Erotic art, Laura Henkel says, doesn’t have to be explicit and in your face—even in Las Vegas. “It can be subtle and suggestive.”
It’s an interesting comment coming from inside the city’s Erotic Heritage Museum, where Henkel is the director. Although surrounded by a smorgasbord of art, videos and props that celebrate and explore human sexuality, Henkel is referring to two new exhibits that put her words into practice.
To celebrate the two-year anniversary of the museum, on Sept. 11, Henkel is staging Hung in Vegas, an ambitious exhibition and fundraiser featuring a variety of works exploring different facets of human sexuality. The events at the museum, she promises, will be “invigorating for some people, nervous for others; some will be shocked.”
Hung in Vegas will feature new work throughout the year; new artists will be rotated in six months. (All the artwork is for sale; half of the proceeds go to charity.) It’s co-sponsored by Aid for AIDS of Nevada, which provides support to the HIV community in Southern Nevada.
One component of the exhibition is called “Sex and Disability” and will feature work by disabled artists. It’s predicated on, Henkel says, “the understanding that people with disabilities have sexual needs.” This event will aid Sin Sity Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a local nonprofit group run by an order of cross-dressing nuns, which also provides support to the AIDS community.
“I’m continually putting in exhibitions to shed light on issues relating to sexuality,” Henkel says. “It’s trying to get as much education out as we can and still make it fun and exciting.”
This means seeing erotic artwork that’s usually kept behind closed doors, or participating in some of the museum’s interactive exhibits, like one that encourages people to write dirty jokes in the bathroom. Above all, it beckons for you to “be a bit of a voyeur and understand how other people’s lifestyles can be.”
Hung in Vegas is showcasing work by 10 artists, including 24 photos of women’s genitalia by photographer Nick Karras. (“It’s amazing to watch people react to it,” Henkel says.) Tracy Dean Skinner, a board member of the museum and the founder of the Sin Sity Sisters, is submitting several mixed-media pieces that document the different stages he’s gone through in living with AIDS for more than 19 years. Another exhibit, “Faces of Courage,” features plaster casts of the faces of Las Vegans living with HIV and AIDS. He’s hoping his work, and the larger show, encourages people to “reflect on different stages of this virus. It affects many people, and we don’t know who it will affect later on.”
For the sex and disability event, artist Todd VonBastiaans is preparing a series of art installations centered on four objects: a prosthetic leg with a Christian Louboutin shoe (the shoe, not surprisingly, doesn’t quite fit), a walker, a large turn-of-the-century wheelchair, and a pair of leg braces. All of these, he explains, are “objects that belong to people with sexual needs.”
He’s also created, for the Hung in Vegas show, a sexually provocative piece featuring the letters BP, in neon, spurting little tear drops and heart shapes. “The opportunity to do something that was political and sexual at the same time certainly interested me,” VonBastiaans says.
The fundraiser will also feature an interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome by Insurgo Theater, and to top things off, former porn star Nina Hartley will receive an honorary doctorate from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, the San Francisco-based institute, which runs a satellite “campus” at the museum.
“That’s what’s so magical about this place,” Henkel says. “It’s really a place for knowledge without judgment.” Despite the dark undertones of the show, she says both are really “a celebration of life.”