here, has clearly abandoned that pretence.

He often featured the beach boys of Fire Island and this image showing muscle boys arriving for their vacation with coiffured hair and hand bags (not to mention wacky, saucy fashions and bulging groins) gently pokes fun at his contemporaries but also seems to push back directly at conventional stereotypes by taking ownership of them. "This is who were are", it says and the restraining ropes of convention will be left behind at the quayside.

Arion - Shack or Rack?
 This image is a slightly more subtle invocation of the free and easy lifestyle of that infamous holiday hot-spot. The subject is much more straight-looking and posed like a Film Star. The suggestive open fly makes his erotic intent clear but the coded sign posts would be puzzling to an outsider viewing the image. I must admit that I can only guess at what they mean! I imagine 'Rack' refers to the meat-rack on the beach where the pretty boys flaunt their wares, while 'Shack' refers to a more secluded place where serious hedonists can meet and have fun in private. If you know better or can confirm, please add a comment!

You can see French's more mature style developing here, the sensual rendering of generous musculature and the precise details like hands and feet. We know French used photographs to assist his creative hand and the creases in the jeans are a dead giveaway of that source. For some reason our eyes don't register that zig-zag effect quite the same as a photo does!

More importantly you can see how he is reinventing the censor-friendly, 'just boys having fun' art of the 50's here, evolving it into something more overtly sexual. At this point in the US you can see that all sorts of suggestive shaping was permissible but not actual organs. In the UK this image would not have been publishable for many years to come.

With this attractive figure French/Arion is also illustrating an overtly gay and clearly enjoyable lifestyle. Contrast that with another contemporary view, the equally luscious beach boys of Harry Bush which are usually portrayed as god-like temptation from a different, inaccessible world.

Lüger - On the Beach
It looks like the man in the middle here has been showing off his muscles, an unguarded moment allowing his flimsy G-string to be tugged off. The assets revealed seem to have been less than impressive and the drooping waist-string held by the mischief-maker suggests something else is also drooping and contributing to the merriment of the onlookers. The hand positioning implies the possibility of illicit, intimate contact and shows that 'hidden eroticism' is not yet extinct at this point in time.  

By this time French had adopted the name Lüger, indicative of the harder masculinity to come perhaps, but this image seems more representative of the Arion era. The mood seems to hark back to the frivolities of the 50's, but the interaction between the figures is much more overtly flirtatious and sexual. The same sex couples in the background assign a sense of normality to the scene, subtly asserting the gay lifestyle again. 

Colt - Boy on the Beach
In this memorable image French/ Lüger shows his artistic credentials - and his romantic ones. This study of a boy reclining is beautifully observed with his beach paraphernalia elevating the image from academic realms to the real world. Small wonder that the passer-by's head has been turned! Admiration from afar is another authentic facet of gay life, much documented in the 60's but not so much today although it certainly hasn't become obsolete with our greater freedom! Notice how the wind-blown reeds not only hide the observer's 'delicate regions' but also give us a hint of his sexual response. Compare this subtlety with Tom of Finland's interpretation below.

Tom of Finland - from 'Kake 2'
 Tom sees the scene from the cruising man's perspective
He's intent on sex and his idea of beauty is also sexual in nature.
Sorry, no romance on offer here!

In The Art of Colt Part 2 I look at Sailors.

I haven't found a legitimate source of Colt's artwork, Colt Studio don't seem to publish it now.
There's a decent Colt Collection at Daddy's Here or just Google the name.
There's an interesting biography/obit written by Bob Mizer in 2017

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