Ron Geibel dedicates an entire section of his art studio to influential sexual imagery. There are colorful illustrations of dildos and butt plugs, a collage of photographs by Mapplethorpe and several images of androgynous men and women by Collier Schorr. A Peter Hujar photograph shows a coy model sucking his own toe. Next to the photographs hang pictures of gaudy Las Vegas billboards. The word "Lust" in glittering letters fills another space in the room, as if to drive the point home even more.
"The studio is like my sketchbook," Geibel says. "This is all stuff I reference. It's a way for me to completely submerge myself into it. That way I feel like I'm making color choices or other aesthetic choices based on these images."
Geibel, 27, a master's candidate in ceramics at the University of Montana, is putting the finishing touches on his MFA thesis exhibit, Unapologetic. The show features six pieces, including a phallic four-foot golden sculpture, that are inspired by the pictures Geibel surrounds himself with things that speak to both the hidden and blatant realms of sex. For instance, the tourism tagline "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" pretends to be coy while implicitly dredging up endless explicit acts. The toe-sucking Hujar photograph is innocent enough on the surface, but it feels forbidden.
"It's bizarre," Geibel says of the Hujar photograph. "You're drawn to it. But why are you drawn to it?"
On the surface, Unapologetic forces sex into the public eye. But if that were all it was trying to do, it might fall short; sexual politics has been addressed in art galleries for decades. Geibel attaches a personal story to his exhibit that makes it more immediate to the viewer.
"The whole entire show is based on a letter I wrote," he says. "Unapologetic is about me throwing everything [from that letter] out on the table for everyone to see."
On a rainy day last June, Geibel sat down to write a difficult letter to his family. After penning four pages of thoughts, he read it back to himself and put it in an envelope addressed to his parents' house in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. He dated the envelope and stuck it in a mailbox, after which he felt a wild panic to retrieve it by any means possible. But it was a done deal. "I was like 'Here we go, I can't take back this conversation now,'" he says. "I went to my car, sat in it and cried."
Geibel had been openly gay for years, but never came out to his family. In a way, it had been easy to avoid the subject. He had a good relationship with them, he says, but he hadn't lived at home in nine years and he hadn't seen them in two. But his plans to return home over the holidays and see everyone—including his brother who was flying in from Florida—made him anxious.
"I decided I had to tell them," he says. "But I wanted them to have time to adjust, to come up with their game plan before they talked to me. I was thinking maybe the letter was a copout, but I didn't want to come home and ruin things. I didn't want to be like, 'Surprise! Here's my awkward gift to everyone.'"
He says his mother called him a few days later, after she received the letter, upset by the news. It wasn't easy, but she offered words of support: Of course his parents still loved him. Of course he should come home. His father, who'd first heard there was "news about Ron" before he read the letter, feared that it was cancer (Geibel had recently shaved his head). That he was gay and not dying was an obvious relief.
Unapologetic is largely about coming out. In the exhibit you can see the word "Dear" pasted in vinyl on the wall, as if the exhibit is the beginning of a letter. Inside, there will be a sparkly billboard full of 1,200 protruding pink and blue pastel sex toy-esque objects that Geibel made from clay. Another piece is a series of punching bags made of small porcelain pieces. "They look like testicles, in a way," Geibel says, laughing. "They add a masculine aspect to the show that I think I otherwise lose with the [pastel objects]." Another piece, "Keyed Up," shows more ceramic phallic objects painted in elegant golds and light greens hung on hooks.
"That one references domestic life," he says. "Normally sex toys would be put in a drawer or under your bed. Here they're hung like keys or coats would bein the open. 'Keyed up' is also the phrase you use for anxiety and angst, which is something people feel when they're put in an awkward position."
In a box near the exhibit's entrance, Geibel will have several small versions of the pink and blue sex toy objects, which exhibition viewers can take home. The title of this piece is "Your Choice?" and the sign says "Take one."
"A lot of the colors in the show are pink and blue, which are very genderized colors," Geibel says. "This piece sparks from a conversation I had with my mom where she was being supportive but she said, 'It's your choice to be gay.' And I'm thinking, 'Where does that choice really lie?'"
The exhibit ends with "XOXO" printed in vinyl, indicating the end of a letter. The actual letter to his family will remain private"I had a hard enough time showing it to my family," Geibel says—but the exhibit conveys how the letter felt for him. It's an extreme act, like a Vegas billboard, that made him vulnerable but was cathartic nonetheless.
"This work is almost putting people into a situation that I felt I was putting my family in, where the conversation is slightly uncomfortable," Geibel says. "But it's about not apologizing for it."
Ron Geibel's Unapologetic opens at the Gallery of Visual Arts in UM's Social Sciences building Thu., Feb. 21, with a reception from 5 to 7 PM. Free. Continues through March 6.