Manscape: Male as Subject and Object
Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin
Through August 11
by Brian Fee
I questioned the omission of Mariah Robertson and Michele Abeles from The Anxiety of Photography at AMOA-Arthouse last year.1 These artists were spotlighted in MoMA PS1's Greater New York quinquennial, yet they were absent from an exhibition ostensibly about photography—though The Anxiety of Photography devoted wall-space to GNY peer David Benjamin Sherry's acid-toned self-portraits. I was pleased in Robertson and Abeles' inclusion in Manscape: Male as Subject and Object, a heavyweight summer group exhibition curated by Christopher Eamon for Lora Reynolds Gallery, but I wondered: Was Eamon consciously “taking male objectification to a new extreme?"2
Writing for Frieze, Chris Wiley noted that Robertson is among the most significant artists reengaging with lensless photography3, referencing her darkroom productions that frequently feature nude males under colorful layers of abstraction. Eamon bypasses these for Robertson's jewel-like prints of phalluses draped across vibrant Gestalt patterns. Robertson printed these in slightly reduced scale, articulating the exhibition's skewering of contemporary male identity, and though her own words create a more complicated picture. While asserting her position as a female photographer and role-model in an Art:21 documentary, Robertson's reliance on an internet-sourced nude suggests an approach of easygoing irreverence, rather than a blunt derision her subject's maleness.
Abeles' impenetrably titled Untitled_3_Bucket_IKB could represent the show's most pointed image. Here she eschews the nude—“canny rejoinders to the commonplace use of the anonymous female form as a prop for picture-making”4 —for bodily substitutes: a bucket, sponges and gloves, all soaked in deep ultramarine. It takes little stretch of the imagination to see Nouveau réalisme founder Yves Klein within this still-life, his hands and body relegated to painterly tools, recalling how he used nude female models covered in International Klein Blue as “living brushes.”
The New York-based Romanian artist and curator Adina Popescu's video Jeremiah5 presents an exception to the exhibition's otherwise still images. The smartly dressed actor smears French enunciation over terms like “keylogging software,” repeatedly dropping his eyes to read from a script, as we quickly become aware that it is not his words but Popescu's. At the film's conclusion, Popescu further dispels her actor's suave masculinity by having him quote from controversial French dramatist Jean Genet's The Thief's Journal:
“O let me be nothing but beauty alone! Quickly or slowly I will go, but I will dare what must be dared. I want to destroy appearances, the casings will be burnt off and will fall from me, and there will appear there, some evening, on the palm of your hand, calm and pure, like a statuette of glass."6
John Massey's inclusion provides a curious counterpoint: a Canadian male artist over a generation older than the women here, whose work treads the line between sculpture, video and photography. Massey's Studio Projections—newspaper images rephotographed as slides and projecting onto a maquette of his studio—operate within the image-appropriation ethos of Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and others of “The Pictures Generation,” though Massey wasn't a “member,” By screening media clips like Sputnik into his space, Massey magnifies his personal reflections on newsworthy events of the late '70s. His suggestion of self (the bare studio) adds a sensitive tone to male imagery while manifesting his own male gaze.
What is the takeaway from Manscape? As far as Abeles and Robertson are concerned, I believe their intentions lie beyond subjugating the male gaze in art. Their rigorous dedication to analogue photography and their technical practices—injecting new vitality into classical tropes of darkroom manipulation and studio constructions, respectively— emphasize their roles in a larger contemporary artistic network. It is to Eamon's credit that this elegantly installed group exhibition encourages such insightful contemplation and deep returns.
Brian Fee is an art punk currently based in Austin, TX. His culture blog Fee's List covers his three loves (art, film and live music) occurring in his other three loves (the Lone Star State, the Big Apple, and Tokyo).
1. The Anxiety of Photography originated at the Aspen Art Museum, Colorado, in May 2011 and was organized by Matthew Thompson, Associate Curator, before traveling to AMOA-Arthouse: http://www.aspenartmuseum.org/archive_anxiety_of_photography.html
2. Manscape: Lora Reynolds Gallery press release: http://www.lorareynolds.com/exhibitions/about/manscape_male_as_subject_and_object/
3. Chris Wiley, “Depth of Focus,” Frieze, November-December 2011: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/depth-of-focus/
5. Jeremiah was originally performed at Galerie EIGEN + ART, Berlin, as part of Popescu's experimental play The Ethics of Pirating before his transfer to high-definition video: http://blog.frieze.com/the_ethics_of_pirating/
6. Jean Genet biography: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/jgenet.htm