Peter Berlin at ClampArt | Exhibition

Peter Berlin, Double Self-Portrait with Glowing Pink Background, ca. 1970s, acrylic and masking medium on gelatin silver print, 24 × 20″.

One thing you have to admit about the recent photo exhibition of self-portraits by gay-porn icon Peter Berlin at ClampArt: It was well-hung. Ba-da-bump!

For those not steeped in horny homo history, Berlin was an underground legend in San Francisco during the hedonistic 1970s pre-AIDS era. Born in Poland and raised in Germany, he was an Aryan fantasy, almost cartoonish in his appearance, with a Popeye silhouette and a blond Dutch-boy haircut, who cruised the streets and bars in skintight sailor uniforms and motorcycle gear. His fame grew as he starred in X-rated films (his most famous is Nights in Black Leather from 1973) and posed for Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom of Finland. Lately, he has had a resurgence in popularity, thanks to a 2005 documentary (That Man: Peter Berlin) and a glossy coffee-table book published by Damiani in 2019, both hailing him as a kinky trailblazer. At age seventy-nine, he still lives in San Francisco.

Berlin thrived in an era before selfie was part of our everyday vocabulary, back when we didn’t have the technology that now feeds the all-consuming desire to incessantly snap pictures of oneself. But as a one-man erotic machine, he churned out scores of explicit self-portraits—nude or clad in his handmade fetish wear—which were sold via mail order to his turned-on admirers. The images in this presentation, “Peter Berlin: One of a Kind,” were leftovers from the ’70s, mostly in black-and-white and approximately headshot size, transformed with colourful airbrushed details by Berlin. According to the gallery’s press release, the show’s handpainted prints are the last of their kind remaining.

Nowadays, many gay guys have pumped-up bodies. But forty or fifty years ago the great majority of men, gay and straight, never set foot in a gym. Berlin stood out as godlike, with his toned, muscular physique; bulging crotch; and smouldering come-hither expressions. In a few of the soft-focus shots here, he radiated a gentle, hippieish aura. Those, however, are the exception: His true role is dominant top, primed for all sorts of deviant bedroom behaviour and accessorized with whips, cock rings, harnesses, and other naughty playthings. No vanilla sex here—one depiction was titled Self-Portrait with Riot Stick (all works ca. the 1970s). The titular object gripped tightly in Berlin’s right hand, seems an apropos stand-in for the club between his legs. His airbrushed additions—sometimes slick, others times a bit more ersatz—include exotic jungle plants; strobe lights; and glowing blue, peach, and purple backgrounds. A number of the artist’s photographs could pass for lascivious and surreal album covers from the glory days of disco. In Self-Portrait on a Pedestal, the artist is awash in strobe lights as he flexes in assless chaps on what appears to be a Plexiglas go-go box. One can practically hear Donna Summer moaning and groaning in the distance.

Most importantly, Berlin’s work is a fascinating mix of narcissism and liberation. His sole object of desire is himself, and in several retouched portraits he stands side by side with himself; the doppelgängers check out one another’s rock-hard abs and erections. Yet this lusty self-obsession isn’t cringing or distasteful, but rather powerfully defiant and celebratory. Beyond the confines of San Francisco, New York, and other urban safe spaces, access to gay eroticism was nearly nonexistent at the time. Berlin’s mail-order biz was a sexual lifeline to closeted men worldwide. His painted images are glorified portrayals of a proud homosexual as a mighty hypersexualized warrior and macho saviour, leading the way with his throbbing penis—a vision of gay liberation at its finest.

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