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Manning Up 

Art Review: "Manhood: Masculinity, Male Identity and Culture," Helen Day Art Center

click to enlarge "William II" by Jesse Burke
  • "William II" by Jesse Burke

A current exhibit in the main gallery of Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center takes on an unwieldy concept: maleness. In fact, its title, “Manhood: Masculinity, Male Identity and Culture,” sounds like a college sociology course that would take at least a semester to address questions such as What does it mean to be male, now, in this society? By what shifting of hormones and expectations does a boy become a man? How do a man’s roles — as father, provider, soldier, hunter, athlete, and so on — shape his identity and behavior? Sociologists may have no problem taking the feminist theory handed down from the 1970s, turning it on the gender fulcrum and riffing on male (masculist?) theory. The rest of us may simply ponder, What’s up with guys, anyway?

Such questions provide a heady premise for a visual-art show. Curator/executive director Nathan Suter invited the dozen male artists, and one female, from around the country because concepts of masculinity are integral to their work. The individual artists meet his expectation with various degrees of success.

The exhibit is heavy on photography. Some of it, in portraiture or documentary style, presents males in different guises without adornment or context. Barring explanation, viewers are left to invent their own stories. What are we to make, for example, of Jesse Burke’s large-scale image, “Nectar Imperial, Nils,” of a young man looking a little apprehensive, clad in a stained blue Nike jacket?

Turns out the dude has just chugged quite a lot of beer, slopping it on his face and clothing, explains Suter, who calls the subject “uncomposed.” Men, he says, find ways to be competitive. But viewers can’t know that unless someone tells them; the man’s unguarded expression and the black background keep “meaning” elusive. Thus, the moment of vulnerability becomes generic, universal. That’s an entirely different, and more sympathetic, template than the one for binge drinking. Which does Burke want us to consider? Does it matter?

Burke, from Providence, R.I., offers another seemingly straightforward portrait, the backdrop a line of trees, in the black-and-white shot “William II.” Here an adolescent boy with unkempt blond hair and a dirty jacket stands, hands in pockets, and looks directly at the camera. At the threshold of adulthood, the boy appears confident, but is it just a teenager’s pose? This is a picture of anticipation.

San Francisco-based photographer Jason Hanasik approaches this theme in a series of images of another adolescent, Sharrod, who is planning to enter the military. We see the boy transformed by the uniform, saluting, prepared to become a man who may be asked to fight for his country. Though dignified, he looks too young to bear such a weight.

On the other end of the spectrum, Oli Rodriguez presents a video of a male nanny interacting with a little girl. Is he a daddy? Does he work in a daycare center? The specter of sexual predation arises, forcing the viewer to ponder the obstacles men might face in proving they can be trusted with young children. Again, the images do not directly address this reality, but provoke suspicion. Has media coverage of pedophiles made it impossible for us to think of men as nurturing? And what does it say about masculinity if a guy just really enjoys caretaking?

Andrew Mowbray contributes a welcome sense of whimsy, and different media, to the exhibit with works from his “Palingenesis” series. In addition to multiple stills from his video “Walden Pond,” the Dorchester, Mass., artist has made a life-size white suit of vinyl with a fishing-pole holder in front; a gigantic, pink fly-fishing creel; and a cabinet filled with fantastical flies made from human hair. What this says about masculinity is open to interpretation. But it most certainly is different from what Keith Hoyt’s “Unknown” work says.

Hoyt, of New Paltz, N.Y., has encased in a rugged wooden column a video screen that plays a continuous loop of the final shoot-out in the spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The image steadily closes in until all you can see are the shifty eyes of the three gunslingers in turn, played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. In front of the column is an actual gun in a holster that viewers can literally pick up and shoot, mirroring a video game. When they pull the trigger, it sets in motion the shooting sequence in the movie, à la remote control. Who will flinch first? What is this impulse to harm or kill another man? What is it like to be driven by violence? And why is it fun to shoot this gun?

If the ultimate symbol of masculinity is the superhero, Michigan artist Mark Newport undercuts it with humor. His works are hand-knitted, head-to-toe unitards in the colors, if not the precise forms, of various comic-book heroes. These suits, hung along one wall, are empty, muscle free, their implied characters sheer fantasy. When will the man come along who can fill them? Never. Though, according to Suter, Newport has been known to wear his costumes at art receptions. Surely being an ironic, knitted superhero is far less stressful than embodying the real thing.

Viewers will leave “Manhood” with questions, talking points and possibly criticisms about what the exhibit does not bring up. As for finding answers, it’s every man for himself.

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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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