Boobs and Booze: Fred Folsum meshes sex, depravity and high art

Nothing spells artistic expression like a triptych portrait of booze, nudity and nicotine all bathed in erotic reds, yellows and oranges. These images flood the end gallery at the Arts Club of Washington, 2017 Eye St. Certain words come to mind when viewing the center’s newest exhibition “The Go-Go Paintings and Other Figurative Works.” Of them all, however, madness is the most pronounced. These portraits, done by local artist Fred Folsom, illustrate one of the finer points of the go-go bar scene — its chaotic sprawl of vice-loving individuals.

Standing at the far end of the gallery, portraits bring the viewer into the world of the respectable go-go establishment, specifically an environment characterized by lustful eyes, drunken stares and contemplative grins.

These pieces are far from mere nude illustrations. It is the subtleties and details that make each piece brilliant. Independent stares and postures tell a separate story about each individual. The viewer gets a feel for the mood of the night, along with some of the joys and tribulations the bar-goers are experiencing. Some are there for their first time, others are clearly not; some are there to forget, others to remember.

The portraits were modeled at the Shepherd’s Park Go-Go. The bar, on the border between D.C. and Maryland, was a favorite spot for Maryland kids to get served and catch a good helping of the local skin. Folsom said he remembered going into the bar one night and it suddenly hitrting him that, “my God, this just complete madness, what great content for an exhibit!”

The pieces made their first public appearance at GW in 1983.

“GW is really the place that gave me my first big break,” Folsom said.

Regarding the creation of the portraits themselves, he said, “I was so infatuated with doing everyone in the portrait justice, and took such care to treat every person with such a degree of reverence, that the creation of the works likened to a religious experience.”

Historical figures dressed in modern-day-clothing make cameos in several of Folsom’s portraits. Davy Crocket, Pascal and Rembrandt are among these personalities that have made the mystical trip through time to catch an eyeful at the Shephard’s Park Go-Go Bar.

Pastiches of art classics are also well disguised throughout the works, adding to the investigative charm of the pieces. Some GW professors are painted among the entertainment-going public, as well as many more of Folsom’s friends. The artist even included a cameo of himself as a fat beer-bellied slob pouring a Budweiser in his crotch. It this sort of the subtlety and independent story each character tells that keep the patron contemplating for hours.

While these are paintings of the go-go bar scene, the nudes themselves are not tactless. Rather, they are reminiscent of an Aphrodite-esque form.

“The nudes are somewhat Hellenic, not grotesque,” said Folsom. “I really tried to treat each character with as much reverence as possible, owing to each of them their own unique and independent story. The people in these paintings, literally have nothing to do with one another, they are all there for their own reasons . The go-go dancers themselves are not simple either, these are complicated women.”

During its time in the 60s and 70s, the Shepherd’s Park establishment did a healthy business until it was fire-bombed at happy hour by a disgruntled drunk. According to Folsom, a drunk was thrown out of the bar. Out of rage he went out and made a Molotov cocktail, lit it and launched it inside the bar. The cocktail hit a wall and exploded in front of the drunken arsonist’s friend who was still inside. His friend was the only casualty, the fire bomber was never caught. Folsom also painted this last night of the bar’s existence. It masterfully shows the last second of the bars easy-going spirit before the bomb struck the wall.

The exhibit is quite impressive. Its unique subject matter may be enough to spark a person’s curiosity, but the paintings themselves are enough to keep the patron looking for hours.

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