On display at the De Soto Gallery in Venice, California is a two-person show titled In Position. In it are photographs from Amy Elkins’ Danseur project and Jona Frank’s The Modern Kids portfolio. The common ground between each photographer is that they are women examining the construction of male identity by recording adolescences, each within a specified physical discipline. Elkins portrays youthful male dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet School in Copenhagen immediately following an intense training session while Frank depicts British adolescents training to be boxers. The pairing of the two artists is unique because of the dearth of male figures represented by female artists throughout art history along with the general lack of exploration of male stereotypes.
There are few precedents of male stereotypes that have been explored by female artists. Sylvia Sleigh (1916 – 2010), the Welsh-born realist painter inspired by feminist principles, created a series of canvases that reversed typical gender roles. Sleigh revised Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647–51) with her painting Philip Golub Reclining (1971) as well as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s The Turkish Bath (1862) with her own The Turkish Bath (1973) which depicted a group of male art critics leisurely lounging in the nude. In 2011, San Francisco’s SOMArts Cultural Center presented an exhibition titled Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze that revealed, “sundry masculinities from female/feminist/transgender perspectives”. The group of artists that included Carolee Schneemann, Annie Sprinkle and the Guerrilla Girls amongst others offered provocative and erotic representations of the male body. A man strikes a pose with his buttocks pushed out with dreamy bedroom eyes while another man is submissively turned into a table. French artist ORLAN exhibited a lenticular postcard that juxtaposed Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) with a close up of a penis titled Origin of War.
Neither Sleigh’s reversal of the male-artist/female-muse pattern or the objectification of male figures presented in Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze is what is at play in Elkins and Frank’s photographs. Each artist successfully avoids erotic voyeurism and instead acts as mute witnesses to the multifaceted parallels of socially constructed male identity.
The formation of male bodies in relationship to perceived gender roles becomes the primary thrust in this exhibition. In both photographers’ work the young men’s perspiration and composure are indicative of their athletic commitment. The dichotomy between the two disciplines finds common ground through the treatment of the subject by each artist. Elkins incorporates clean lighting and minimal backgrounds to accentuate the poise and confidence of her subjects and Frank purposefully strips away the environments so her portraits focus on the boys’ bodies in the moment they present themselves.
While ballet and boxing exist on opposite ends of masculine stereotypes, this exhibition draws upon the similarities found in each. In both activities the subjects train for years to prepare their bodies for a physical act of expression. Fighting is perceived to be the pinnacle of masculinity and ballet the exact opposite, but gender codes are not prescribed they are performed. Masculinity is not a stable entity but instead is made of conflicting and contradictory aspects that are learned throughout boyhood. Both photographers’ work underscores particular characteristics of machismo while looking to defy others.
In this exhibition form and grace meet notions of aggression and violence in vulnerable depictions of adolescence. Each boy is equally tough but tender, each is dedicated to sculpting their bodies through intense physical training and each faces the pressure to perform at an elevated level. In many ways both photographers are looking at youth and what it means to become a young man.
The exhibition will be on view until February 28 at the DE SOTO GALLERY located at 1350 Abbot Kinney Blvd. Venice, CA 90291. http://www.desotogallery.com/