“I am the only fellow of the American Film Institute that’s ever been inducted into the Gay Porn Hall of Fame,” Phil Tarley tells me at his booth at Photo L.A., California’s longest-running international photo art fair, standing among a selection of provocative and unequivocally queer images. “I like to push that sometimes.”
That dubious distinction, this gleeful mixing of the highbrow and lowbrow, runs through much of Tarley’s work and the selections he curates for “Round Hole Square Peg,” a photo exhibition and competition described as “the only queer presentation at any of the major art fairs.”
Tarley has been overseeing “Round Hole Square Peg” since it began at Photo L.A. in 2013, along with associate curator Rubén Esparza. This year, through the support of the City of West Hollywood, the exhibition will move to the city’s Plummer Park Gallery for a four-week run beginning Saturday, February 8.
Opening night will feature a celebrity-studded live-art auction to benefit The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth, and the ONE Archives Foundation, a vital resource for showcasing the trailblazing history and rich culture of LGBTQ communities through exhibitions that pull from the largest collection of LGBTQ archival materials in the world.
After the competition received more than 160 images from eight countries, a panel of judges chose 42, with one winning Best in Show and the other West Hollywood Best in Show.
Tarley also curated the show’s Wall of Fame, featuring 12 artists he loves.
His own work made the cut as well. Alex by the Sea is a vintage-looking photo evoking the beefcake magazines of the 1950s and ’60s. The shot is actually a production still he shot on location while directing 1999’s South Beach Heat, a porn film telling the story of Andrew Cunanan and Gianni Versace.
“It was the biggest-budget porn film I’ve ever made,” says Tarley. “It was over $120,000, and those days you could make a lot of money from that investment. Not today, of course.”
Though Tarley won’t name his favorite image, he does have a noticeable fondness for a portrait of French porn star François Sagat wearing an open negligee and nothing else, shot by Josef Jasso.
“François presents hyper-masculine, but Josef photographed him standing on a white sheepskin rug with an ostrich-feathered pale apricot robe that’s open to show off his massive penis and fabulous body,” Tarley gushes. “So you have this masculine icon who’s feminized in a very sexual way. That’s really fun.”
That photo did, however, stress out the subject of another portrait, who objected to Sagat’s “pendulous penis” hanging over them in the Photo L.A. exhibit.
“In West Hollywood we’ll have more rooms,” Tarley says, “so I am getting somebody to hang them side by side.”
Here, Tarley walks us through some of the most striking works from “Round Hole Square Peg.”
Tripartite Goddess by Bruce LaBruce and Nina Arsenault
“It’s a white Madonna with Catholic iconography. Bruce LaBruce is mainly known for his incredible gay porn—the best in America. Very arty.”
We Are One by BlackManWhiteBaby
“This is the lead image of the exhibition. It’s about lots of very difficult conversations that black people have in America. The artist has painted his body the darkest shades of indigo black you can find. He’s treated the veins in his arms to look like he’s erupting from the ground as a tree to give his image a lot of grounding strength. He’s breastfeeding a white baby, which is all about his gender fluidity. He also has an African headdress made of big thick rope, and that rope turns into an evil-looking hangman’s noose around his neck. His nose ring doesn’t read hip—it reads slavery. The overall impression is a massive man who’s startling, intriguing, and intense—a man who’s interested in the different problems of being a gay black man in America. I think it’s the most wonderful image.”
Late Night Crown by Karen Bystedt and Bobby Brown
“It’s a serigraph. If it’s more than $1,000, we call it a serigraph—if it’s under, it’s a silkscreen. We invent monosyllabic words for cheap stuff and polysyllabic words for stuff that’s expensive. That one has two labels underneath it. That’s the only piece that has two labels, because it’s a tad pricey and I felt like we wanted to explain the process of what a serigraph is and where it was hand-pulled.”
Armen Ra by Josef Jasso
“Josef Jasso shoots glamor shots of queer icons like Dita Von Teese, Amanda Lepore, Elvira, François Sagat, and Armen Ra, who is a theremin player who feels he has been reincarnated as an Egyptian princess, therefore Ra. Armen Ra.”
Tranimals series by Austin Young
“I love this. I have two in my collection. For Tranimals—trans animals—Austin Young uses a killer makeup artist and a fabulous costumer, and there are lots of silicon appliqués that are put on their faces. The makeup applied pulls it together.”
Tony Ward shot by Rick Castro
“Tony Ward was Madonna’s lover. This is vintage and unique, and it’s funny because Rick Castro and Bruce LaBruce collaborated on a  movie called Hustler White, which Tony starred in. You could see it as this collaborative meeting of queer creativity that’s transcontinental and European and American and Canadian.”
Click here for more info on “Round Hole Square Peg.”
“Round Hole Square Peg” runs February 8 through March 4 at West Hollywood’s Plummer Park Gallery.