Subliminal art


Dear Artist,

In 1980 a university media professor, Wilson Bryan Key, wrote a book that caused quite a fuss. It was an inquiry into the use of subliminal images — mostly in advertising — but also in fine art. The title of the book, (which I won’t repeat here because it may snag on some email filters) came from a popular restaurant place-mat that showed a plate of clams, which, on close examination, appeared to be a pile-up of boys and girls.

Many of Wilson Key’s examples — such as suggestive patterns in ice in a glass of Johnnie Walker require a fair stretch of the imagination. Crotches, protuberances, as well as grimacing faces in margarine patties and other products are less subtle. “Viewer manipulation,” he warns. Is it possible that our unconscious voyeuristic natures take us automatically to forms that tease our libido? Even the suggested inclusion of a certain three-letter word with an ‘x’ at the end can do the trick, he finds. He uses Bruegel, Bosch, Durer, and even Rembrandt to flesh out his ideas.

One day a couple of years ago my assistant came into the studio and pointed to a pastoral landscape on my easel. “Whose legs are those?” she asked. Indeed, when I looked I saw a woman’s legs sticking up enthusiastically from the grass. Someone was doing it in there. What could I have possibly been thinking?

I’ll swear on a stack of early Bosch drawings that this little item of mine was a Freudian slip. But I have to tell you there are artists who are purposely putting this sort of stuff in. There are also those who find they have to labor daily to make sure they are not. Of the first type there is the celebrated case of the psychiatrist who broke into fine art with serigraphs of flowers, mostly iris, that tended to look like something else. It’s rumored that he goes to his bank in a truck. Of the second type, evidence is that the more you noodle and anguish over a passage, the more it begins to look like something that’s lurking in your subconscious. Watch it. But think about it, you can be in denial or you can let ‘er rip. In several instances Georgia O’Keeffe made it clear that people who saw this and that in her flowers were nuts. Wink, wink.

Best regards,


PS: “Superficially insignificant or accidental looking detail (in art) may well carry the most important unconscious symbolism.” (Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art)

Esoterica: I’d appreciate if none of the following personal information was passed around: I find that the most effective subliminals are not in the details but in the big picture. A fleeting, holistic glimpse that arrests the eye and in a nanosecond converts to what it is. Syntagmas of suggestibility. It pleases me to watch a discriminating connoisseur in front of an abstract: “I love it,” he (or she) says, “I don’t know why, but I just love it.”

(RG note) The book mentioned in this letter “Subliminal art” is The Clam-Plate Orgy by Wilson Bryan Key.


Appealing shapes
by Jerry Waese


painting by Jerry Waese

When I paint I’m acutely aware of subliminals and work to promote them, but they are not particularly legs or human parts or anything. I am very sensitive to positive and negative space and color shapes. Henry Moore-like shapes appeal to me the most. Things that elicit the recognition of natural bones or interesting stretched forms. I like to work with these while painting naturalistic scenes. I like to find them everywhere in daily life.



Personal forms
by Aleta Pippin


painting by Aleta Pippin

When I began painting abstractions in earnest, each painting contained my “forms.” These forms were very organic and flowery looking. The feedback I received from viewers was that the images looked sexual. Upon consideration, I agreed that they did look sexual and that image shows the very essence of life. If you look at O’Keeffe’s flower paintings or you look inside a flower, if you look at the shape of the vulva, you see strong resemblances. I didn’t plan on painting these forms, they evolved and once they did, I felt at home, I’d found my voice.


Inner sincerity
by Jan Zawadzki

Anybody seen what’s goin’ on in their cornflakes lately? Makes for a whole new slant on perspicacity. Animated or otherwise the question remains whether those suggestives we are prone to see just might be mentally proportional to what turns our crank… so to speak… and opens the door to an inner sincerity projected as an image. To use subliminal seduction as a marketing tool merely corrupts this otherwise delicate sensitization. One may argue whether it is art or manipulation. After all it’s those Freudian slips that really open the barn door.


Fertile imagination
by David Lloyd Glover, W. Hollywood, CA, USA


painting by David Lloyd Glover

In my past life as the owner of a major media advertising agency, The Clam-Plate Orgy became the subject of discussions at every cocktail party I attended. People were amazed at our seeming cleverness as admen to be able to manipulate the subconscious. The author of that tome in fact used an advertisement my creative director was completely responsible for. The client was one of the brand name distillers of liquor and the author was using this as his evidence of suggestive imagery used in the ice cubes. My creative director wished he and the photographer could take credit for such genius of communicative techniques but alas he admitted that it was the usual banal ads that merely showed product and brand name. Nothing more, nothing less. The sexy images lived in the fertile imagination of the theorist.


Withdrew suggestive material
by Karen Fitzgerald, New York, USA


artwork by Karen Fitzgerald

For several years I’ve been providing professional development to all levels of teachers for a national company that produces arts curricula. As I was preparing to present a follow-up workshop, I was visiting with the teachers about using the new large reproductions in their arts classes. Two teachers simultaneously burst out laughing. I asked what was going on and they took me down to the youngest teacher’s office area. He had hung up a reproduction that featured abstract patterning. I mentioned that in my own residency work, I seldom used the piece, and was not sure why. They invited me to analyze the pattern components. Sure enough, plain as day, all across the piece were rows and rows of penises and vulvas, nestled together in the design of fabric. It could not have been more obvious. Yet, until this point, it was totally unnoticed by the curriculum designers, management, and sales force. And, as far as that goes, by the professional development provider as well!

We had a great laugh, decided it would be pretty inappropriate to use this particular reproduction at the school (a junior high school!) and I had a good chuckle with the company’s sales rep when I returned home that evening.

Sneaky sex. Gets in everything these days. Why you can’t even use greasy, juicy paint without having some inappropriate suggestiveness come up.


Teenaged eyes caught her
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA


artwork by Julie Rodriguez Jones

A year ago I had a new piece of art that I thought had an interesting touch to it. My son proclaimed, “MOM!!” I just didn’t see what he saw in the image and chalked it up to his being a male teen. Then, a friend, who is sort of a hippie, said it was blatantly sexual. She pointed out the anatomy of the image. The nebulous outer area, the comet at the top of the image, surrounded by its halo of light (to which I had added an enhancement) and the strategically placed dark planet near the bottom of the image which she said had the appearance of being an entrance. To boot, I had named it, ever so innocently, “The Corridor.” I showed friends — both art instructors — who said it should be entered into the erotic art festival in San Francisco (which I did not do). They claimed that the comet made the “image” look as if it was about to burst. So yes, even the most innocent of images can send those subliminal messages. In the end I somewhat cropped the image to bring the central focus of it to the attention of the viewer but my son still refers to it as “the @#$%.”


Lassie come home
by Lida Van Bers

Since most of my work is abstract, I always find in the end of the work that there is a hint of a face or animal or whatever in there. I have just lost my dear dog a few weeks ago. I thought I had come to grips with it, but there he was in one of my paintings. So, I think what we consciously suppress, it will come out in our creation, no matter how hard we try.


Eye of the beholder
by Linda Saccoccio (Radha), Santa Barbara, CA, USA

I took a course in visual perception back in undergrad and did a paper on subliminal workings in visual images. I think there is something to it. Presently I work abstractly and feel I am coming from my spiritual center when I work. I just trust and whatever comes up visually at the time is what I have to work with. I don’t plan the image in advance. At the last open studio I had when I lived not long ago in NYC a man munching on the nuts I had out for visitors was taking in my paintings. He turned to me excitedly and said “I see flying breasts!” (my many years of figure drawing may be the reason for these shapes.) I don’t deny anything for as I said I come to the canvas openly accepting what arises. If he sees breasts there is no harm even if I didn’t intend that. My friend’s daughter contemplated the same painting and she saw ducks.

As far as sensuality and the other word ending in “x” goes it is all part of our being — so why discriminate? As with the art of “Tantra” even our intimate relationships have the potential to be divine. If our intentions are clear and from the heart I think there is a great advantage to embracing the beauty that may arise in the wholeness of this earthly experience.


Conversation pieces
June Raabe, Ladysmith, BC Canada

I too read The Clam-Plate Orgy and saw the author’s obsessive illustrations of subliminal images. Like a lot of others I briefly began to look for suspicious images in common advertising. It became absurd and I couldn’t quite believe it to be true, so gave up looking. Perhaps as artists we do unconsciously insert “other” images in our work. I know that I have definitely a case of “creative vision.” Seen in a different light once familiar objects startle me and appear new, different and strange. Once, long ago I was inspired to paint a mural on my dining room wall. This had to be an image one could live with daily, monochromatic, like wallpaper. I chose my own painting of the Monterey Cypress as the starting point. I painted my “masterpiece” tree with latex paint tinted with watercolours, in brown and beige. Completing it with the suggestion of a distant shoreline and a few calligraphic birds flying. Voila! Done! I was satisfied and so was the family, and visitors as well. The brother-in-law took umpteen shots. It wasn’t until sometime later I realized the image was not exactly what it was supposed to be… according to the bent of your brain the viewer saw either a moose head in the trunk or the voluptuous torso of a female! A knot in the trunk, that I had so carefully depicted, did appear to be a female breast (or the moose’s brow)! Time passed, I left that house, but as fortune would have it moved to a new home below the other one. I could now look out of my new dining room window and see in the distance the moose/torso on the wall in my old dining room! I am glad pictures were taken of this “work of art,” because after several owners and house remodeling the mural is no longer visible.

Some time ago I bought a rather ugly piece of blown glass from a thrift shop — not knowing “why” it impelled me to plunk down $10.00 for it. It’s a streaky orange colour, I think it is a vase, as it had remnants of dried plants and spiders in the coil that makes its base. Three huge petals have been tweaked from the molten glass. I realized one day there was something about it, something definitely “female.” It represents female genitalia to me, and I have told friends this, and they think me quite crazy! It isn’t shaped exactly like — it is just that the “throat” of the vase somehow suggests. I resist friends — suggestions that it is ugly, and keep it on the sideboard with all the other knick-knacks, sometimes filling the throat with banal plastic flowers. I have tried to use it in a still life but somehow it doesn’t work. So it remains, a conversation piece.


Karen Phinney, Halifax NS, Canada

Boy, did I get a kick out of the “bouquets and brickbats” edition of comments on your letters — ain’t humanity wonderful? I liked the guy who wanted you to send your “free” letter to his aunt in England, by post, if you please. What a hoot! (As the saying goes, “ya can’t make this stuff up!”). I find your letters make my day, and often resonate, and like many of your correspondents, I sometimes email this material to someone after reading comments in these clickbacks. Connections all over the place! And I have come to the conclusion that, art notwithstanding, we are here to make connections with each other. Your letter is certainly furthering that intention! Bless you and your “unionized” crew. (ha!)

(RG note) The bouquets and brickbats Karen is referring to is called “What artists have written about the Twice Weekly Letters” and it’s at





Michel De Caso, Villeneuve-Les-Montreal, France


by Michel De Caso


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.

That includes Sara Genn who wrote, “Why can’t we all just acknowledge that “nature” — that is, “sex” or “erotic” images, which are really just “attracters” are everywhere. Duh — of course a flower looks like what it looks like — that’s what it is — to a bee.”

And several writers who wrote that the fun begins when “Sister Wendy points out portions of male anatomy.”

And also Kelly Borsheim of Cedar Creek, Texas, USA who wrote, “I’m reminded of Edward Weston’s response when the public gasped over his erotic pepper pictures: ‘Your comments tell more about you than they do about me.’ ”

And Ann Smith who wrote, “I love these letters! I don’t know why, but I just love them! By the way, in spite of all your care and euphemism, this letter was, indeed, snagged by my spam filter. I gleefully liberated it.”


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