How the Motor City’s biggest erotic art show keeps its game skin-tight

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Feb 10, 2016 at 1:00 am
How the Motor City’s biggest erotic art show keeps its game skin-tight

See 95 dirty photos from night one of this year's show

Jerry Vile is walking around his studio in the Russell Industrial Center pointing out some of the pieces that have been in his popular Dirty Show over the years. Ever the irreverent gadfly, his running commentary is hilarious.

"This guy illustrates for McDonald's," he says, gesturing toward one. He points out another of a man's face snugged up to another man's ass. "Here's an example of the perfect combination of porn and art because it's just so fucking disgusting," he says with cackling laughter. "It makes sex look so unattractive."

He points out one piece by Anton LaVey's grandson Steven, another from France, one from Israel, even an original print by Clive Barker. He comments on a saucy piece featuring a priest and suggests it may be passé.

If anybody would know the trends in the fast-changing world of erotic art, it would be Peterson. When thousands of people descend on the Russell Industrial Center for two weekends this month to see The Dirty Show, it won't be Jerry Peterson's first rodeo.

It has been 17 years and 20 erotic art shows since Peterson first helped found the show, perhaps to fill the void left by the end of his magazine, Orbit.

Last year, that magazine was given a reprise of sorts with the publication of Robert St. Mary's Re-Entry, a book exploring the history of that magazine. And The Dirty Show hasn't just outlived its onetime hecklers and critics, it has become the largest annual art event in the city.

By a weird trick of fate, at 59, Peterson is poised for a certain vindication, even an odd kind of respectability, if only due to the staying power of the show he helped found.

The art show everybody hated

Of course, in the beginning, Detroit's art scene found the upstart erotic art show too much to take. Even a decade ago, Metro Times was reluctant to write about it. Peterson remembers the frosty reaction it got from Detroit's art scenesters.

"They fucking hated us," Peterson says. "There's that whole, academic, elite Detroit art scene, and we're just not snooty enough for it."

But it wasn't just the subject matter that invited conflict. Since the beginning, so many different varieties of art have been featured that a randy artistic potluck turned into a kind of circular firing squad.

"Whenever you do a group show like that," Peterson says, "especially one that's so varied, people are going to say, 'There's a ton of shit in that.' Because conceptual guys are going to criticize pinup artists, and those photorealistic painters will criticize a pile of dirt on a stand, saying, 'That's not art, that's a fucking handful of dirt.' That's the diversity we had.'"

Peterson looks back on it today as "a communal approach to Detroit art."

"Because of Orbit, I was able to go into every little art clique and have friends there that would bring their friends. So it's all these divergent artists from all different walks of art doing all different shit. ... We didn't jury for five or six years. It was, 'Show up with shit and we'll decide where to put it.'"

Peterson says the jurying process didn't come easily to the show. He says it took a few years to work out the political kinks. He also freely admits that nobody likes to be refused, and that a lot of the stuff he likes doesn't make it into the show. But it's still better than looking at some of the art people brought in.

"Being face to face with somebody who made bad art, it's really hard to tell them that," he says. "It makes jurying feel like a cake walk."

What's his taste in erotic art? His taste runs a pretty wide gamut, technically. He can appreciate the primitive along with the super-realistic. He dislikes the sort of stuff you'd see in men's magazines, and complains that fine art nudes are "some of the best fine art technically and some of the worst aesthetically at times."

He's quick to add, "Sometimes I'd rather see a piece of art that I hate than something nonreactive. And no matter how much you hate something, there's always an artist who will prove you wrong with their talent."

"We always try to have something to shock somebody," he says. "We pick stuff because it's funny, or it's disturbing. I mean, to me, porn's kind of disturbing. If you do something right with that, when you can combine really porny stuff and make it really arty at the same time, to me, that's The Dirty Show home run. And we don't get a lot of it."

Another thing he tries to do is attract big names to the show. "We almost had Leonard Nimoy," Peterson says. "He shot a lot of nudes, fine art nudes using body types that are nontraditional. Beyond Rubenesque. Like they ate the Rubenesque people!"

An unlikely art promoter

Peterson grew up in bucolic, small-town Northville, and insists he didn't grow up weird. "For a lot of my life I tried to fit in," he says. That was before he encountered "glitter music, punk rock, National Lampoon, Creem magazine, underground comics, all those influences, back when you had to earn them."

In early adulthood, he got into punk and publishing. He became the lead singer of a punk band called the Boners ("It was the stupidest name we could think of") and started self-publishing in college ("We tried to do a magazine, and we didn't have the money nor the talent").

Despite his humility about these flawed efforts, he says he's always appreciated what happens when untrained people try their hands at arts and culture. "That's how really great shit gets invented," he says. "People who don't have the talent that just try to do it anyways, and they end up creating something new."

Well, not always, but as Jerry Vile, Peterson's knack for theatrics has struck gold on and off. His antics included doing a Boners set as the Flying Nun at Bookies, using aircraft wire run through the asbestos-filled ceiling. He says Jonathan Demme once asked him to reprise the role for a movie, but Peterson told him he "doesn't do things twice." These days he wishes he'd done it, that perhaps he could have been famous: "Now I realize what a fucking idiot I was," he says. "I should still be wearing the flying nun outfit and people could go, 'That's the flying nun guy!'"

Aside from The Dirty Show, Peterson's alter-ego Jerry Vile is more active as an artist than ever. His show last year at the Tangent was unalloyed fun. The cards identifying the art were often funnier than the art. But much of the show was made up of genre-bending pieces: including a seamy diorama of a couple having sex at a motel and a coin-operated carnival machine in which a model of Peterson as a chicken dispensed predictions.

"To this day, when I do art, I feel guilty," Peterson says, "because of how it was drilled into me by my dad and mom, that being an artist is the worst job in the world, and it's not work, and you're just going to starve. ... It's like everything I liked was the worst job in the world."

A really big show

But that crazy yearning in Peterson to create an otherworldly penny arcade finds its greatest expression in The Dirty Show. He still wishes he could dress it up as an even more immersive environment, something like the Streets of Old Detroit at the Detroit Historical Museum, or Gaylord's Call of the Wild Museum, but set on the poor side of town. Bits of this vision appear from time to time, such as this year's tattoo shop, or the Sin-Erotic film space, which will be given over to art-house sleaze, or the live bondage shows in a hallway nook revelers will stroll by and be able to watch.

And that's just the stuff out in the show. Live shows will take the stage almost continuously. Peterson calls it, "Burlesque, drag queens, and weird stuff," but much of it is way out there. Getting in drag and singing "Sweet Transvestite" isn't enough for the show anymore. Peterson has seen almost every drag act out there, and complains that the medium has lost its verve. He explains, "Most drag shows, you're going to hear Celine Dion. Most drag shows are so mainstream."

But at the Dirty Show, attendees can expect performers like DeAngela Show Shannon. "I've seen about every drag act," Peterson says, "and DeAngela does fucking flips and stuff, and she's taller than me, with tits the size of watermelons, and these outrageous costumes."

Or bizarre inclusions from years past have included what Peterson calls a "midget bar." It was an area roped off last year that had a 6-foot-high ceiling, small furniture, and a small stage with a diminutive dancer on it. "There were supposed to be two midgets dancing on stage, but one got so drunk she fell off the stage on her first act."

On two different years, the stage has featured action painting of an unusual sort: A performer is given an enema of child-safe paint, and then squirts it out of their ass onto a canvas. If it sounds squicky, well, it is, but it was at least done behind a screen, which Peterson says, "makes it civilized." The action-painting routine's name, Poo-casso, was made up by a heckler the first time it was performed.

"It is hilarious," Peterson says, "and I think it really does say more about art than anything else, because then the paintings are auctioned off."

It's decisions like these that draw people out on snowy nights in February. Between visual art, performance, film, live entertainment, and a kind of party environment, the show is big. It outgrew spaces at the Hastings Street Ballroom, Bert's Warehouse, and has finally found what appears to be a permanent home at the Russell, which is more than large enough to accommodate the 2,000 people a night who pre-buy their tickets.

Last year, part of the draw was special guest John Waters, which gave the show special visibility. Peterson said it was a challenge to keep people from pestering their esteemed guest.

"All these outsiders are gonna identify with John," Peterson says. "But there's, like, hundreds of them in every city, so they're always going to try to give him something or tell him some long story. We tried to put out the word, please don't bring gifts. Now, with somebody like Brad Pitt, who's a big successful movie star, you're not going to go and bother Brad Pitt, but people think, 'It's John Waters: He gets me.' And there's shitloads of them. He can't do anything without anybody telling him a big long story. And yet he's very polite, probably the most polite person I know."

Making it bigger

And then there's the art. It ranges from the cheeky to the dark, and at its best it aims not to merely titillate but to provoke. Over the years the show has featured some mind-boggling pieces. One memorable work superimposed dozens of photos of fellatio to create art that wasn't even figurative anymore, a psychedelic-looking image that defied description. Or a piece that returns this year, a towering sculpture of three horses engaged in a threesome.

"To me, good art is just a surrealistic experience," Peterson says. "It's what I like: being transported. Something that didn't exist in your brain."

As much as Peterson sounds like P.T. Barnum sometimes, that carnival barker facade gives way to a discriminating guy who, yes, gets art. He loves art best that makes him see the inconceivable. He praises a work by Cai Guo-Qiang, an artwork that sprawls across a room, with 99 wolves leaping through the air, bashing against an unbroken glass wall, and running back to jump again.

"It's just such a beautiful sweep, but it's so outside anything that would be in your brain. When I saw that piece, I realized it's like something I couldn't even conceive of. I never imagine that big," he says.

"The guy with the horses took me years to track down, but, again, it was a thing I had heard about and was blown way by the concept and idea of it."

Of course, in the same half-hour, he'll praise the art environment at Cromwell's Turkeyville, a restaurant in Calhoun County filled with miniature attractions like a model railroad. "I love looking at shit behind glass," he says. "My favorite part of some museums is the miniatures. I like that kind of amusement park funhouse stuff."

He jokes about his fascination with sweep and spectacle, large or small, and says, "Maybe it is all tourist trap dioramas. I have yet to convert The Dirty Show to that spectacle that's in my brain, which would be just like going to an amusement park."

That's the challenge of art for him:

"I'm still learning to imagine bigger."

The Dirty Show takes place 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Feb. 12, 13, 19, and 20, and 6 p.m. to midnight Feb. 14, at the Russell Industrial Center, 1600 Clay St., Detroit; Feb. 14 is 18 and older, all other nights 21 and older; advance tickets at

This year’s guest artist: Colin Christian

There’s a celebrity factor to the guest artist at The Dirty Show this year, sculptor Colin Christian, one of Peterson’s favorite artists. Just after Peterson and Co. cemented his participation, the artist announced that he was doing what Peterson calls “Miley Cyrus’ marshmallow dick suit, the one with a big light-up dildo.”

“He’s had stuff with other artists at MOMA and PS1,” Peterson says, “and he will be one of those guys in the future, but he kind of got into the lowbrow thing. He’ll have 20-foot-tall Hello Kittys, and it’s better than [Jeff] Koons’.”

Unlike the outfit designed for pop star Cyrus, much of the kinkiness in Christian’s art comes from what you don’t see. “He rarely shows a tit,” Peterson says, “it’s mostly done with eyes and mouth and it’s kinky. You just look at it, and you know it’s sex.”

In fact, Peterson owns a piece by the artist and refuses to put up in his home where his daughter can see it, even though it’s just a girl holding a banana and a cherry. Peterson says another piece is “a robot that’s supposed to have been returned to the sex factory for repairs.”

If you think it’s all fringe art, at least the markets take it seriously. Pop stars aren’t Christian’s only customers. “The president of Nike owns a Christian,” Peterson says.

“He’s on the verge of something, but I think it’s going to be like where artists create their own world. He’s not going to be accepted into the academic world of art until he’s already a star.” Instead, Peterson predicts he will get a tardy embrace much like Banksy. -MJ