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ART Mike Burton offers unique voice with gay porn thumbnails
by Tim Peacock
2019-10-30

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While most artwork has a deeper meaning, Mike Burton's work offers a unique voice distinct in the Chicago LGBTQ community.

A transplant from Wadsworth, Ohio, the 28-year-old Burton moved to Chicago two years ago to fully devote his time and energy to art. He moved here on the cusp of coming out—something that also heavily influences his work.

"Chicago changed my life completely," he told Windy City Times in a recent interview.

When he first moved here, Burton struggled quite a bit. He sold most of his belongings before leaving Ohio and slept on air mattresses after arriving. He didn't cook, so he lived off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while working a minimum wage restaurant job. All the while, he worked at bettering himself as an artist.

Burton's primary medium is drawing. Specifically, he sketches ( and occasionally fully illustrates ) gay pornographic thumbnail images.

Part of the allure of sketching the thumbnails lies in Burton's late coming out. Discussing his coming out experience, Burton said he didn't "quite understand the rules that came before, and all of the trials and tribulations." He added, "I never got bullied for being gay. It felt like I got to slide in under the radar."

But that came at a price.

"[I] just got to be miserable by myself and have this huge plight of 'I can't be gay, I can't do it!' and realize years later that I only distanced myself from other people because I didn't want to face the facts."

Burton began sketching porn thumbnails after moving out of his family home at 19, but didn't sketch gay porn thumbnails until he arrived in Chicago. Part of the exhilaration and catharsis of the change helped Burton overcome anxiety about his sexuality. Burton calls it a "therapeutic exercise."

Burton's affinity for sketching gay porn thumbnails doesn't lie exclusively in its therapeutic value. Describing how it feels to scroll through a porn site as a gay man, he explained that thumbnails offer an abstract view of a larger story—something a viewer can make a wide range of interpretations about.

"When you look at a pornographic website and there's fifteen to twenty thumbnails, those tell a complete story," Burton said. "If they're sitting in a chair, doing something crazy, in a pool, in a suit. ... You already kind of know what's happening because of how many times you've seen thumbnails."

"That's what I think draws me to it," Burton added.

Burton prefers self-shot porn because it closely resembles something else his work offers commentary on: app-based hook-up culture. Both offer a realistic view into the sex lives of others. It explores concepts of shame, sexuality and ultimately acceptance.

While unique, Burton's art has also seen roadblocks in how and where he can showcase his work.

"[When] someone's like, 'cool, you're an artist, let me see some of your stuff!' I pull up my Instagram and have to give them a warning—it's going to be pornographic."

While most people have had positive reactions, Burton explained stigma still exists—especially around gay men having sex.

"If I was just painting a bunch of naked women, people would be like, 'this is awesome.'" But because his artwork features gay men—often in sexual situations—he receives pushback.

"I've been turned down from places to enlarge pieces," Burton explained, noting they specifically cite his work's content. He's also been turned away by traditional spaces that exhibit artwork as well.

"I couldn't show all of this stuff in a gallery," he said. "I have to show it at a gay bar."

In fact, Burton did recently showcase his work at SoFo Tap in Andersonville. By the time his show closed, Burton sold more than half of the pieces he had on display.

When he isn't working on new pieces for display in future shows, Burton hones his art through street art. Using discarded cardboard and furniture in alleys, Burton flexes his artistic muscle through sketches, paint and poetry—some of which he photographs and posts on his Instagram page.

Anything can be art for him—discarded mattresses, furniture, wood, cardboard, etc. "I can make something there for free and no one has to think about if it's sell-able or if it's great. It's just this temporary thing I get to do as practice for larger pieces," Burton explained.

As he works toward larger pieces and future shows, Burton said he is confident he wants to stay the course in drawing gay porn thumbnails.

"I like the medium because it's appealing to me," he said. "I definitely want to take it further and go more abstract. Bigger, stranger, but in the same field."

Offering a reflection on his recent show and the reception he's received about his work, Burton noted. "I feel like this was a therapy lesson for me. This was me coming out as an artist, and coming out as a queer person at the same time."

For more about Burton, visit TheCheapSoap.com or follow him on Instagram @thecheapsoap.


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