Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Permanent Fixtures II: Further Travels Through the Male Mind

I have finally reached a point of ambivalence concerning the reception of images and symbols within my artwork. Postmodernist concepts about how we approach both texts and images—with the individual knowledge and baggage that is unique to each person—along with the ramifications of displaying work openly on the internet have paved the way. As an artist, I can never fully manipulate or direct the reception of my work by a viewer.

I actually recognized this fairly early in my career. For a time I was utilizing imagery of rope in my compositions, as a metaphor for being tied to past habits and behaviors. I had several works on display at a coffee shop a few months after my college graduation, including one of the rope works. I received a call with an invitation to meet and talk about the pieces with an area high school art teacher. When we met, he asked me to consider talking with his students about my painting method, since he was primarily a sculptor. In the end, I think he was more interested in asking me out on a date, though he never did and I was oblivious to his motivations.

A couple weeks after I met the art teacher I received a phone call from an area gallery. The teacher had suggested my work to the art gallery director for an upcoming show. I was young and pretty excited about the opportunity which had come out of the blue. As the conversation continued, I discovered that the exhibition had a theme of sexual deviance and apparently, because of the one work with rope imagery that I had displayed, I was slated to fill the “bondage” slot. When I explained what that work was really about the conversation quickly cooled, and though the gallery director claimed he wanted to see more of my work, I never heard from him again.

The following year, as I was further developing the rope imagery in graduate school, another humorous misreading occurred. I was working on a self portrait that contained various draped and looped lengths of rope in the background. I actually didn’t think much about the image—it was more like a study or painting exercise. Several of my fellow grad students saw the piece in my studio and inquired if they should be worried about my emotional state. They thought the ropes resembled nooses and that I might be suicidal. I laughed it off and assured them nothing was further from the truth, and I never exhibited the work.
When I began my recent Permanent Fixtures series I faced the inevitability of multiple misreadings of the work. My ambivalence is now great enough that this doesn’t bother me. In fact, I embrace the existence of multiple readings and the use of imagery on book pages helps support this. Nonetheless, I do wish to offer some limited explanations that might assist viewers as they approach the work.

As I was trying to research some current scholarship on the concepts I am investigating for this series, I realized that even the terms that I had buzzing about in my head were confused and unclear. I didn’t view the analysis of male self concepts in contemporary culture as a category of gender studies. The whole idea of gender studies often seems to focus on feminist issues. The area of gender studies on college campuses seems to often focus solely on feminism. So, I thought the appropriate terminology might be something closer to gender identity. I soon discovered that that phrase is almost exclusively reserved for the territory of transgender individuals—men who are biologically and anatomically male yet feel emotionally and psychologically female, and vice versa. That was definitely not the intended topic of this work.

The American male psyche is a complex thing. It is not some monolithic and homogenized manner of masculinity and self understanding. At the same time, however, cultural expectations partially govern our assumptions of what it means to be male. This is true for what both women and men expect.

For all the challenges that feminism proposed to counter the stereotypes that existed for American women—the demure, defenseless stay-at-home mom and housewife who keeps an immaculate home and has dinner ready on the table as her bread winner returns home from a long day on the job—there has been little reconsideration of the masculine stereotypes. If roles and identities have shifted on one side of the traditional spectrum then alterations would naturally follow on the other side.
The absence of an on-going dialogue on male identity has led to widespread confusion, though one would hardly recognize it because the traditional male stereotypes are overwhelmingly perpetuated through a stubborn male refusal to talk about “feelings” and “emotional responses.” A necessary question arises. What stereotypical male traits are derived from the biological makeup of the XY chromosomes and what aspects of those stereotypes are exhibited purely from the effects of nurture, including the cultural environment? When we consider the variations of accepted and expected male behaviors in non-Western cultures our American ideals are challenged.

These questions are merely a few that the Permanent Fixtures paintings address. Cultural norms are complex things. When they are paired with the infinitely multifaceted personalities of each human individual the configurations can boggle the mind. A urinal becomes much more than a porcelain plumbing fixture.

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