Bone To Run: Porn star and MICA grad Colby Keller hits the road, searching for sex and art in every state

City Paper

Marxist porn star Colby Keller towers over the well-dressed, slightly stooped forms of the pilgrims to the Phillips Collection of Modern Art in Washington, DC., where he stopped en route from Baltimore to Florida, where he would celebrate his grandmother’s 100th birthday. 

“I’m not actually that big on the Impressionists,” the 6-foot-2 Keller says as he strides through rooms of Pointillist masterpieces in a camouflage jacket and loose cargo pants. 

“It’s really just a bunch of landscapes and beaches,” Keller says, gesturing to Albert Dubois-Pillets’ ‘The Seine at Paris.’ He finally slows down as we enter a room titled “Poetry, Music, and the Synergy of the Senses.” Synergy of the senses is precisely what Keller attempts in his own work as both an artist and a sex worker.

Keller’s vast gay following is built on films such as “CockyBoy’s A Thing of Beauty,” inspired by Walt Whitman’s “We Two Boys Together Clinging” and effectively combining raunch and romance. As a visual artist, his current Colby Does America project will take him to all 50 states, where he’ll collaborate with local residents on video creations that bring artistic resonance to overtly sexual imagery. He’ll share rough footage with volunteer editors who will give shape to the short films, so that Keller himself becomes another artist’s medium. “Ideally I’d put all the rough footage on the website and anyone could come in and edit it, to make it their own,” he says. “It’s that process, the space between people, where art is made.”

The Maryland segment of Colby Does America has already been posted on Keller’s Big Shoes Diary blog. Its four minutes feature pastoral scenes of masturbation underscored with archival patriotic pabulum. He’s completed filming in New York and Pennsylvania, and recently posted an open call for an experienced dominatrix in Virginia. An Alabama episode emerged from his correspondence with a young poet. “He sent me a poem and a song and I responded,” Keller says. “The things we were doing together in that moment, that was art being made.” 

Eventually all 50 films will be available for free at colbydoesamerica.com, though a donation request will precede entrance to the site.

Passing quickly between a Van Gogh and a Pissarro, we enter the portion of the museum that was collector Duncan Phillips’ private residence. Keller doesn’t pause at the museum’s signature Renoir—‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’—but takes a moment to step inside Wolfgang Laib’s ‘Wax Room,’ an experiential work that envelopes the visitor with the smell and relaxing golden hue of beeswax.

We finally settle into an S-shaped pair of chairs that put us face to face for our conversation. Museum guards eye us with mild suspicion as they catch words like “Marxist” and phrases like, “As a sex worker . . .” From my seat, Karl Knaths’ ‘Cin-Zin’ is visible over Keller’s shoulder but it is he who dominates the room, stressing the frame of the antique chair as he stretches his legs toward an empty fireplace.

Keller as a piece of colby cheese with a toothpick (bigshoediaries.tumblr.com)

Keller’s artistic endeavors are reminiscent of the films of Matthew Barney, which also use strikingly erotic images, as with

the parade sequence in “De Lama Lâmina,” in which an actor is slowly masturbated by a machine inside a Trojan Horse-like parade float. “My program director at MICA used to teach at Yale,” Keller says, “and Matthew Barney was her student there. At the time he was mostly just a football player.”

Keller’s sojourn at MICA, from which he graduated in 2007, was a mixed bag. “You get pulled in two directions,” he says of his professors. “You’re told that this is your vocation, that you’re a priest, that you shouldn’t expect to make money. Then you’re told that you need to have a successful gallery process, so you can become famous and so MICA gets a good name and gets more grad students.”

Still, the world of galleries and sales became anathema. “It’s a hobby investment for people who make too much money,” Keller says. “And artists are taught to cater to it.” He admits that he wasn’t prepared for the MICA experience. “I wasn’t the best at being a student. I was very shy and quiet. I would be a different person now if I went to grad school.”

He admires the sculptural/architectural work of Thomas Hirschhorn, and of collectives such as the Netherlands-based Gelatin, but worries that his own work, which is largely ephemeral, lacks a recognizable style. “I don’t think Colby has that,” he says, slipping into third person. “It’s problematic of my art. There’s no identifiable thing where you can say, ‘That’s a Colby Keller.’”

Shy about revealing his real name, the artist names “Colby Keller” as his most significant creation. “I’ve really put a lot of effort into what I can do with Colby,” he says. “Having a pseudonym, I can step back from reality and think about what that personality is—and who I am. We all have multiple faces and masks that we put on.”

For nine years, one of those personas was a committed Baltimorean. Keller arrived to attend MICA but stayed for reasons both personal and practical. “BWI is a cheap airport to fly out of, and it’s very convenient,” he says, referencing a career that calls for extensive travel. More important, he built a family of friends in the building where he set down roots upon first arriving.

In a narrative reminiscent of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” Keller speaks of neighbors Amelia and Keith who met in the Mount Vernon building, were eventually married on the premises, and conceived and bore a child in the apartment they later shared. The building’s residents even shared a cat, cutting holes between apartments so it could roam freely.

The neighborhood’s gradual gentrification—and mismanagement by a woman Keller describes as a “bat-shit widow”—finally led to an eviction notice, prompting the launch of the Everything But Lenin project, in which Keller gave away his worldly goods to friends and strangers, who also received a signed certificate as project participants. Collectively, they walked away with everything but Keller’s prized bust of Lenin.

“I love objects,” Keller says, “which is a problem for me as a Marxist: the necessity of objects and our attachments to that. Everything But Lenin was a beautiful piece to work through because of all the other people participating. We created those moments together. I got to call myself an artist and they got a free tea kettle.” 

Keller’s porn reputation drew a particular demographic to the project. “People wanted underwear,” he admits. “And I had a lot of porn, which I collect, and sex toys.” 

When Keller drove out of Baltimore, he did it in a rental car, wearing the only set of clothes he still owned.

He’s not sure where he’ll land after traveling the 50 states. “I used to joke that I’d move to Albuquerque, which seems the western equivalent to Baltimore,” he says. “But I’m not sure Albuquerque is the place for a sexually active gay man. But I’m also very poor, so I’m looking for places that are affordable.”

As with many artists, Keller’s financial limitations have inspired his creativity, including the highly successful Boners for Books project. After registering a wish list on Amazon.com, Keller promised a photo of himself, naked and erect with the donated book in hand, to anyone who made a purchase on his behalf. The sizable Marxist library that resulted was later dismantled during Everything But Lenin, only emphasizing the ephemeral nature of Keller’s work.

He credits his communist beliefs to a strict Christian upbringing with the Assemblies of God. “My Marxist education was in the church,” he says. He witnessed the strictures of Christian doctrine, but also its benefits. “Mom taught in the Texas prison system for years. We went to a tiny church in a mobile home, maybe 20 people, but it was equal thirds black, white, and Latino, and all of us working class. You learn a lot about the world in a place like that.”

Ultimately, the fundamentalist nature of the church proved unpalatable, though not because of its attitude toward sexuality. “My frustration with my mom is the same that I have with a lot of Christians who rely on this magical idea,” Keller says. “You’re supposed to earn points on earth and then you get a big house in heaven or something. If that’s what you think is important, that’s not faith. It’s a sin just wanting those things. But people want easy answers, and capitalism is easy. They want to believe they’re going to get rich. They want to believe they can buy that nice jacket and pretend that it’s not hurting anyone.”

Keller’s Marxism has, in turn, inspired a new understanding of his childhood faith. “Christianity presents the political ideals of equality and justice and freedom,” he says. “Communism is the only political philosophy that addresses those issues and interrogates them.” 

Marxism also shapes Keller’s attitude toward his work in pornography. “I do this for a living and it’s not easy work,” he says. “It’s a humble medium. It’s utility. As a Marxist, that’s my labor power.”

He’s not concerned that that his porn persona might limit the public’s response to his artistic work. “There’s nothing worse than a pretentious artist,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t know if art and pornography intersect. I don’t know if what I’m doing is art. I’m doing Colby Does America to find out.”

Keller glances up at the canvases surrounding us. “The actual work of art is not the painting. It’s what happens between you and the painting. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of colored shit on the wall.” 

He pauses for the first time in our conversation. “Duchamp’s urinal is not the art,” he says, referring to the iconic 1917 work that highlighted the artistic potential of everyday items. “It’s our agreement that makes it art. The beauty is, you don’t have to agree. You can just pee in the damn thing.”

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