Warning: This post contains nudity and is not suitable for work environments.
The first time artist and sex educator Zoe Ligon watched porn, it was an accident. She was searching the now defunct file-sharing program LimeWire for the music video to The Black Eyed Peas’ 2005 hit “My Humps.”
Ligon found her fair share of humping, but no Fergie. “It was seven girls on their hands and knees and this guy was spanking them like a xylophone,” she recalled with impressive detail. “I remember thinking, woah, I wasn’t meant to see that. It was shocking, but I wasn’t offended or anything. I’d just never seen people behaving in such a playful manner ― while nude.”
We may never know the anonymous individuals involved in that fateful xylophone orgy, but if they’re somehow responsible for introducing Ligon to the world of alternative sexuality, we should be grateful for their work.
Today, Ligon is a sex educator, teaching young women and men how to seek pleasure through sex. She also owns a “no-nonsense” sex toy store based in Detroit called Spectrum Boutique. And when she’s not spreading the gospel about the joys of strap-ons or the malleability of sexual identity, she makes art.
More specifically, Ligon makes collages, cutting and pasting scenes from vintage porn magazines to transform cheesy and sleazy smut into less explicit, but more erotic, works of art.
Porn, for all its attempts to be shocking and explicit, can, over time, become kind of a bore for those who spend a lot of time looking at it. Clicking through an endless stream of unclothed bodies smacking up against each other, you can start to feel numb, as if you’re just scrolling through a frenemy’s Facebook feed. Ligon’s images, however, are strange, unsettling and alien. They replace the female form with pure shape and color, leaving the viewer in a space between arousal and confusion. Titled “Woman with the Good Meat Removed,” her recent exhibition at Brooklyn’s Superchief Gallery conjures, quite viscerally, women whose bare flesh have been sliced out and replaced with flat, uniform hues.
Like the femme reboots of John Baldessari’s dot paintings, Ligon’s collages toy with her viewers, challenging them to realize at which point they become rattled, even if no actual skin is on view. “When my work makes someone feel uncomfortable, I like for the person to explore where that unease is coming from and why they feel uncomfortable looking at that piece,” she said. “That’s probably the biggest experience people can take away from my work.”
“I love admitting that I started making art to get the attention of this guy I liked,” Ligon laughed. “It in many ways it’s still like that ― I love the attention it garners.” Exhibiting the work, Ligon has been impressed and intrigued by the various interpretations of the collages others throw her way.
“Someone once pointed out to me how I put mundane objects in the same space as people who are routinely objectified — women. I thought that was really interesting,” she said. Though for the artist herself, the practice remains something fun and lighthearted. “I don’t put that much psychological weight into them. They feel the same as taking a playful nude.”
Ligon sources her materials from a vintage porn shop in Detroit, the city where she currently resides. It’s normally from the ‘90s and before, and the selection consists mostly of white, heteronormative sex. There are the occasional lesbian liaisons, but, as Ligon’s points out, these are mostly geared toward the male gaze and not female pleasure.
“There just weren’t as many widely published queer publications back then,” she said. “I know they’re somewhere, but my source doesn’t really supply it. Plus if I found them I’d probably want to keep them and not cut them all up, so I don’t feel like I’m destroying an artistic concept.”
Ligon’s collages uproot classic porn mags from their macho roots. If the content itself isn’t experimental and unusual, she seems to suggest, at least the aesthetics will be. By covering up the women’s actual bodies, leaving only small strips like the seams of an outfit turned inside out, she provides her subjects with anonymity and her viewers with a hint of surreal fantasy. Her collages suggest that, at least according to the female gaze, incorporeal elements such as creativity and imagination are as crucial to sexual pleasure as the physical actions of seeing and touching.
Pleasure ― what it is and how to feel some ― has been at the core of Ligon’s work since she had her first orgasm at 19. In high school, she recalls a week-long sex education program that touched on issues like pregnancy and STIs but nothing about how to actually get off. “It was crazy to me that masturbation wasn’t spoken about,” Ligon said. “Like, this is something that’s good for you and helps you get to know your body so someone else can get to know your body.”
Today, the endless pursuit of pleasure drives Ligon’s many vocations. Whether she’s chopping up an image of two people screwing, providing young people with hilarious condom horror stories, or supplying the city of Detroit with enough dildos, strap-ons and harnesses to make their eyes roll back, she’s all about feeling good.
“When I first became sexually active, I was complacent, I guess,” she said. “I randomly had an orgasm when I was getting eaten out this one time and from that point forward, I was like — this is the thing. How do I do this more regularly? When you’re younger you think you understand the breadth of a subject. Now I know this is only the tip of the iceberg.”