Circus of Books exterior and storefront window. Image courtesy of Mito Aviles @artteasela. Photo by Jimena Sandoval. 

Blazing pink like a Willy Wonka fantasy on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, Circus of Books is a historic gay bookstore and porn shop with a history stretching back to the 1960s. The store is the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name about the older heterosexual Jewish immigrant couple who ran it for years as a mom-and-pop business, un-discriminatingly serving the gay community they found themselves in the midst of. 

The shop was repurposed and reopened in 2020 offering the surrounding gayborhood sex toys on the right side of the store and, on the left side— in an unlikely move—an art gallery. This June, in celebration of Pride, the gallery hosts a group show entitled “ART-TEASE,” curated by West Hollywood (WeHo) City Arts Commissioner Mito Aviles. The exhibition features a range of photographs, fashion pieces on mannequins, and an immersive room by WeHo artist SKÜT.

ChadMichael Morrisette, Storefront window installation detail. Image courtesy of Mito Aviles @artteasela. Photo by Jimena Sandoval.

The show begins in the storefront window with a display by multimedia and mannequin artist ChadMichael Morrisette, whose interest in the human form is apparent. This mixed-media display spotlights a collage flanked by two mannequins from the artist’s 2,500-strong custom collection, from which he keeps Hollywood’s wardrobe departments well-supplied. The collage features mainly magazine clippings of chiseled torso forms (read: hot men), and at first glance, it feels like an underwear ad for Calvin Klein. It isn’t until further inspection that the viewer realizes that, hidden in the PG-13 underwear ads, there are glimpses of the artist’s naughty and snarky streak, with fully nude figures joined by a werewolf and a naked group in sunglasses, giggling, and covering their genitals. The effect continually unfolds for the viewer, at first deeper into desire but then, surprisingly, into play.

The window display is street-facing in front of Vaseline Alley, the notoriously cruisy parking lot behind the building. Curator Aviles insinuates that the collaged images are a sort of menu of desire, in which each passerby can see their sensibilities reflected. The mannequins complete the assemblage effect, somehow both more natural and less attention-grabbing than the photo clippings. They are in conversation with each other, contesting the reality versus artificiality of both forms, and bringing to mind the proliferation of headless torsos on gay dating apps – the anonymity of a mannequin mirroring the anonymity of the gay closet, a space of possibility at once open to interaction and yet shut off from any identifying details.

Entering the space, the first things one sees are commercial products – this is a store, after all – a pop-up shop with a range of apparel from gay-owned business Frootloots, with hoodies that say things like “Alphabet Mafia” (a reference to the “alphabet soup” of LGBTQ+ identities) and “Don’t Fuck With the Gays.” Behind this table and a table of memoirs by drag queens, you’ll find where the “ART-TEASE” exhibition continues.

ART-TEASE Installation image. Image Courtesy of Brian Sonia-Wallace

First and most striking are pieces from trans-fashion designer Sylvio Hooper’s fantastic fashion collection, a range of gender-bending metallic underwear displayed on mannequins in front of a wall of photos and sketches. The fashion’s nod to BDSM styles like harnesses and expose, exaggerate a mix of genitalia rather than hide them. The chrome of the garments gives everything a futuristic flare, as if the viewer has entered a strip club on another planet.

Eric Scot, 6163, n.d. Image courtesy of Circus of Books website.

On the wall behind the fashions, photographer Eric Scot’s series “First Touch” is a play of light and shadow between two figures in a variety of intimate positions that are more pornographic than tender. Yet each is lit almost to the point of abstraction, with the whole emotion of the piece coming from the curve of a back or the angle of a shadowy face. All of the sepia-tone photos are of the same two models, giving a sense that the series explores a single encounter. Next to the photograph display, artist Kevin Cortez presents a range of sketches and pastels of body parts, zooming in on potential loci of desire with a few thick, bold lines. These works resemble loose sketches  —like something from a queer figure drawing night—with the most successful works tending toward a minimalism that reveals the artist’s style and humor, like in After, where five bold lines suggest a softened penis.

Kevin Cortez, After, n.d., Charcoal on paper. Image courtesy of Circus of Books website.

Photographer Christopher Garcia’s work, in contrast to the rest of the works on display, is an explosion of warm color. Young men are framed intimately and seemingly all too aware of the camera’s presence. Photographer VAGHO completes the collections on the walls with black-and-white natural landscapes in which inconspicuous nude figures lounge amid rocks and waves.

Christopher Garcia, Forever Young, n.d., Image courtesy of Circus of Books website.
VAGHO, Within, n.d., Archival print. Image courtesy of Circus of Books website.

“The theme the gallery asked me to curate was ‘Pride,’” says curator Aviles, “but I didn’t want to do a historical show, I wanted to show what elevated erotic art could look like.”

ART-TEASE Installation image. Image Courtesy of Brian Sonia-Wallace.

The piece de resistance is the backroom, a deconstructed temple or shrine to Pride by local artist SKÜT, who started his career by creating the Grindr logo. Here, SKÜT displays a mix of sculpture, painting (including a version of his iconic skull logo dripping in rainbow paint), and multimedia sound/projection, creating a space of tranquility and meditation in the backroom (and I don’t need to tell you what you might normally expect to find in the backroom of a sex shop).

SKÜT, Unicorn Origami Kaleido, n.d., Acrylic resin with mixed media, Maquette. Image courtesy of Circus of Books website.
SKÜT, SkullPop Kinetical, n.d., Acrylic and mixed media on an upcycled core. Image courtesy of Circus of Books website.

There is a pop-queer sensibility to SKÜT’s aesthetic, with the most impressive piece being a rainbow origami unicorn on a plinth, backed by spinning obelisks with, ostensibly, the “themes” of Pride, ranging from “MAGIC” to “SERENITY” to “SEX.” After emerging from the low-colored lights and the meditation of the shrine room, the rest of the shop feels overly bright and cluttered.

This concludes the “ART-TEASE” exhibition, but reflects only a fraction of the art in the store. On the other side of the counter, past the poppers but before the harnesses, a permanent art exhibition features playful works like ceramic vases in the shape of jockstraps and the requisite Keith Haring prints alongside beautifully lit cases of what might be sculptures but are actually just anal toys.  

Circus of Books shop interior. Image Courtesy of Brian Sonia-Wallace.

In truth, Haring feels omnipresent through much of the gallery and store. The 1980s New York street artist who died of AIDS in 1990 is enjoying something of a resurgence right now, with retrospective shows from The Broad to Luna Luna. His bold lines and cartoon characters are childish in a way that balances playfulness and raunchiness. Still, Haring was successful in part because he crossed the divide between high art worlds and commercial products, attracting criticism from the art world for his Pop Shop, which sold t-shirts, toys, posters, buttons, and magnets with his images as a way to create access for everyday people to own a piece of his work.

The artists featured in “ART-TEASE” are likewise casually commercial, spanning a range of experience levels, and with artwork price points ranging from $150 to $4,000. Homoerotic art has always been fringe, often even cheap. Their idea is that one might go into Circus of Books for a puphood and also come out with a pastel drawing of a man’s lip ring and mustache. There is a value, the gallery seems to assert, in art “for the masses.” 

Kevin Cortez, Muscle, n.d., Charcoal on paper. Image courtesy of Circus of Books website. 

Though tamer than, say, the illustrated gay sadomasochism of Tom of Finland, the art on display at “ART-TEASE” gives a portrait of desire, one that is tied to connection, to nature, and to play.

Just in time for Pride. Go for the poppers, leave with some art.

ChadMichael Morrisette, VAGHO, Christopher Garcia, Kevin Cortez, Sylvio Hooper, Eric Scot, and SKÜT
May 23 – June 30, 2024
The Gallery at Circus of Books – West Hollywood
8230 Santa Monica Blvd. West Hollywood, California 90046

CORRECTION:  An earlier version of this article credited eponymous drag queen and director Chi Chi LaRue with Circus’s reopening, when the owners are in fact Rob Novinger and Steven Walker under the company name C1R according to the Circus of Books website.