I imagine that the most pointed, targeted epithet with which one athlete can taunt another has remained unchanged for decades. The epithet has its power because it is intended as a challenge to the manhood of the opposing player. (True: Part of its power comes from being accepted as such.) The epithet suggests that in the hyper-masculine sporting sphere, there is nothing, nothing less manly than finding other men attractive.
Of course the supposition of a line of demarcation between masculine and gay is a false construct based on a bigoted stereotype: that gay men, gay sex and a man simply being attractive to another man are not masculine.
It’s the illusion of that allusion that makes “Hard Targets” at the Wexner Center for the Arts a particularly strong group show. About a third of the work in the exhibition is by artists who are actively examining the false dichotomy between masculine and homoerotic. In so doing the artists create not a third sex or sphere, but a fuller, more honest presentation of masculinity than you’ll ever see in men’s magazines or on ESPN. The show is on view through April 11.
The most powerful thread in “Hard Targets” is work engaged in showing boys, men and even artists trying to figure out exactly what ‘masculine’ is. Take Catherine Opie’s intense 2007 picture, Josh (above). It shows a high school football player self-consciously trying to
present himself as manly. Well, maybe that’s not quite right. He’s
really trying to present himself as prototypically manly, not in the Teddy
Roosevelt-boxes-with-Gifford Pinchot way, but in an early-21st-century way, which means… well, what does it mean? Josh brought to mind a passage from “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s classic account of the early American space program. NASA wanted its budding astronauts to present themselves as man’s men, so it quietly mandated that the astronauts comport themselves in certain ways. For example, the men willing to risk their lives to see if man could fly in space were allowed to stand with their hands on their hips, but their thumbs should be to the rear and their fingers should face forward. Apparently that was officially manlier than standing with their hands on their hips with their hands balled up into fists, or whatever.
Just as NASA didn’t quite know what was manly and what wasn’t and made up an Official Government Version, Josh wasn’t sure either. Opie’s picture shows Josh apparently unsure if it’s more manly to flex his torso or not, so he’s kind of in the middle of flexing. Or not. He’s looking into Opie’s lens as intensely as possible. Manly men look right at you. That’s either confrontational or, well, a sexual challenge from a young man with an amazing body and a bare midriff. Josh’s jaw-line is carved out of his face. His nose is just busted-up enough to be impossible to resist. Thanks in no small part to a provocatively placed football and the hands that surround it, Josh is one of the sexiest works of art of a man in recent years. If that’s not masculine, what is? (Maybe Rusty (2008, at right), with his long, flowing hair, bracelet and rich eyebrows?)
Artists ask that question again and again in “Hard Targets.” The only artist whose examination approaches Opie’s intensity is Sam Taylor-Wood, represented here by 3 Minute Round (2008), a two-channel, three-minute video featuring boxers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, and David Robert Joseph Beckham (“David”) (2004), a digital video displayed on a plasma screen that shows soccer and pop culture icon ostensibly asleep. Boxers are masculine, right? Even when they sit for an artist wearing the name of a clothing designer around their waist? And a soccer player has to be right, even if he is wearing a gold chain and a diamond earring? All three men are presented as unavoidably sexual. The Klitschko brothers, scarred, sweaty, almost confrontational in their posture and pose, seem like men on the hunt… even though we’re the ones looking at them. Beckham is in that traditional place where Western artists have implied intimacy: Bed. Something about Beckham’s frosted hair is even more sexually confrontational because of the intimacy of Taylor-Wood’s examine-him-all-you-like presentation.
While this is an exhibition about athletes and sport, the artists on view are mostly disinterested in man-on-man physical engagement. (Opie presents football teams lined up before a play, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno follow soccer star Zinedine Zidane through a game in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) and Harum Farocki follows a soccer match in a befuddling 2007 12-channel video installation titled Deep Play.) If the artists are trying to reveal something about men, desire,
athletics and athleticism — and many of these artists are — that’s a
smart strategy. The game itself is not erotic or sexual, it’s work,
sometimes a job, always a focused exercise. While boys and men challenge each other’s manhood as a taunt on the field, there’s little doubt that a professional athlete is manly. (That’s why you’ll see men
pat each other on the ass between the white lines — and not in the
locker room, where the definition of masculinity is more open.)
If “Hard Targets” posits an answer, a definition of masculinity, it’s split between one of the show’s first galleries and the show’s final gallery. Early on curator Christopher Bedford presents objects and video from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 4. Barney is a baroque performance-obsessive. He’s making objects for
re-sale, like a slick marketer leading scores of MFA students down the
road to narrative confusion. Barney’s Cremaster persona and series, full of preening, over-design and carefully considered over-production, is installed in a dead-end gallery, an argument for a negative definition of masculinity.
The most effective argument against
Barney’s narcissism — and the closest the show comes to positively defining masculinity — is in the exhibition’s final gallery where six of Collier Schorr’s 2002-03 photographs of high school wrestlers are presented. (Above: 152 lbs. (H.T.), 2003). Five of the pictures feature teenage boys either training or posing. The wrestlers are doing what wrestlers do: stretching, working out, standing there in an exhausted haze. There’s no posing, no posturing, no self-conscious presentation as artifice — or anything else. Maybe “masculine” is just comfort.
Previously: Introducing “Hard Targets.” I had planned on posting part three of my take on the show — a look at how artists have looked at sport as a site of social mobility — tomorrow. But I want to extend my look at that through some broader posts, so I’ll save those for next week.