Cock Bling :: Venfield 8 on His Phallic Fashion Statements
What to do when Designer Fatigue and Accessory Ennui strike? Cast a jaundiced eye about in search of a fresh color palette or a fresh take on line, form, function, and style? Or strike off in a daring new direction?
For the adventurous, the last option could seem daunting. What new worlds still lay in wait for designers to investigate? From the classic elegance of Dior to Lady Gaga's meat dress, it might seem that everything under the sun has been celebrated, paraded on the catwalk, placed in front of the cameras, subjected to debate... and then forgotten. What's left?
How about man's best (onboard) friend? How about the culturally overlooked (and yet omnipresent) penis?
Imagine it. Penises crusted in bling or decorated with tattoos; penises matched, with visual flair, to designer name brands; pubic hair enhanced with black feathers. There's a daring new vision of man's favorite appendage coming into focus, with the penis taking on the glamor and excitement of high-end accessories even as the artist behind the images takes sure aim at our label-obsessed global culture. And here's the thing: These dazzling meditations launched not from some elite catalogue or glossy magazine, but from the most democratic of platforms -- Tumblr.
Who Is That Masked Man?
Los Angeles-based photographer Venfield 8 brings an outlaw sensibility back to anatomically explicit (and gay-implicit) art with his smart, sultry portraits, satirical takes on fashion and accessories, and a boldly controversial series that examines the sexual undercurrents of stylized violence.
His work has excited the admiration of pop site Boy Culture (where a photo of Venfield 8, disguised in a Batman cowl, was posted recently) and prompted an essay by "Art in America" writer Calvin Hutchens, a fan of Venfield 8, that appeared exclusively on the photographer’s website.
All this started less than one year ago when the artist launched his identity and his instantly buzz-worthy images on Tumblr last May. The response has mushroomed into something of a phenomenon, and Venfield 8 has responded in kind, planning some major new projects that are sure to galvanize the overlapping worlds of art and eros.
Venfield 8 came upon this new expressive avenue -- and his post-industrial, slightly dystopian pseudonym -- by chance, when a friend seeking entree into the adult film industry asked him to take some photos to show porn producers.
"He said, ’I just need a couple of good hard-on shots,’ " Venfield 8 told EDGE recently. The results were so spectacular that the budding actor was deluged with requests for the identity of his photographer -- a name he had sworn not to divulge, because Venfield 8 has a successful career shooting for mainstream magazines. Hence his "secret identity," something with which the photographer had some fun recently when, disguised in a Batman cowl, he posed for a portrait by filmmaker Olivier Lebourg.
Boy Culture joined in on the fun. "Does this image give you any more clues as to who he might be?" a Jan. 14 posting teased. "At some point, he’ll be doing gallery shows and will have to (?) step out of his batcave."
Or will he? Those gallery shows have already started. Last September a small gallery called Antebellum, owned by Rick Castro and located in Los Angeles, put some of the lensman’s work on display.
More exhibitions are imminent, but that doesn’t mean that Venfield 8 is preparing to step out from behind the camera and into the spotlight. For one thing, one suspects, the whole secret identity element is just too much fun. For another, there is a serious side to all this. Venfield 8’s photos are sly, sassy, sexy, and stylish, with a look and a vibe that’s all their own; that makes them recognizable and, to a growing extent, popular.
But they also say something. They say lots of things, really, ranging from simple appreciation for the erotic charge associated with the way a man can smell (that’s the theme of his "Essence Masculine" portraits) to the ways in which a male-dominated and heterocentric culture victimizes both men and women... and eroticizes such aggression. That’s the theme of Venfield 8’s newest line of photos, "Luxury Assault" (an exclusive peek at which appears here).
A New Artistic Niche
Critics, being critics, will no doubt fire off volleys of indignation. Fans will see past the surface imagery to the deeper meanings. So it ever is with capital-A Art -- and make no mistake; that’s what Venfield 8 is making.
Initially, Venfield 8 hadn’t envisioned a whole series of erotic, humorous, sometimes deliberately shocking images, much less assuming an artistic nom de guerre. Upon seeing the reaction his work had provoked, though, the photographer sensed an artistic and commercial niche in need of exploration. He set about establishing a new professional identity and a body of raw, powerful, and unapologetic work to go with it. In an astonishingly short time, Venfield 8’s iconic phallus-as-accouterment imagery has attracted the attention of top arts writers, online followers, and fashionistas alike.
EDGE, being a PG-13 publication, cannot show the artist’s daring work in its full glory or, in some cases, at all. (That includes, sadly, much of his "Designer Dicks" series). For that, the reader is welcome to click over to Venfield 8’s Tumblr account or his official website, where his "Designer Dicks" series boasts indelible images like a laconic penis dangling through a glory hole cut into a spotless orange wall, a band reading "Hermes" wrapped around the base of the glans. In another shot, a strapping man poses in nothing but a scuba mask, the seagoing vibe enhanced by his half-mast manhood. A blue-tinted snap captures an attractive, young (and nude) man emerging from a sleek automobile; it’s a moment captured at the intersection of sexual enlivenment and raw mechanical power. Another photo shows a young, nude man dead and bloody. sprawled across a car’s hood -- the victim, perhaps, of a traffic mishap, or perhaps of road rage. In one of the most straightforward works, a riff on the Harry Winston label, bling-wrapped, uncut manhood rests atop a raw steak, the very incarnation, as it were, of nourishing red meat. Lady Gaga, eat your heart out.
But the most successful image he’s created is "Fred," a 2012 work that’s become a hit with the same accessory-obsessed crowd that Venfield 8 is speaking to and about. The photo shows an erect phallus covered with rhinestones. Venfield 8 shared the story with EDGE.
"I was advised to use spirit gum," he recalled. "But that is sticky and could be painful to remove, so I used the same adhesive that’s used for false eyelashes.
"Initially, I was a little concerned that the model would not be able to sustain his erection for the length of time it would take me to apply all those rhinestones, but he did fine -- he was amazing. In fact, he did his job a little bit too well: At one point he started pre-cumming a little, and the rhinestones started getting washed away!"
The labor-intensive efforts paid off, though. "This is the image that gets the most response, judging from how often it’s lifted from my site and used by others at their own pages," the photographer shared. "And of all the ways I’ve dressed up men’s’ dicks, this is the one that women reference most when they write me. ’Can you do the same thing for my boyfriend?’ I get that a lot! I’m thinking, ’Yeah, do you really know what you’re asking for?’ I mean, let’s think about how well that’s gonna work, ladies..." The lensman broke into a big, radiant smile.
The Hutchens essay suggested that Venfield 8’s "most unique trick" is "To take masculine beauty out of the objectification realm and instead offer it as currency in a post homo, post porn, or post fashion environment."
But the artist might just as easily be putting the outlaw element back into gay sexuality: An erect phallus can be a cultural and even religious image (such as the ancient Roman fascinum, or the traditional depiction of Native American fertility god Kokopelli with his flute and his huge erection), but the hard cock becomes something quite subversive when it’s celebrated by gay men.
What better way to do that than with designer labels and rhinestones?
"I think it is both," Venfield 8 mused. "My intention was never to make a statement about masculinity or the state of gay porn -- I was really trying to bring attention to consumerism and sex. But alas, they are hard to separate.
"A hard dick is a loaded gun, if you’ll excuse the pun, but I do enjoy the power it yields," the photographer continued. "How that power is interpreted isn’t up to me. And I think that gay porn need less mainstreaming for sure. In our quest to assimilate (i.e., marriage, acceptance), we have lost that special outsider or underground element -- but I think there is a lot of good examples of that special ’secret’ pleasure enjoyed only by men in the know.
"And no, I am not talking about all that strange fetishy stuff. In a way, what I present -- with that high fashion gloss, while being the polar opposite of the new hipster porn trend -- is just as much a fetish as anything else. I like to be subversive, I like to be absurd. All while serving something beautiful. That is my goal."
Launching his new artistic visions on Tumblr, where erotic imagery is commonplace, and letting his work stand out was a bold move, but it wasn’t as calculated as one might think.
"I had no idea what Tumblr really was or how it worked when I started," the lensman admitted. "I was fascinated. I loved the access and variety, and frankly, was amazed at all the talent out there. And yes, I love the democratic platform of it -- it is like a giant gallery. People will get it or they won’t, and they ’vote’ by re-blogging and commenting.
"What amazes me, is I started posting thinking, ’Well, only gay men are going to get this.’ But the work has reached so much more of an audience. And I thought only ’pretty boy’ sites or porno sites would re-blog this work, and that hasn’t been strictly true either. At the same time, all these incredible art sites have embraced the work, which is really satisfying.
"I love that essentially, all these blogs are basically magazines," Venfield 8 added. "Each blogger is basically a photo editor, and they are assembling these amazing and inspiring collections. I jumped in as well; I operate my own ’magazine’ on Tumblr of only re-blogged work, separate from Venfield 8 -- a place and a way to collect all the images that inspire me. I am obviously a visual person, so it is so relaxing to just spend time looking at what is out there and grabbing what I like. Strangely, it too has accumulated a ton of followers -- which was never my intention. It is only for me and my inspiration, but it obviously speaks to some people."
In the course of our chat, Venfield 8 let slip that he has an idea for a "Hello Kitty" line of imagery.
"Hello Kitty?" Is he serious?
"Hahaha," the artist chortled, "yes. I have a concept for one. I just shot a Tom Ford Designer Dick that will surely raise eyebrows. I am shooting a Givenchy one this weekend."
So the well is far from drying up?
"Actually I have begun receiving requests!" Venfield 8 exclaimed. "People like their labels. A few people have been asking for a Gucci one, and it is on the way. A few want a John Galliano -- which would be fun and challenging. Both Cartier and DeBeers have been planned and are casting now.
"And although you didn’t ask, yes, these companies are aware I am doing them," the artist volunteered -- presciently, because that was a question EDGE was about to pose to him. If anything, Venfield 8, went on to say, the response has been somewhat the opposite; rumor has it that Louis Vuitton honcho Marc Jacobs so liked Venfield 8’s riff on the label that he put a print of the image on his desk.
"I haven’t had any ’cease and desists’ yet," the artist summarized, before inviting input: "Do you have a favorite label or brand you’d like to see?"
EDGE could not come up with anything Venfield 8 hasn’t done or mentioned planning to do. Well, maybe J. Crew? Or would he go downmarket a bit and go in for Sears or Macy’s?
"No label is too downmarket," the artist advised. "I had a friend suggest that if he was going to pose, he would want to be Target.
"Labels exist to tell the world not only how you see yourself, but how you want to be seen," Venfield 8 went on to note. "Not every label is aspirational, some are just matter of fact. The same is true of the way men treat their penises. We all want them to be seen as something more -- hence the desire to make them luxury labels -- but some men, fully confident and realistic, also concede that it may just be the Gap. There is nothing wrong with that."
Well said -- and just as well. At some point, it might seem that he’d run out of chic, high-concept designer upon which to riff. Not so far, though.
"It is seemingly an endless source of fun and inspiration," the artist declared. "There are a few really big Venfield 8 projects coming this year... a couple of gallery shows, a publication, an ad campaign for a great heritage label, and finally, some films."
Venfield 8 prepares all of the elements to his images himself: The color schemes, the type fonts, and the layout are all his work, along with the photos. he takes justifiable pride in this. "Some have assumed that I get the photos from somewhere online," he told EDGE. "I don’t. I shoot everything myself.
"The other thing is, this work is all genuine. It really represents me. I shows the life I live -- whether traveling, shooting in the south of France, surrounded by lots of naked guys, or working in my usual environment in LA. I started Venfield 8 as a way to harvest all these instances and images into something cohesive and beautiful."
But the hardest part, so to speak, must be casting the principal element for each brand. How does that work? When Venfield 8 shows us a limp (but fulsome) member dangling through a glory hole cut into a bright orange backdrop for his "Hermes" shot, or (via Photoshop) tattoos a the Yves St-Laurent logo onto a vibrant erection, what is it, exactly, that spoke to him and prompted these specific pairings of model to label?
"A lot actually goes into it," Venfield 8 noted. "It’s hard to verbalize -- the dick has to match, but why or how, I am not sure. It’s a gut instinct thing.
"The important thing I think of is, that while these are fun, I am not making fun of the labels. I truly treat these like they are extensions of an ad campaign. I never disrespect a label -- okay, Disney not withstanding," the artist admitted, referring to a hilarious image in which a male member is painted black at the head and outfitted with round "ears" to resemble a tiny Mickey Mouse cap.
"It is that respect and seriousness that makes them so believable, if they are believable, or acceptable (if not in the real world, then in a parallel universe). I think that is what elevates them from Tumblr schlock to art.
"Anyway, in doing so, I try to decide what elements and style the designer house would use, and try to interpret it using a dick," Venfield 8 concluded. "The darker penis for the Chanel Resort collection was intentional, but otherwise, it just has to make sense aesthetically.
"There is no end to the variety of penises, so I have a ton to chose from. They should just feel right for the project."
Asked whether he ever serves as his own model, the photographer answered with a single coy word -- "Yes."
The fact that he inhabits his work in the flesh, as it were, should make his secret identity all the more an object of fascination -- and his imagery just as hot a staple for obsession as any haute couture.
That said, don’t hold your breath for Venfield 8 to volunteer his true identity. "My real name isn’t necessary to enjoy the work," the photographer told EDGE. "In fact, it would probably take away from the experience.
"I think as more people get to know the work, the mystery of who I am will fade," the lensman continued. "It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the work continues to please, arouse or entertain -- hopefully all while provoking thought and discussion. Wondering about my true identity can be fun, but it is ultimately superficial. It holds no bearing on the work. I certainly am not ashamed of the work, and have no compunction about revealing it -- but the mystery piques people’s interest, and gives me more freedom. After all, that is what Venfield is all about: creativity without constraints."