Walk into Mia's Minnesota Artist Exhibition space and the first thing you see is a trough-style urinal. Above it is a detailed panoramic drawing of men in a club in various stages of undress, engaged in erotic play.
The urinal and the drawing are part of a new exhibition that explores — and celebrates — facets of gay male sexuality with lovingly detailed drawings by artist Joe Sinness. It's called "The Flowers."
Sinness said the scene is taken from the 1980 film "Cruising," starring Al Pacino. "And the idea for that is to create a highly erotically charged atmosphere that's specific to an S&M or leather bar in the gay community," he explained.
Sinness' solo show invites viewers to enter a space dominated by gay men. The main gallery features numerous portraits. Some men pose seductively, others simply stare at the viewer. Some of the material is explicit. Sinness said his goal was to create a space where gay male sexuality is recognized and embraced.
"My work over the last 10 years has been a lot of unpacking shame surrounding sexuality, and some of it is a personal journey," he said. "This is just a segment of something that I think is beautiful and interesting, and I want to show that beauty to the public."
Sinness' drawings contain references to everything from Greek sculpture to male pinup magazines from the '50s and '60s. There are portraits that feature backdrops from classic Hollywood musicals.
"In some cases, the performers are portraying themselves as the leading lady of the musical," he said. "In other cases I'm just making sure that there's a lot of eye contact with the viewer, and that the figures look empowered, and there's a lot of focus on the way that they're posed."
Sinness said there are several layers of coded information in the work, which not all viewers will pick up on, but he says that's not important. What he really wants is for them to appreciate the light, color and forms.
Nicole Soukup, assistant curator of contemporary art at Mia, said Sinness is in some ways a very traditional artist. He's a master draftsman, and this show is predominantly about depicting the human form.
"The bodies are idealized and made iconic, but you still see the flaws, they're still regular people," she said. "You see body hair. They're not airbrushed ... and they're still beautiful and desirable and loving."
Sinness said he's inspired by artists like Paul Cadmus, David Hockney and Gustave Courbet. He points out that his images of men disrobing in parks are not so different from classical paintings of women bathers.
"The way that the characters are performing in nature — that reminds me of classic female nude paintings," he said. "Where you have a beautiful surrounding and the forest becomes like a chapel and there's also this sexual activity happening in the space and it becomes a very loving and natural-looking event."
Sinness said the title of the show, "The Flowers," is inspired in part by Jean Genet's 1943 novel about the Parisian underworld. "And also flowers themselves are delicate and beautiful and precious and loved," he added.
"The Flowers" opens Thursday night at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It runs through Oct. 29.