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Danish artist Tal R talks about the connections between art and the sex industry

By Paul Laster

Born in Tel Aviv in 1967 to a Danish mother and a Czech Jewish father, Tal R (née Tal Rosenzweig) came of age in Copenhagen, known in Europe as a mecca for pornography, prostitution, strip clubs and sex shops. The city’s seedy reputation acts as a point of departure for the artist’s latest exhibition, opening at the gallery Cheim & Read in Chelsea and featuring paintings and drawings of strip-club and sex-shop exteriors. Tal R recently took some time to talk about his new work and how art and the sex industry serve similar functions.

Tal R, Cabaret, 2016
Courtesy Cheim & Read

What led you to the idea of using the images of storefronts as a way of representing the sex trade?
A shop facade is like a face, and if they’re familiar to you from your neighborhood, you start to read them that way. To me, a facade that has some secret behind it—something having to do with sex—makes for a more interesting face.

Tal R, Shop Intim, 2015
Courtesy Cheim & Read

What kind of businesses do you portray, and where are they from?
You name it: brothels, gay bars, erotic theaters, massage parlors, strip clubs. And they’re from most parts of the world—the Czech Republic, Austria, France, Holland, Denmark, even America. There are a lot from Germany. Whenever I visit a city, I always ask where the red-light district is located. I also ask people I know to send me photos of sex shops from their travels.

Tal R, Little Temple 2016
Courtesy Cheim & Read

Do you work from photographs?
Mostly. Sometimes I’ll draw a place directly. I have maybe 1,000 photos of sex shops, and maybe 1 out of 100 are interesting to me.

Tal R, Love Shop 2015
Courtesy Cheim & Read

Except for the signs advertising what they are, these locales seem pretty innocuous.
Sex shops are not corporate businesses. Usually the people that run them decorate them and there’s always something naive about the way they do it. That’s what attracts me to them.

Tal R, Snow, 2016
Courtesy Cheim & Read

Why aren’t there any people in these pictures?
There are people, but they are, essentially, you and me. I wanted viewers to feel as if they were the ones walking by, reaching out, opening the door, going inside. If I’d included figures, the viewer would have had to relate to them relating to what was going on in the image.

Tal R, Keyhole, 2016
Courtesy Cheim & Read

So why aren’t you showing what’s going on inside?
I wanted each place to remain a puzzle. If you pass by a sex shop, it sparks your imagination. What’s inside is your fantasy. That’s true of a painting. What makes one beautiful isn’t what’s on the canvas but something you take from it. If all you get out of it is what the artist put there, then that artist wasn’t doing his job.

Tal R, Pussy, 2014
Courtesy Cheim & Read

So looking at a painting is a form of fantasizing….
It’s a form of voyeurism, actually. The viewer can reflect and fantasize about what they see.

Tal R is at Cheim & Read through Feb 11.



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