A "C-LIGHT" is a cunt light or a cock light. That's what the light illuminates in a porn shoot, casting a cunt or a cock in the brightest glow. For her upcoming show at the Mark Woolley Gallery, pin-up photographer Marne Lucas didn't use a C-light. "This work," she says, "has more of a portrait element than the commercial porn I've done."
The photos are of women, some with clothes on. The women are spread over couches or on the floor. A platinum blonde is sliding out of a shimmering, white slip. Another model is a collage of copper surfaces--hair, fabric, and skin. An athletic woman leans against a cloth-draped rock on a beach in Maui. Some of the women are skinny, others larger. One is eight months pregnant.
Marne says, "The old joke is that porn is in color and erotica is in black and white. I prefer black and white, but I wanted to do a show in color that reflects my work history with mens' magazines. I want to take color back as not just being crude and about raw skin."
This recent work is marginally different from images Marne has sold to magazines like Leg World and Barely Legal, but it's also a respectful and creative study of the female form, that staple of art history. And this time, it's showing in a gallery.
"For porn," Marne says, "all the orifices are expected to be on the same plane. Eyes, mouth, ass, pussy all illuminated, there for the viewer to consume. With this show I'm presenting pin-up fantasy material, but the girls aren't playing characters. It's a collaborative thing and I take the time to capture who the model is in the moment. I want to explore intimacy, not just fucking."
Marne has already explored fucking, under the stage name of Gina Velour, in the short film The Operation; a collaborative project with Jacob Pander. The Operation uses infrared light to turn human bodies into a network of heat and surface area. Mostly, it's an explicit, close-up look at the mechanics of sex.
MARNE'S SAUCY SHOW AND TELL
Marne put two silicon breasts, like clear molded jello, on the tall, round bar table between us. She said, "Those are the stupidest things I've ever spent a small fortune on. 50 bucks." We were in Dante's, and Dante's was closed. Marne was changing into a costume for this story's photo shoot. Across the room, a band ran a sound check. Marne rubbed lube on her arms, on her legs, on her stomach. She said, "Last time I wore this suit was October."
It's a latex suit, in three parts. She pulled on the first layer, a body suit that made her look like a trapeze artist, leaving her arms and legs bare. The latex is transparent but yellow as a smoker's nails and doesn't entirely match Marne's white skin. The latex is decorated with internal organs. There's a flower of pink ovaries, the curve of fallopian tubes, a small blue flame marking the uterus. There's a heart where the heart should be. I could see through the latex, but only at the most obvious places--her navel, the cleavage between her cheeks, a little pubic stubble.
As part of her real skin, Marne has a scar half an inch wide down one thigh. The scar, from two corrective hip surgeries when Marne was 13 and 14, runs from her hip nearly to her knee. The scar seems an extension of the costume, one more reminder of human skin turned inside out. At times, when she talks about Before the Operation and After the Operation, it's unclear if Marne is referring to the film, The Operation, or the hip surgery. Both were pivotal: the surgery allowed for her early career as a model (before the surgery she was heavier and walked with crutches) while the film defined Marne's current path as an artist working with sexually explicit material.
She said, "I wore this outfit to a fetish event in LA. I was supposed to be hosting. I was dancing and it was hot and I was sweating in the latex. I thought I was sweating a lot and I kept dancing and then I looked down and I'd gotten my period on the dance floor. There was blood everywhere. People thought the blood was part of the costume."
She said, "Can you zip me up?"
The second part of the suit is a jacket that zips up the back. A bone white line of vertebrae camouflages the zipper's seam. In the front of the jacket, there's the bronchial system and ribs covering the heart beneath.
Ignoring the band members watching her dress, she continued her story. "So I went in the bathroom, and there was nothing like towels. No toilet paper. I was like, putting myself in the sink." She said, "It's hard enough to pee in this thing, let alone deal with blood and tampons."
She said, "I was supposed to be on stage. It was all so public," and she laughed. She said, "That's me."
Marne is public.
I asked, "So which embarrassing stories can I use?"
She turned toward me, serious now. She said, "All of them." And she nodded, looking me in the eye. She said, "Use them all."
Generosity run rampant.
The third part of Marne's suit is a long skirt. "This skirt is like a rubber band," she said, trying to inch it on. "It's a sling shot." She muscled and wiggled and stretched until the skirt was tight over her hips, down to her calves, unwalkable. She said, "It's like reverse birth, getting in this." Bones and veins ran along the length of the skirt.
Marne said, "I had to have veins, because I'm veiny." The whole outfit was custom made by a company appropriately called So Hip It Hurts.
Marne adjusted the silicon breasts between the first layer of latex and the jacket. She was a complete illustration, her body marked with muscle and veins and vertebrae, her belly covered with a blue pattern of intestines. Sweat and lube moved under the latex, on top of her skin.
She said, "After my mother saw The Operation, she asked, 'Where did I go wrong?' I told her, You're the one that gave me the Visible Woman."
The Visible Woman, that educational plastic doll with all the parts and no hiding places. Marne, with her scar and her blood and her skin, her veins and blue intestines and pink ovaries, sex on screen and dressing in the middle of the bar, has become the Visible Woman.
She's been visible as a model and as an actress, then as a filmmaker and more recently as a photographer. She's played in an all-girl accordion band and read at poetry slams. She's stood on stage at Mary's Club giving reproductive health quizzes in her anatomically illustrative latex, as part of a cancer support fund raiser. In her upcoming photography show, there's self-portraiture along with images of other models. There are photos of Marne all over the internet as both Marne Lucas and Gina Velour. "It's too late to run for governor, or for the PTA now," she says. "That stuff's out there in perpetuity."
And there's nothing more consistently controversial than the question of a woman's body, partially clothed or unclothed, dancing or posing, jiggling or not, photographed or just being present in a public place. This nakedness is regulated and monitored, both paid for and fined. It's a commodity, and yet more natural and readily accessible than home grown pot. To be beautiful naked is the ultimate goal and promise behind so much advertising, health clubs, and weight loss programs. At the same time, the naked female form is a major source of societal and personal shame.
Marne, wearing her latex suit and a black kimono, led Bellen Drake, the photographer on this shoot, and I down toward the waterfront, to a place she thought we could take pictures. It turned out to be Saturday Market in full swing, mixed with the Luis Palau evangelist festival. There was a skate park with a big screen video monitor and bands playing in the name of Christ. We stood in the middle of the crowd, looking for a quiet corner.
"There's people everywhere!" Marne said, surprised. "I've been in the darkroom for days. I'm out of touch!"
She was Eve after the apple, a complete diagram of reproductive knowledge standing nearly naked in the middle of a festival dedicated to religious conversion.
A man and woman passed, arm in arm. The woman turned, looking at Marne. The woman said, "I like your anatomy." She seemed to mean it.
And Marne, the Visible Woman, smiled back.
Not everyone is so receptive to the work Marne is doing. One Portlander, who I'll call Tim, shook his head at examples of Marne's photography. The examples were a mix of work from the upcoming show and her more commercial pornography. At first Tim said nothing. Then he said, "No good can come of this. None. It's soul sapping."
He said, "I was exposed to porn as a kid, through my older brother. It gave me a lot of wrong ideas about women. I saw women as inherently promiscuous, and I related to them only on a visual level, as sex objects. It's taken me years to work through it."
An artist named Syd, from Seattle, said, "It's tricky, because there's more than art in the equation. It's sex, and that brings up a lot. I'm a most uncensorious mom, but I wouldn't want my kid to see her photographs."
It's a complicated and sensitive subject, raising questions of power, exploitation, gender roles, and the role of art. Self-identified feminists fall on both sides of the line, supporting freedom of expression while denouncing objectification. It's comes down to a question of audience versus process. In talking with Marne and the models, it's apparent the process was a collaborative exploration into fantasy. The audience and reception is an uncontrollable factor, once the work becomes public.
ALL GIRL ACTION
One of Marne's models, Miss B. Haven, is a beautiful, sultry jazz singer, with a background in ballet and modern ethnic dance. On another night, also at Dante's, I spoke with Miss B. Haven in between sets. She wore a slinky silver dress and long black gloves. Rhinestones glittered below her dark hair. She's young and smart and strong, and seems at ease in her body.
Miss B. Haven, said, "Posing was a blast, because it was for Marne, and we're such good friends. Being able to pose for erotic pictures isn't something I can do every day. It was daring for me to pose, but daring in a good, safe way."
She said, "I don't consider the photos pornographic. I didn't do it for money, and in a gallery it's a different clientele from the man who goes into Plaid Pantry to buy Hustler. It's a lot more personal. I trust Marne's judgement. Mostly, I don't plan to make any money off it, and for some reason that differentiates it from pornography in my mind."
Another model, Viva Las Vegas, said, "I think of porn as much more objectifying, really simple portrayals of men and women. Marne's photographs have some soul to them." Viva is a writer and an actress, a photographer and a musician. All the models in the show have their hands full of creative projects, deadlines and proposals. Like Miss B. Haven, Viva Las Vegas expressed an unwillingness to pose nude for money, along with a complete willingness to pose for free as long as the project is interesting and has some kind of artistic integrity.
She said, "Recently I've been offered actual money to do photo shoots, but I don't always like the purpose or what's being advertised. I've had to turn it down. But as long as I consider the person or the audience worthy, I have no trouble being naked. I just can't seem to do it for money. That's where I draw the line."
Miss B. Haven said, "I think that with the way Marne handles it, this process empowers women, and the women who chose to participate chose exactly what they want shown and what they don't want shown. Most of her models aren't involved in the porn or sex industry, and the ones who are in the sex industry are very strong minded, clear headed, and political about it. Marne's work isn't degrading women further; I think it's actually bettering women in the sex industry in the mind of the public."
SPREADING HER TRUTH
Marne sees her work as a feminist statement. She said, "My mom always encouraged me to push the envelope, ask questions, and be my own woman. She raised me as a feminist and I think it's surprising to her the way I've taken it on. This work, visual media, working for men's magazines, posing nude...my father passed away three years ago so he never had a strong sense of the work I'm doing. It's difficult for me. I've been incredibly prolific since he died. He died when I was 28, so I was relatively young, and I've been struggling to get my sense of self back. Throwing myself into work has been part of the process. He wouldn't have gotten it, wouldn't have understood, but I regret that he didn't know who I was."
I asked Marne why she created this particular type of work. She said, "Art is selfish. I'm doing all of this for me, ultimately. It's what makes me tick. I like working with women and clothes and building the set, the fantasy. I'm glad if people like the pictures, or if they don't like the pictures. I think the work is beautiful, and the models feel beautiful. This kind of thing is to me how math is for some people--it just adds up and makes sense."
Marne said, "Porn's not going to go away. Women need to be part of the process in creating sexual images. Hollywood's a good old boys network and porn is the same way. Women getting involved changes the narrative, and I think it's for the better."
At the club, I asked if Miss B. Haven if she was nervous about the upcoming show. She said, "I've been reading a lot about Josephine Baker lately. Josephine Baker danced topless in Paris. She was daring. She worried about dancing topless, but she didn't worry at all about being an African American dancing topless." She said, "There's always going to be judgement, but I've never been very concerned about what other people think in that way. What have I got to fear?"
The day of our photo shoot, Marne posed against a brick wall, crouched like a superhero in her latex suit. A man walking by yelled to his friend. He yelled, "Hey, did'cha see that?" He pointed at Marne. He was wearing a flannel shirt, baggy jeans, his hair in a long ponytail. He yelled again, "You see it?"
A lot of swimsuits show more skin than Marne's latex.
Still, this man couldn't get over what he saw: a visible woman in a rubber suit, a swirl of organs, at ease and claiming her anatomy.