This story originally appeared in Model D.
Jerry Vile is like a kid. An overgrown kid who smokes, says "fuck" a lot and makes sculptures of penises.
Actually that’s not a far cry from most 14-year-old boys. Except Vile instead has a 14-year-old art show called the "Dirty Show" -- the largest erotic arts exhibit in North America. And through his decades on the Detroit arts scene (as artist, as musician, as magazine publisher) he has been a revered and often reviled raconteur, rankling the chains of other artists, business owners, musicians, publishers, writers, and any anyone else who doesn’t share his sense of humor.
Jerry Vile (aka Jerry Peterson) is a trickster, a local Loki who delights in absolutely nothing more than flicking his middle finger at convention. There is no structured ideology to it. Vile will describe himself in many ways (including the nudge-wink self-designation as "artiste"), but socio-political activist is not one of them. Jerry Vile did not create the "Dirty Show" because he sought to elevate erotic art on an international level (though that was an eventual result). He did it because he got a digital camera.
"I was one of the first people to have a digital camera in Detroit and it would magically make people take their clothes off," Vile says. "Within minutes tops would come off and cocks would come out!" He started dabbling in nude photography: "Just really bad, basic stuff, like fake bondage when you’re not into bondage or, 'Here, hold this frame over your tits.'"
He liked the sleeze and cheapness of really old erotic magazines and that became his aesthetic in his early erotic work on the covers of Orbit Magazine, the monthly arts and culture mag that ran from 1990-1999 that he founded, edited, and published. (Editor's note: a highlight of this impressive 10-year run was director Quentin Tarantino using the "Orby" t-shirt in his 1994 film, Pulp Fiction. The character Jimmie Dimmick, played by Tarantino himself, wore the shirt under his bathrobe during a key scene late in the film.)
Somehow this circles back around to him convincing his friend Rick Manore, founder of the renowned CPop Gallery, to do an erotic art show. (It should be noted that part of Vile’s child-like exuberance is his total inability to focus on one topic and instead jump excitedly from one entertaining anecdote or observation to another. It makes for fascinating conversation, if not a totally linear narrative.)
At the time Vile was running Orbit, a pivotal publication on Detroit arts and culture scene that, despite only lasting for 10 years ("It was the longest I’ve ever held a job with the exception of the 'Dirty Show,'" Vile says), has served to build the Jerry Vile lore.
Rick Manore has called him "the most important figure in Detroit subculture of the last 25 years." Robert St. Mary, local writer and reporter with WDET, is currently writing a book entitled Re-Entry: The Orbit Magazine Anthology about Orbit and all those who orbited it. But Orbit was actually Vile’s third foray into publishing, following the punk fanzine White Noise and Fun Magazine.
White Noise was his way of getting into shows for free and taking on the punk rock scene in punk rock style. "My favorite thing was a drunken Mike Murphy transcribing as I wrote an interview with the Ramones: 'Joey Ramone looking mad that Jerry asked an even stupider question.' I was trying to get him to fill out a McDonald’s application!" Vile and Murphy also had their own punk band called the Boners, which he says now was just a joke, all bad singing and schtick, that was mistaken for performance art because the musicians just happened to be really good (the original band also featured future hip hop mixing and mastering specialist (Eminem, 50 Cent, Obie Trice, Jay-Z) Steve King.
Fun started when Vile got a Mac and the first copy of PageMaker sold in Michigan. "We made fun of a lot of people and a lot of stuff. Eventually we offended most of our advertisers," often by making fun of the very same ads that ran in their magazine. "Not long after we decided we should do a magazine to make money and do something commercial," he says. "That was Orbit."
But. "We just couldn’t behave. I just couldn’t suck the corporate dick. We had to go too far. We still did stuff like write about the State Fair but called them 'puke rides.' We were just honest. Humor is just honesty done in a clever way."
It was during the Orbit era that he convinced his friend Rick Manore to do an erotic art show at his gallery. That was how the "Dirty Show" was born. And here we are today.
And today Jerry Vile is just as excited to ruffle feathers as ever -- though, it should also be noted, this isn’t his primary driving force. More just a consequence of a rather earnest desire for honesty, and a fierce disdain for pompousness and pretension.
The "Dirty Show" has been his outlet to fly in the face of all of that. As the ultimate exaltation of the world’s most maligned art genre, Dirty has allowed Vile plenty of room to play. At last year’s show he unveiled a few of his own pieces, which included a "Jerry ride" – a mechanical sex toy styled after a kiddie ride in Jerry Vile’s likeness (with a large erect penis). Last year he positively gleamed when teasing this big unveiling, like a kid at (XX)X-Mas.
This year his focus is on "Equis Maximus," a massive installation piece by relatively unknown New York artist Gregory de la Haba that combines sculpture and taxidermy depicting life-size horses wearing Vegas showgirl headgear about to fornicate -- which Vile calls the most important thing the "Dirty Show" has ever done.
He heard about this piece through a friend of a friend who saw it at Art Basel. Not knowing the name of the piece or the artist, Vile began a frantic search. "'Horse hard-on' -- you never want to Google that." He finally tracked the artist down and is bringing this piece to the "Dirty Show" this year (and will have to knock down a wall down to get it in and out). "This piece was my holy grail. It consumed me. I had to have it."
In addition to the equine erotica, some other pieces Vile is excited about for this year’s show include one he affectionately refers to as the "36 gun salute" (a three-dimensional hanging piece with 36 penises that become erect when turned on … as in electricity … against a pop art background), as well as works by Chad Sell (who does all the illustrations for Ru Paul’s Drag Race) and sculpture from Colin Christian, one of Vile’s favorite artists whose larger-than-life sculptures look like erotic sci-fi/anime action figures.
Whether we’re talking about Jerry Vile the painter/photographer/sculptor, or Jerry Vile the art show organizer, or Jerry Vile the musician, or Jerry Vile the writer/editor/publisher, his motivation is always the same: a little bit of purity in an impure (or should we say dirty) world, and a good laugh for anyone with an open sense of humor (or at least the mind of a 14-year-old boy).
The "Dirty Show," an international erotic art exhibition, opens Feb. 8 at Bert's Warehouse Theater (2739 Russell St., Detroit's Eastern Market). The opening party rages 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. The exhibition runs until Feb. 16. Get tickets here.
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