Art that provokes

What & where: My Big Pencil Show, drawings by Andrea Sutton at Venus Envy, 320 Lisgar St.

When: to Dec. 7.

More: See more images at ottawacitizen.com/bigbeat

The drawings in the exhibit by Andrea Sutton range from suggestive, such as Chair, above, to explicit, provoking questions about the difference between erotica, porn and art.

OTTAWA — Over at the neighbourhood sex shop, there’s a show of works in pencil by Andrea Sutton.

Inside Venus Envy, on Lisgar Street, Sutton’s drawings are surrounded by dozens of dildos of all shapes, sizes and, er, options. When I point to an artificial member of particularly impressive scale, I’m told it also has the most “realistic feel.” My instinct is to run away in fear.

I mention all this not for prurient laughs, but to note that it’s a challenge to focus on art when there’s a phalanx of giant dongs pointing at your head. It’s debatable whether the venue elevates the art or distracts from it, but there’s no doubt that it provokes.

Sutton’s exhibition is erotica that ranges from a retro naughtiness to an explicitness that leaves erotica behind (by my perhaps sheltered definition) but does, regrettably, reflect our times. I have nothing against adults making or consuming consensual porn, but it’s everywhere these days, on our TVs, in every hotel room, and on our mobiles anywhere and anytime.

Are Sutton’s most explicit drawings pornography? Clearly, she welcomes the question, as she named the most hardcore drawings “Cropped Pornography.” In one a woman simultaneously services three men (if I’m counting disembodied hands accurately) and though Sutton crops the image judiciously it’s obvious this sex is hard, raw and unpleasant to look upon. Except, it’s so finely drawn.

The exhibition is titled My Big Pencil Show, and the images are lushly done in graphite of infinite gradations. Bath, a portrait of a nude woman (Sutton?) bathing, is alive with varying shades of turquoise green, from the dark of the woman’s hair to the light of the water pouring through her fingers and splashing into the tub between her legs. Face is a near-profile of a woman, focused on one eye with mascara set to running by, presumably, tears. It’s an accomplished work. An admirer wrote on Facebook, “My God, these are rendered by hand?”

Most of the dozen or so drawings in Sutton’s exhibition are not explicit. Sutton’s hard-core drawings, composed with such finesse and attention to detail, force the viewer to ask questions about sex. What is erotica? What is pornography? What is art? Can art make pornography beautiful, or does it just make us question our own firmly held opinions? If it does lead us to reconsider our own views, isn’t that something beautiful?

The pencil drawing called Face is an accomplished work by Andrea Sutton.

Looking at this show convinced me that porn can be art, and here’s why: one of the two drawings titled “Cropped Pornography” is better because the other has no faces and therefore is anonymous, which takes nothing away from it as porn but does take something away from it as art — a position that can only be reached after accepting either image as art at all.

Like Ottawa painter Andrew Morrow, whose classical paintings are full of couples rutting in public, Sutton compels the viewer to reconsider the place in society of both porn and art. A person might be open to porn, but what if it’s so pervasive that it’s creeping into art?

I, for one, don’t want that, and yet art is an effective tool to raise questions about the contemporary ubiquity of porn. So, when I look at Sutton’s most explicit drawings they make me think less of porn and more of art.

My Big Pencil Show continues at Venus Envy to Dec. 7. Starting that day, some of Sutton’s pieces will be included in the annual group show at Cyclelogik, the curious hybrid of gallery, coffee shop and bike shop at 1111A Wellington. That space will, I presume, be dildo free.

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