An artful climax, Simcoe’s ‘getting off’ at the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Center

Artblog contributor, Ray Simon, pays a visit to the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, PA to catch their latest exhibition: "getting off." The display features erotic drawings of cisgender gay men by artist Gerald Simcoe. "getting off" closes on Friday, February 21st, so catch it while you can!

Gerald Simcoe, "First Love." Photo courtesy the artist.
Gerald Simcoe, “First Love.” Photo courtesy the artist.

getting off, the current exhibit at Allentown’s Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, offers a candid glimpse into intimate aspects of cis gay male sexuality. The exhibition features 20 drawings by Gerald Simcoe—many of them explicit male nudes. Simcoe, an artist based in the Lehigh Valley, drew most of them in the Gay Men’s Erotic Workshop at New York City’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, which describes itself as a “home for queer art, artists, scholars, activists and allies.”

The work on display in getting off may surprise viewers familiar with Simcoe’s portraits and still lifes. Both kinds of painting have been a lifelong practice for the artist, who studied classical portraiture at the Art Students League of New York during the early 1980s. In fact, Simcoe cheerfully acknowledges that his current exhibit is a bit of a departure. “I never really intended for these to be shown,” he told me, when we spoke by phone.

Fortunately, Adrian Shanker, the founder and executive director of the Bradbury-Sullivan Center, knew of Simcoe’s erotic drawings. More importantly, he thought they’d be an excellent fit for its galleries, which are intended to celebrate queer art and highlight the work of LGBT artists. Throughout the year, the Bradbury-Sullivan Center puts on a number of exhibits, most of them running from four to eight weeks.


“We had been told that some traditional galleries didn’t want to exhibit his erotic works,” Shanker said by phone. “And we felt like, well, that doesn’t make any sense. We’re an LGBT gallery and we want to exhibit work that is reflective of the lived experiences of LGBT people.”

A crucial aspect of “getting off” is the setting where the drawings were made: the Gay Men’s Erotic Workshop. As Simcoe described it, participating in this drawing circle for gay men was a positive experience. Roughly 35 men attended each session, most with backgrounds quite different from his. But he found working side by side with people in fashion, graphic design, and comic books both refreshing and inspiring. In fact, the entire atmosphere of the workshop was friendly and supportive.

That sense of camaraderie extended to the models, too, some of whom had appeared in gay porn. Sometimes, they were encouraged to dress according to themes like athlete, soldier, or leather man. Once, Simcoe recalled, Peter Berlin, a pioneering gay male porn star of the early 1970s, came and dressed that session’s model as a version of his younger self.

Gerald Simcoe, Bananas! Photo courtesy the artist.
Gerald Simcoe, “Bananas!” Photo courtesy the artist.

Of course, the Gay Men’s Erotic Workshop differs significantly from a typical life drawing session because it is also a kind of communal, safe, sex-positive experience. During the sessions, Simcoe explained, the models often touched themselves. Some even orgasmed at the end—if they wished to—all while a roomful of queer men continued drawing them. Simcoe found the intensity of feeling this engendered inspiring. “The wonderful thing about this workshop is that it’s sexual, yet it’s more erotic than it is pornographic,” he explained. And although he stopped short of calling it arousing, he added, “It does reach a different emotional level in my artistic thing.”

That open, erotically charged atmosphere undoubtedly accounts for the playfulness and the sexual frisson present in many of the drawings, including “Bananas!” It depicts a buff, short-haired man in semi-profile. He’s nude, except for a pair of sunglasses and what looks like a sleeveless work shirt. He also appears to be engrossed in eating a banana, which is amusing, given his butch demeanor and the fact that he is, basically, naked. A splash of color on the model’s shirt and sunglasses guides viewers upwards, towards his mouth. Lower your glance to the bottom center of the drawing, however, and you can’t help but notice that the banana is much smaller than the model’s cock. Is it exaggerated? Perhaps. As Simcoe wrote in notes accompanying the exhibit, “Even though the genitals were much lower in real life, I placed them where they might have been connected to an optimal dream.”

In fact, “Bananas!” cheekily subverts some tropes of gay male fantasy. Here the hard, masculine, emotionally unavailable (those sunglasses!) rough trade is, incongruously, eating a healthy snack. It’s also possible that it was the model himself who humorously invited comparisons between the phallic fruit and his cock. Whatever the interpretation—and Simcoe is clear that he leaves it up to viewers to form their own opinion of his work—there’s no denying that this drawing is a vastly different representation of gay male desire than, say, Tom of Finland’s highly stylized, hyper-masculine renderings of fantastic leather men.

Gerald Simcoe, "Buck." Photo courtesy the artist.
Gerald Simcoe, “Buck.” Photo courtesy the artist.

Although hints of humor are evident throughout “getting off,” some drawings have a pensive tone. “Buck,” for example, is a profile of a handsome young man lost in thought. “Wave Contemplating” offers a similarly thoughtful image, this time of a handsome, older Radical Faerie.

Another important element of “getting off” is its unapologetic celebration of the phallus. According to Simcoe, the workshop was quite different from his training at the Art Students League. As he put it, “Since drawing male genitalia was frowned upon in that school, I felt I was forging a new, freer path here.” No doubt, he has. But viewers familiar with Simcoe’s paintings can probably trace a connection between his still lifes, which often feature beautiful flowers (he’s a trained horticulturist), and drawings like “Romano Excited” or “Cowboy Wank,” where the focus is on the models’ beautiful erect cocks.

Perhaps the drawing that best exemplifies the exhibit is “Trevor Fapping.” In it, a muscular, handsome man of color is shown intently stroking himself. His left arm, which partly obscures his face, appears to be braced against a support of some sort, while his right arm pumps vigorously. Shadows along the model’s back emphasize the curve of his muscles, while smudging around his cock conveys the motion.

“That was a special one,” Simcoe admitted. He especially likes it because of the circumstances in which it was drawn. Trevor, he explained, was leaning against a wall. “So, I had to move to the side, and there was nobody near me and I had a great view and nobody knew it. They all did him from the back.”

Gerald Simcoe, "Trevor Fapping." Photo courtesy the artist.
Gerald Simcoe, “Trevor Fapping.” Photo courtesy the artist.

Overall, “getting off” gives viewers a peek at some of what Simcoe experienced at the Gay Men’s Erotic Workshop. The exhibit is also an example of the Bradbury-Sullivan Center’s commitment to showing a wide range of queer art, including some that is edgy or explicit. After all, Shanker said, “We can’t say that we’re an LGBT gallery and be afraid to show erotic work.” He pointed to examples of earlier exhibits of a similar nature, including “The RORCROTCH Test,” a selection of monoprints by Cynthia Rodriguez, who created inkblots of vaginas using nontoxic paint and paper, and “The Boys of Summer,” Andrew Sedgwick Guth’s mixed-media drawings of scantily clad gay beachgoers.

So far, according to Shanker, the reaction to “getting off” has been overwhelmingly positive. “Many people who have seen it have appreciated that, in many ways, it’s kind of an academic look at the male body, and that they’re very beautiful drawings, careful drawings, sensitive drawings,” he said. “And people, regardless of their own identity, can see the thoughtfulness of Gerald’s work.”

getting off: drawings by Gerald Simcoe, from January 3rd to February 21, 2020, The Fine Art Galleries at Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, 522 W Maple St, at Bayard Rustin Way, Allentown, PA 18101, United States

More Photos

Gerald Simcoe, "Cigars." Photo courtesy the artist.
Gerald Simcoe, “Cigars.” Photo courtesy the artist.
Gerald Simcoe, "Glove." Photo courtesy the artist.
Gerald Simcoe, “Glove.” Photo courtesy the artist.