Land of Leather

Ben Youdan: FILTH, The Gallery, until 12th January 2020, free

To date, I’ve avoided reviewing solo shows by artists I’ve covered before. Too many other artists and shows to write about, too little time. But it’s never been a hard and fast rule, and my goodness FILTH is worth every word.

I loved Ben Youdan’s Glamour exhibition in this venue back in 2017. It was beautiful, dark and alluring in equal measure. Much of the work in FILTH follows the stylistic signatures which were laid out in that show: lots of glitter and sparkle, sometimes obscuring smaller photographs and text worked into the backgrounds, which hints at the wider world and context in from which the works have emerged.

But FILTH is quite a different prospect in many other ways. This is a show that’s unashamedly, proudly, in big capital letters, about SEX. FILTH’s greatest strength is how it revels in its world of queer male sexual expression without compromise or coyness. Youdan is out to celebrate this, seeing well beyond hackneyed “shock value”. Yes, there’s a warning poster on the door, and it’s justified due to there undoubtedly being some sensitive souls who will take flight at the sight of a penis or two (or try to bring their kids. Don’t bring your kids). But the fetish world of the subject: what’s to be offended by in people embracing who they are and living their truth? I really enjoy the part that the inclusion of leather in the works plays in this: it gives us an experiential sense of the subject and brings us face-to-face with its allure in a way that glitter and paint on their own simply wouldn’t. It’s obvious that this work has emerged from deep immersion and affinity with the community it’s casting its eye over, not looking with an outsiders curiosity at any supposed deviance.

Familiarity bring joy and celebration not just in the culture, but in the subjects. They’re confident and their poses deliberate, but they’re not just out to titillate. Frankly, they’re too comfortable in their skin to care what you think. It’s absolutely joyous to see. Also, there’s quite a range of images melded into the background of some works, of which many are clearly study photographs for the overall image. It’s a reminder – should one be necessary – that there are people behind the outfits. They may be into fetish, but are more than figures to be fetishized. This effect is exacerbated by using wallpaper as the background in several works – quite normal wallpaper. In some ways this world is a fantasy, but it can nevertheless exist within the experience of otherwise ordinary life.

I love Ben Youdan’s art, and I love this show. I wish more artists were as unreservedly celebratory about the worlds they inhabit. I wish they let us in with half as much honesty as these do. I love the confidence with which FILTH and its subjects stare down those who would hang on to a prudish disgust. I love that these tales are told in leather and glitter. ‘Tis the season for glitter right now, of course, although the genius of FILTH isn’t just for Christmas. But if you do want to treat yourself from now or into 2020, this is definitely the show to head to.

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