Images courtesy of SUGs
In an Op-Ed entitled “Why Men Fail,” New York Times columnist David Brooks proposes that women are outperforming their male counterparts in myriad ways because they are more flexible and resilient. Citing The End of Men by Hannah Rosin, Brooks suggests that gender roles have shifted over the past forty years to the distinct disadvantage of men. Arguing that while women have abandoned traditional pre-feminist and feminist roles — becoming effectively post-feminist — “[m]en still adhere to the masculinity rules, which limits their vision and movement.” Brooks ends his piece by suggesting that men should be “less like Achilles, imposing their will on the world, and more like Odysseus,” ostensibly a more dynamic player within the mythological spectrum. In turning to mythology and storytelling to seek out alternatives to outmoded ways of performing masculinity, Brooks reproduces the idea by the poet and leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement, Robert Bly, who wrote a wildly popular book for men about the mythological figure of Iron John.
Those who have read Bly’s book will see parallels between what Bly proposes as the plight of the Western male, and several pieces in the recent exhibit, “Unknown Conditions: Questions of Maleness” staged in the LeRoy Neiman Center Gallery and curated by Eric Oresick. Iron John: A Book About Men recounts the monomyth of Iron John, the mythic figure at the center of the eponymous Grimm Brothers fairytale. Bly argues that mythologies in general, and “Iron John” in particular, contain lessons from the past that can help improve the fate of the contemporary Western man.
Because every interpretation of a work of art requires a framework, and because the title of this exhibit gestures in that direction, I read it as a Blyian family drama. In this narrative, Kyle Nilan (SAIC MFA ’15) is the son, the young man who is grappling with his masculinity. Woomin Kim (SAIC MFA ’15) and Eric Oresick (SAIC MFA ’15) play supporting roles as mother and father or as figures representing the self-sacrificing woman and man.
When visitors enter the front of the exhibition space and move clockwise, they see what looks like a studio wall with pinned drawings and scrap-like objects. The first and most immediate impression is how unrefined, even casual, the installation method is. The objects are attached to the wall with clear pins and blue tape — communicating an insistence on retaining creative freedom, and possibly an outright rejection of refinement. But careful viewers will discern an undeniable amount of precision in the way the objects are arranged. Consider in this light a piece by Oresick, the curator, just to the right.
The Impotent Father
Sitting on the floor and resting casually against the wall is a New Yorker-style cartoon in which a man stands with his back toward the viewer. He is scratchily drawn out and is looking at an empty wall, or perhaps a mirror. The caption reads: “It’s disappointing how quickly gum loses its flavor.” The caption and the image suggest something sexual. The gum connotes orality, and the reference to the loss of flavor suggests a too-quick loss of attraction to someone, or else apathy towards the flavor and pleasures of life. This impression is then enhanced by the physical presentation of the work itself. The first thing viewers will notice about this work is that it is located on the ground as if it waiting to be hung. But the hanging of the piece is never realized, so perhaps it is instead ready to be moved to another location. Viewers are likely to feel disappointment upon viewing this piece, stemming as much from a suspicion that the artist hasn’t put a great deal of effort into the making and presentation of the work, as from the sense of boredom that its caption communicates. The total effect allows viewers to lose interest and move on quickly — much like travelers who are reluctant to unpack in a hotel room that they will occupy temporarily.
A few feet away, another piece by Oresick also sits on the floor. The piece contains a nearly full peanut butter jar into which a carrot has been inserted. The jar and the food mixture inside have been preserved in resin. The resin is transparent so you can see what is happening inside of it — similar to the handle of the cane carried by the actor Richard Attenborough in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park that features a mosquito preserved inside tree resin. The piece suggests a memory frozen in time and the feeling of being stuck in the present. Within the framework of a young man’s struggle with masculinity, it might represent the snack of a man-child or a boy that hasn’t grown up and is preserved — never able to move, breathe, evolve or degenerate. The solid, dry and immobile presence of this sculpture suggests a sexuality that has been suspended — unable to manifest Bly’s “wild man” potential, and so functionally impotent.
The Self-Sacrificing Mother
Located in the middle of the room is a woven floor piece by Woomin Kim, which is placed nearby to a pair of distressed shoes that she used to process the material from which the woven piece is made. The woven mat represents the culmination of a yearlong project in which Kim wrapped thread around the sole of her shoe before walking around the streets of Chicago. At intervals she would remove the thread and weave it into the rug while adding new thread to the bottom of her shoes. The variation of color that viewers see in the rug was produced by her physically walking on dirt and on various different surfaces on the ground. The color variation in the rug shows browns, grays, and whites that appear, at first glance, merely decorative. The irony is that the mat’s tame and understated appearance obscures the actual dirt, grime, and germs it contains. Were viewers to understand immediately how the piece was constructed, the piece would appear much more aggressive and offensive than it does when they initially look at the piece.
Failure and Sentiment
Passive aggressiveness, as well as lack of effective communication and silent suffering, appears to weigh heavily on the roles played by the men and women portrayed in this exhibition. The exhibit as a whole cries out for the messy and carefree, yet everything comes across very intentional, refined, neat, and civilized. According to Bly, civilization, neatness, and refinement are a burden that our society has mandated for the contemporary masculine. They have internalized “a fear of wildness, irrationality, hairiness, intuition, emotion, the body and nature.” The effort to transform the “unclean” body into something more refined is a feature of Kim’s work. In the context of this exhibit, her body serves to labor and transmute dirt to aesthetic decor. A second piece in the show was also created through a laborious process involving the transformation of one thing into another. In creating this piece, she followed a rule that she would draw graphite wherever her arms could extend while standing up against a wall with a protrusion in the center. After making the “tarnish,” she attempts to erase the drawing, laboring ineffectually to erase her mark. The result is in effect a washed out oblique circle folded around a protruding column. Through her process, the gum eraser mixes with the graphite marks on the wall and then the residue falls neatly to the ground, creating a scatter that is due to gravity alone and clearly not manipulated by Kim.
To the right of Kim’s wall piece, is the final and most impressive piece by Nilan. Three leaning towers of styrofoam plates are glued together with corn syrup. The sticky towers sit on the ground and are enclosed by a wood framed glass case. This piece by Nilan suggests an out-of-control and insatiable hunger. However, rather than letting the dusty and sticky residues of the piece extend out into the rest of the room, it is again caged-in and made tame. Despite probable gallery restrictions, I would argue that a real “complication of maleness,” as Oresick set out to portray, would be to show work that isn’t self-contained.
If Oresick’s and Kim’s work are addressing sex and the labor of the body, it is fitting that those concerns are missing in Nilan’s work. Nilan is thinking about identity and trying to find — as Bly would put it — masculinity through male-to-male initiation. Littered throughout his studio wall installation, Nilan features several figures that might be interpreted as “new” paternal figures. These include Duane Allman, Porter Wagoner, Graham Parsons, John Smith, and Nudie Cohn of the infamous Nudie Suit. These images of male figures are all clad in the colorful embroidered suits of the type created by Nudie Cohn. Also, tacked onto the wall is a real embroidered jacket — hand-embroidered by Nilan’s mother. Additionally, there is a suggestion that Nilan might create a jacket of his own.
Featured prominently at visitors’ eye level is a drawing of a suit jacket with several of Nilan’s repetitive visual tropes. In Blyian terms, Nilan understands that because men can’t fully find their masculine selves through the bodies of their mothers (or the feminine in general), they must look to the example of male role models who express their masculine selves in ways that are not always about the heterosexual sex act. Nilan’s efforts to work through the Nudie suit read as an attempt to find non-sexual ways of expressing his masculinity and creativity since the Nudie suit flies in the face of male sobriety and plainness. If the pancake tower expresses an insatiable hunger, the jacket and Nudie suit drawings suggest Nilan’s efforts to satiate himself by incorporating influences from his mother (the inclusion of her jacket in the show, a jacket that resonates with the Nudie suits), alongside the new father figures that presumably provide for Nilan a less restrictive and more creative vision of maleness.
Kim provides an interesting foil to Oresick’s and Nilan’s dissatisfactions with their plight as Western men, and to their more and less successful efforts to alleviate those dissatisfactions. The self-containment and self-erasure of her artwork does not provide a mirror with which these men-in-formation can see themselves as active and powerful masculine beings. At the same time, because they are unable to ignore the labor of the feminine and the self-negating presence her work represents, they are forced to try to find themselves in a world in which she and they both exist. Oresick has crafted through the context of his work — Nilan as a protagonist of a young man struggling with a masculine identity in contemporary Western society. My suspicion is that Oresick did this in an effort to elicit empathy and understanding from viewers about the western man’s plight — and in this, I believe he has succeeded.