Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Hard But Used: Gender, Sexuality and Drawing

Report from…London

Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper) was at the Institute of Contemporary Art, June 19 to September 8, 2013.

Installation shot of the exhibition under review, with Judith Bernstein’s Fucked By Number (1967/2013) foreground.  Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy of ICA, London
Installation shot of the exhibition under review, with Judith Bernstein’s Fucked By Number (1967/2013) foreground. Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy of ICA, London

This show could have been curated with my own tastes and interests in mind, and yet it suffers from a problem that often plagues ICA exhibitions: painful over-ambition. According to the ‘blurb’, it “explores how artists since the 1940s have used drawing to address ideas critical and current to their time, ranging from the politics of gender and sexuality to feminist issues, war, censorship and race”. An epic survey, except that it’s eight artists in three and a half rooms! But still, there’s much to enjoy.

Reimagining her classic mural-sized anti-Vietnam War drawings of the early 1970s, Judith Bernstein comments on US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in a powerful, timely and fitting introduction both to the show and her own work. Although the use of the erect penis as a metaphor for male aggression is rather heavy handed, it remains as potent today as when these works were made. Here they are intelligently juxtaposed with Margaret Harrison’s exquisite gender-bending watercolours of cross-dressing superheroes, introducing the exhibition’s central preoccupations: the ambiguities and contradictions implicit in social constructions of gender and sexuality.

Cary Kwok, Blind Date Buffet, 2008. Ballpoint on paper. Courtesy of the Artist
Cary Kwok, Blind Date Buffet, 2008. Ballpoint on paper. Courtesy of the Artist

Cary Kwok works in ballpoint, limiting his palette to the most readily available ballpoint pen colours: blue, black and red. Cum to Father (2010), depicts an ejaculating curate with disconcertingly delicate penmanship. The central totem-like figure in Blind Date Buffet (2008) is immaculate and inaccessible in the way it is rendered with photographic precision; suggesting, perhaps, a critique of photography. Self-absorption in the sexual act is perfectly conveyed in this bind-folded figure; as he floats in white space, wrists and ankles manacled, he ejaculates in response to some unseen stimulation. Yet this inaccessibility and lack of connection is complicated by the relationship which develops between the work and the viewer as he becomes the voyeuristic object of our consumption. His body epitomises the contradictions of a particular contemporary gay ideal: hard but used, healthy yet tattooed, self-absorbed and individualistic yet seeking connection (and representation).

I can take or leave Mike Kuchar’s mightily-endowed barbarians; despite having grown up lusting after Schwarzenegger’s Conan I think I’m simply prejudiced against ‘fantasy art’. Although the works delight in naivety and perhaps comment on ‘primitivism’ I find it hard to see them as anything more than the crude teenage fantasies that they (perhaps) hope to comment on. Perhaps they made more sense in 1970s counter-cultural San Francisco than they do today.

Another artist who struggles to make the leap from subculture to gallery is Antonio Lopez. It’s not his fault. His fabulous fashion-inspired and fashion-industry-serving work was never intended to be consumed in the gallery in quite this way. Where are the magazines and books in which his works appeared? We needed as context some reference to the hedonistic parties which inspired and were doubtless influenced by his (then) outrageous costumes ideas.

Also unconvincing is the shoehorning of Georg Grosz into the exhibition with a single work, Stickmen meeting members of the bourgeoisie (1946). The circumstances of the work’s creation are so distant from most other works in the exhibition that it takes us back to the problem of grandiose scope.

The literal ‘poster boy’ for the exhibition is Tom of Finland and he doesn’t disappoint. Original paintings and drawings are representative of his career, ranging from whimsical (although still homo-erotically explicit) 1950s paintings to the now iconic ‘70s biker images, but the aesthetically driven hang doesn’t make their chronology clear. The hang is aesthetic rather than chronological and although visually it works well, it misses a valuable opportunity for the student of visual culture who will want to trace the development of the representation of the gay male in his work. Tom’s work begs the question: was he instrumental in creating the image of the gay man as a powerful, sexy, independent sexual consumer, or was he merely reflecting a queer (re)presentation of masculinity codified in denim, leather and uniform by the gay male ‘clone’?

Antonio Lopez, Gianni Versace Campaign, 1984.  Copyright the Estate of Antonio Lopez, courtesy The Suzanne Geiss Company
click to enlarge