Albuquerque photographer Tommy Bruce, furries, and Ellsworth Gallery’s ‘Censored!’

“It certainly helps with marketing and interest, having the large commercial holiday—but I think, for me, this kind of imagery that deals with sex and its different aspects has always been of interest,” curator Nathan Rubinfeld says. Rubinfeld is putting the finishing touches on the next show at Ellsworth Gallery, which opens this Friday in the wake of Valentine’s Day. Titled Censored!, the group exhibit aims to show us something new or different within the intertwining worlds of love and sex. With work from artists like Erica Lord, Diego Suarez and Zachary L Taylor, Rubinfeld is doing just that, albeit deep in the furthest recesses of Ellsworth.

See, this isn’t exactly easy work for the prudish to view and comprehend. On the walls hang photographs, like a self portrait from Lord’s 2007 Tanning Project series. “Untitled (Colonize Me)” finds the artist tanning the words “Colonize Me” onto the outside of her upper thigh in negative space, her naked body on display, though the frame obscures much of it. Or in Taylor’s 2018 digital image “Muzzled,” we find the artist’s mouth bound by a muzzle wrapped in wooden rosary beads against a pink background. It’s evocative, yes—but also sexy, even if simultaneously chilling.

Perhaps the most exciting piece, however, comes from Albuquerque photographer Tommy Bruce. With 2018’s “Atmus Unzipped,” the Pennsylvania ex-pat puts himself and his furry character Atmus the deer on full display, both demystifying the furry fandom and playfully reminding us that sexiness and the erotic come in countless forms.

“You’re at once seeing this character laying down on the grass with his crotch out—a codpiece—and this ‘come hither’ thing with seductive eyes,” Bruce tells SFR, “but also me unzipping the costume and revealing my body underneath, which is in a different way seductive. When you combine the two, it’s like a skinning action.”

Bruce is enrolled in UNM’s photography master’s degree program, having completed his undergrad at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2016. He’s been a lover of the furry community since high school, and an active participant since college. For those who don’t know, the term “furry” is sort of a catch-all for the labyrinthian fandom that enjoys dressing as anthropomorphized animals. Characters are created, lore is written; costumes can be cartoonish or quite real, and the gatherings can be sexual in nature, though not always. According to Bruce, it really boils down to a hybrid form of personal and sexual liberation and escapism.

“Even though we [furries] are in clear fantasy mode, everybody else is doing that on all fantasy platforms. Facebook is a curated representation of you; it’s still an avatar, it just looks more like you,” Bruce says. “This identity I have is a product of late capitalism, the need to get away; the contemporary sense is that we’re in a constant state of emergency, bombarded with terrible news and facts. I’m … constructing my own landscapes or referring to a virtual world.”

Further, Bruce says, the furry community is self-made and creative, never forced to adhere to strict guidelines.

“[With] Disney or Trekkies, there’s always this central canon of media that says, ‘This is the way things are.’ But in the furry community, there isn’t one,” Bruce explains. “It’s all self-made and constantly taking on new things from the outside and creating its own mythologies.”

These mythologies thus become a comforting oasis in a terrifying world, and though furries can often become the subject of mocking, Bruce describes a supportive and thoughtful community across borders.

“There’s a lot out there in terms of playing with how people can identify right now, what a body can be,” Bruce says. “People have gained, or rather realized, the power to to identify themselves, and those same people are pushing back against the binary—that the one way to be in this world is to love one other person and get married. I don’t think anybody needs examples of how that doesn’t always work. Everybody has one.”

As for Atmus the deer, he’s become Bruce’s main focus, though he was recently awarded a grant from UNM to explore the idea of furries in regard to Disney and its extended canon.

“The plan is to go down to the park and kind of write about the experience of being there, but to draw comparison to how it’s a fantasy world for people to escape this painful world we live in,” he posits. “Disney has certainly imparted part of my culture, but it’s a one-way street and they can’t contend with the fact that some people might be horny for Goofy.”

We can’t wait to see his findings.

“Atmus Unzipped” by photographer Tommy Bruce is, as it were, a self portrait. | Tommy Bruce