Artists Tackle Stale Ideas Of Masculinity That Restrict People Of All Genders

Let's talk about manhood and the problems with toxic gender stereotypes.
Wynne Neilly, from "<em>Of Center</em>, <em>Liam</em>," 2012, c-print mounted on sintra, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Wynne Neilly, from "Of Center, Liam," 2012, c-print mounted on sintra, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Where does masculinity live ― in the body or the mind? How does one cultivate it ― lifting weights, buying cars, providing for one’s family? When does it thrive and when is it threatened? What makes it fragile and what makes it toxic?

A multimedia exhibition titled “ManUp!” at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Roman Stollenwerk, features artwork addressing the changing shape of masculinity in the 21st century. Rather than accepting masculinity as an inherited trait or static condition, the contributing artists explore manhood as a continuous string of performed behaviors and learned rituals, all of which come together to resemble a fixed identity.

The artists on view use photography, collage, watercolor and mixed media installation to envision understandings of manhood that often slip through the cracks of cultural visibility. Transmasculine performance artist, stunt person and bodybuilder Cassils uses their own body as a medium, undergoing intense physical challenges to show that the human body is always in a state of becoming. Cassils frames their physical form not as an inherited vessel but a fleshy canvas constantly in flux, as malleable as a lump of clay.

Cassils, still from "Fast Twitch//Slow Twitch," 2011, two channel video installation, TRT 11:08. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.
Cassils, still from "Fast Twitch//Slow Twitch," 2011, two channel video installation, TRT 11:08. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Art, NY.

“I use my physical body as sculptural mass to rupture societal norms,” Cassils explained in an earlier interview with The Huffington Post. “It is with sweat, blood and sinew that I construct a visual critique and discourse around physical and gender ideologies and histories.”

For a 2011 video titled “Fast Twitch//Slow Twitch,” Cassils documented their physical transformation during an intense bodybuilding regimen. Along with taking portraits of their shifting image, Cassils archived workout regimens and diets ― complete with raw eggs and raw meat. By documenting the acts necessary to acquire an exaggerated, muscular physique, Cassils reveals both the artifice and the hard work that manliness not only leaves room for, but requires.

Another artist on view, Amy Elkins, addresses alternative manifestations of masculinity, ones that privilege softness as much as strength, in her photographs of young male dancers in Copenhagen, Denmark. Her series “Danseur” depicts young men, ages 12 to 18, who challenge gendered expectations by combining exceptional athleticism with grace, vulnerability and quiet self-composure.

Amy Elkins, "<em>Danseur</em>, <em>Lucas, Age 12, 6th Year in Royal Danish Ballet School, Copenhagen</em>," 2012, archival inkjet print, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.
Amy Elkins, "Danseur, Lucas, Age 12, 6th Year in Royal Danish Ballet School, Copenhagen," 2012, archival inkjet print, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.

“I am fascinated with the art and sport of ballet and contemporary dance, specifically with young men who push past gender stereotypes associated with dance and challenge societal notions of masculinity,” Elkins explained in an previous interview with HuffPost. Her images show how the boundaries that separate art and sport, performance and identity, masculine and feminine, are far more mercurial than they first appear.

Then, in his series “Tryouts,” photographer Ryan James Caruthers captures the dangerous consequences a fragile masculinity can have on men themselves. The artist mined his memories growing up as a closeted queer boy and an artist in an environment that didn’t acknowledge his fledgling instincts. “Growing up in a suburban New Jersey town, males my age were always preoccupied with sport,” he told HuffPost. “I had a constant disconnect from traditional forms of masculinity, as my interests were in other areas.”

With his thin, pale frame, Caruthers looked and felt nothing like the conventionally macho figures accepted by his peers. His photos revisit this complex and painful phase in Caruthers’ adolescent life, before he came to terms with his body, his desires and himself. Caruthers goes through the motions of various sporting events ― swimming, wrestling and baseball, among others ― his spindly frame and distant gaze resembling more the muse of a Pre-Raphaelite painting than a jock in a yearbook.

Ryan James Caruthers, from "<em>Tryouts</em>, <em>Boxing</em>," 2015, archival pigment print, 36 x 30 inches.Courtesy of the artist.
Ryan James Caruthers, from "Tryouts, Boxing," 2015, archival pigment print, 36 x 30 inches.Courtesy of the artist.

“ManUp!” arrives at a particularly fraught moment in terms of gender politics. After being painfully close to electing the first woman president, America is soon to be lead by a man who elevates brute masculinity, whose public image has been bolstered after objectifying, degrading and humiliating others. With Republicans threatening to defund Planned Parenthood and overturn Roe v. Wade, the hazards women will face in the coming months are abundantly clear. Yet the future of masculinity is nearly as tenuous, and the consequences are similarly grave.

It is not only women who are oppressed by patriarchal hegemony. The traditional tenets of masculinity ― power, stoicism and dominance ― are holding men back rather than urging them forward. (In fact, it can literally kill them.) Today, it is crucial to look past feeble and outdated understandings of masculinity and explore the potential of human beings untethered by societal expectations and gender norms.

The artists of “ManUp!” offer alternative understandings of masculinity that don’t rely on notions of biology or stereotypes, but rather view manhood as a complex network of rituals and desires, distinctly organized in every individual in which they appear. They reject the idea of an “ideal man” against which all others will fail to measure up, and in doing so, support the idea that people should be free to live their lives ― free to express themselves through their appearance, actions and gestures, molding their gender identity like a work of art along the way.

Man Up
Badly Licked Bear, "Ragnarok Supply," 2009, polyester resin / site-specific installation. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov.
Devan Shimoyama, "Idol Eclipsed (Johnny)," 2016, monotype print with collage and glitter, 36 x 25 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lesley Heller Workspace, New York.
Oree Holban, "The Great Pretenders," ongoing project, 35mm slides. Courtesy of the artist.
Conrad Ruiz, "Tough Lover," 2015, watercolor on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Scott James Vanidestine, (detail) "3 Weeks After Exposure," 2016, beaded paisley applique, beaded/sequin bodice applique (9 piece bridal party), embroidery thread, glass beads, metallic gold thread, pearl paisley applique, plastic beads, sequins, sequin flower trim, and sequin swirl trim on canvas panel, 52 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Steven Frost, "It's Hard to be a Diamond in a Rhinestone World," 2014, custom printed fabric, wood, and felt, 26 x 49 x 4 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Chris Dacre, "Artificial Dissemination," 2011/2014, mixed-media: lithograph, relief, collage, wood type and hand coloring, 13 x 17 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“ManUp!” features work by Marshall Astor, Ryan Caruthers, Cassils, Christopher Dacre, Amy Elkins, Steven Frost, Pilar Gallego, Oree Holban, Wynne Neilly, Conrad Ruiz, Devan Shimoyama, and Scott Vanidestine, and is curated by Roman Stollenwerk. The show runs until March 17, 2017 at The Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art.

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Before You Go

"Masculinities" by Chad States

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