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The Studio Voltaire contemporary art space in South London presents an unusual pairing next spring—Beryl Cook and Tom of Finland. The exhibition (15 May-25 August) brings together the works of both artists, often considered art world outsiders, for the first time in a joint show.
UK-born Cook, who died in 2008, has long been derided in fashionable circles for her popular depictions of “larger-than-life women in nightclubs, cafés or enjoying hen parties, rendered in graphic and colourful forms”, says a gallery statement. Tom of Finland (aka Touko Valio Laaksonen) is best known for his highly homoerotic depictions of hyper-masculine men decked out in biker leather gear replete with bulging muscles and jutting jawlines.
“While the pairing was initially quite instinctive, as we further researched and spent time with both artist’s practices, the relationships and dialogues between the two have become stronger and more complex,” says Joe Scotland, the director of Studio Voltaire. “I’m really interested in bringing their potentially different audiences together to see how they respond to the exhibition, and each other; I think there might even be a natural crossover. But ultimately it’s about a position of denying shame and fully celebrating pleasure in life.”
Scotland says that he has been fortunate to spend time with the archives of the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles and Beryl Cook’s family in Plymouth which has “enriched the experience”. The exhibition brings together a selection of both archives, showing many materials which have never been seen publicly before.
“Beryl Cook/Tom of Finland is a deeply personal exhibition for me. Growing up, Cook was one of the first artists I was ever aware of, being instantly drawn to her fun and feisty women. And similarly with Tom of Finland, I remember Channel 4 showing a documentary on him late at night in the mid 1990s. As a queer teenager starved of gay imagery, and particularly sexual ones, this was beyond mind blowing. Both artists have stayed with me throughout my life and somehow together seem to represent my own identity,” he adds.
Scotland is also making a public appeal for people to submit Cook’s works. “As Cook’s original paintings were mainly sold privately and limited records have been kept of their whereabouts, we are really keen to hear from anyone who has an original painting and might be interested in loaning work for the exhibition, particularly her inimitable depictions of women—confident, defiant and joyous.”
In 2007, the critic Adrian Searle wrote in The Guardian that “Cook is not considered a serious artist. This is always a risky judgement to make: who knows what is or is not serious, what will or will not be taken seriously one day.” Meanwhile, a 2020 exhibition at the House of Illustration in London aimed to demonstrate that out Tom of Finland set out “not to create an ideal but to draw beautiful men who love each other and are proud of it”