Steadily growing Dirty Show sweeps up arts community

What started out as a lark for former alt-monthly publisher Jerry Peterson and his friends has grown into one of Detroit’s largest annual art shows, and the 12th installment is coming up Feb. 11.The Dirty Show, a showcase of international erotic art, drew at least 10,000 attendees last year, Peterson said Jan. 28 in the then-cold, empty Bert’s Warehouse Theater space in Eastern Market, where the show is held. It’s shifted to ever-larger venues over the years.

“It started out as a private party in the abandoned offices of Orbit (in Royal Oak),” said Peterson, the show’s head organizer.

Orbit was the iconoclastic, free monthly magazine Peterson founded and published from 1990-1999. Tom Thewes, Mark Dancey, Triston Eaton and Glenn Barr were among the artists whose work appeared in the magazine.

In the beginning years, 30 to 35 of Peterson’s artist friends participated, many of them carried over from the Orbit days. This year, Peterson received 5,000 art submissions, of which 400 were accepted. The show charges a 30 percent commission on art sales.

Peterson said the Detroit show is profitable but declined to share revenue.

Mosaic Productions LLC in Detroit curates art for shows and manages art sales for the Dirty Show. President Billy Hunter is also on the five-judge panel that determines which submissions are accepted.

He said 56 pieces sold last year, from under $100 to $2,500 for pieces by artists Colin Christian and Brian Viveros.

Total sales came to about $20,000, Hunter said.

Hunter said the Dirty Show is the biggest annual themed art show in Michigan, both in attendees and number of artists featured.

“Artists throughout the world submit pieces to the show,” he said.

Juxtapoz, a national art magazine, has been a show sponsor since 2005.

“We never expected this. It happened organically,” Peterson said of the show’s growth. “Every city needs a Dirty Show. They just don’t know it.”

The organizer of the Damned show, who prefers to go by the initials DVS, also said the Dirty Show is the biggest show around that isn’t one of the many large annual fairs, such as Arts, Beats and Eats or the People’s Art Festival. The Damned show, featuring dark and introspective art, drew 1,800 attendees last October, its third annual installment.

It took a few tries before Detroit photographer Bridgett Ritz got her art accepted in the Dirty Show. When she finally did last year, her piece sold on the first night.

Having her work in the show won her respect in some lofty circles, including The Scarab Club, where she is a member.

“You wouldn’t think a show called ‘dirty’ would give you credibility, but it does,” Ritz said. “It’s taken seriously.”

The show’s demographics are not what people might think, Peterson said. It draws men and women in equal numbers, with a few judges and a “lot of lawyers” attending the show — not just goth kids.

“You’re just as likely to see a soccer mom here as a boy dressed like a soccer mom. … We’ve had people in here pushing grandparents in wheelchairs.”

The show is meant to be fun and unpretentious, he said. Attendees are not required to wear anything wild like all-leather outfits or rubber suits.

“Nowhere in the Dirty Show do you have to be anything,” he said.

Most of the art is not gothic and much of it isn’t even all that explicit. One example Peterson offered was a nude made out of Legos by Detroit artist Henry Birdseye. The work looks like a nude painting until the viewer gets close and sees it’s actually a sculpture.

So-called suspension art, wherein people suspend themselves in midair from their body piercings, has been reduced in part because it’s getting old — and because it actually manages to gross out the lead organizer.

“That stuff, I can’t even look at it,” Peterson said.

The Dirty Show has drawn enough interest to add a “half show,” held every three years in addition to the main annual show. The show also has traveled to Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles. Shows in Zurich and Sydney have been held under the Dirty Show banner, with Peterson’s permission.

Peterson said two British blokes living in Shanghai came close to holding a Dirty Show there, until they were threatened with deportation if they went ahead.

Peterson’s favorite memory throughout the years of running the show is that of the L.A. show, held in November 2009 at a “sleazy no-tell motel” where he rented a wing to hang the art.

With prostitutes fighting outside his window amid used condoms and empty crack cocaine vials, the venue’s dirty aura topped even that of Detroit’s dark warehouses.

“The place was a hellhole,” he said.

One artist traveling with them ended up with a roach problem after returning to Detroit and not leaving luggage in the car long enough to freeze.

Although that show lost money because of the travel costs, Peterson wants to make another go at it.

“We’re going to go back,” he said.

Courtesy Jerry Peterson

 The show runs six days this year, opening Feb. 11. The ticket price has been bumped up $5 to $20. Peterson advises people to buy advance tickets; last year’s show hit capacity by 9:30 every night.

Fetish photographer and filmmaker Rick Castro is this year’s special guest. He will be flown in from Hollywood, Calif., where he owns Antebellum Gallery.

More stage performances and performance art are planned than in years past.

One additional selling point from Peterson, who also uses the moniker Jerry Vile:

“We have more genitalia per square inch than the DIA and Cranbrook combined.”

More info:

—, Feb. 3, 2011