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The Masculine Mystique 

Good intentions don't always make for good art

Wednesday, Apr 26 2006
"The Man Box and Beyond" is a difficult show to critique. Based on an exercise developed by the Oakland Men's Project in which guys discuss the pressure they're under to "act like a man," it's certainly a noble effort. Masculinity can always use a good debunking. But good intentions don't always make for good art, and the works included in "The Man Box" are uneven: While some treat their subject with tenderness and insight, others verge on self-indulgence or fall flat when they mean to be funny.

The highlight of the show is Victor Barbieri's Friends, a video installation on three screens, each showing the same group of middle-aged men posing together for a portrait. Like the magical, animated photographs in a Harry Potter movie, the men in these slow-motion images are by turns posing for the camera, laughing, tousling one another's hair, and goofing off. They clearly enjoy each other's company, and the images convey a palpable sense of intimacy — physical and emotional. The video is in color and the setting contemporary, but the slo-mo treatment and lack of sound give the work a nostalgic feel, suggesting that these moments of togetherness are both fleeting and fondly recalled. The tripartite structure of the piece allows us to see the men at different times simultaneously — while they're quietly composed on one screen, they're busting up laughing on another. It's a lovely idea, simply presented, that gives us a glimpse of a platonic affection between men that we seldom see elsewhere.

Scott Kildall's sound installation, Men Seeking, also focuses on emotional vulnerability. A collection of audio personal ads, the piece presents male voices emanating from behind a white curtain, talking about themselves and what they're looking for in a relationship. The monologues are more tedious than revealing, although the lack of visual stimulation does amplify the edge of insecurity that creeps into the voices. Unfortunately, the stories are frequently obscured by the grunting sounds coming from Shaun "El C." Leonardo's video projection across the room. Portrait of a Luchador is footage of a Mexican wrestler in a white mask and spandex pants going through his moves, alone against a flat white background. The video begins with a cacophony of images of the wrestler, overlaid one on top of another, and ends with a single image of him shadowboxing. It's a furious, artificial performance of hyper-masculinity executed in a vacuum, but comes off far too self-absorbed to inspire much contemplation.

Similarly ambivalent — albeit more tongue-in-cheek — is Marq Sutherland's series of photographs, "The State of Being Manly." They feature a skinny white hipster performing various "masculine" actions: examining the wheels of a Hummer stuck on a sand dune, executing a skaterlike jump (without the skateboard) atop a handrail, and rolling a truck tire across a parking lot beneath a giant billboard emblazoned with two huge breasts. This last image charms with its self-deprecating humor — the guy's scrawny physique is comically lacking next to the brawny tire and bombastic boobs — but the other photos are too understated to achieve the same level of self-conscious mockery.

Bill Berry's intent also seems to be humorous, but his installation ends up merely ridiculous. An area in the middle of the gallery set off with a chain-link fence is filled to overflowing with "bop bags" — those life-size, blow-up punching bags that bounce back when you hit them — all printed with the image of a stiff young man in a suit. Titled Chicken Stuffing, it gestures toward the stuffed suit and punching bag metaphors of popular office humor, but lacks subtlety (or even the biting sass of a Dilbert cartoon).

The darker side of masculinity receives somewhat better representation. Hand to Hand, Ehren Tool's wall installation of close-packed shelves of custom-printed ceramic mugs, unites the domestic and the disturbing to reveal the banality of violence in American life. Each white mug is printed with a different, provocative image: One bears the portrait of a fallen soldier, another a prosthetic leg. George W. Bush appears repeatedly, mixed in with a photograph of naked girls holding assault rifles and the words "Christian Soldier." The combination of troubling imagery and homey souvenir suggests that hawkish, macho bravado is as American as apple pie. (Even the title reinforces this duality, referring to both combat and tableware.) We didn't really need an installation to tell us that, but the work's tactility makes the idea seem all the more concrete. With their images printed in a reddish-brown tone — the color of dried blood? — the carefully ordered mugs also evoke the solidity of a brick wall.

Revealing different takes on power relations, John Jenkins and Scott Tsuchitani both portray masculinity tinged with homoeroticism. Jenkins' intimate painted collages juxtapose images from Eadweard Muybridge's early photographic motion studies of nude men with photos of men in leather and chains at the Folsom Street Fair. Painted over with washes of translucent, saturated color, they give a tender, almost reliquary treatment to an oft-maligned subculture. Tsuchitani's painting The Nail That Sticks Up injects a homoerotic subtext into an old Japanese saying advocating conformity: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." The center panel of the triptych features a 1950s-style image of two smiling boys, one white, one Asian, in which the white boy is about to hammer a dowel held upright by the Asian boy. The double entendre of "hammering" is hard to miss, while the impertinent "nail" does double duty as both a dick and a symbol of standing out from the crowd. The work adds an unexpected, if simplistic, sexual dimension to racial inequalities.

"The Man Box" does a good job of presenting masculinity as a subject fraught with conflict and ambivalence; if it were only a matter of fulfilling a didactic mission, the show would be admirable. But then it might also be an essay or an anthology (several such books rest on the gallery's information table) rather than an art exhibit. At its best, visual art has the power to move as well as instruct, and although the show provided opportunities to think outside the man box, it presented too many instances in which the artists fell short of their ambitions — or worse, mistook a sympathetic audience for a group therapy session.

About The Author

Sharon Mizota


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