Ben Quilty and his view on masculinity

Ben Quilty is an Australian contemporary Artist, at the height of his artistic career, having over 30 solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas as well as being the winner of various prizes such as, The Doug Moran Prize in 2009, the Archibald Prize in 2011 and the Redlands Westpac Art in 2012.  Quilty can be considered as one of the artists who explores the concept of masculinity in relation to “rituals” that best display the characteristics of male rebellion and anxiety. Quilty’s  work is usually autobiographical, often recalling his teenage years, full of no sense of authority, boldness, restlessness, spontaneity, pleasure seeking, alcohol, drugs, cars and recklessness, and he uses such events to explore how we define what is being a man, and how boys become men (Caddey, n.d, p.7).

In the painting “Self-Portrait Dead (Over the Hills and Far Away)”, 2007, the artist depicts himself heavily drunk after a whole night of drinking (Caddey, n.d, p.8). The paint is thick and heavy, composed of patches of dull colours that make up a blurry representation, portraying through medium the mood of being heavily intoxicated. The artist states “it’s a comment, about reckless masculinity rather than a celebration of drunkenness” which acknowledges the fact that he’s aware of how the idea of masculinity has affected him personally, which might be the reason why he heavily drinks. The artist then follows by stating “It’s me as a willing participant in the mayhem that is modern man, it’s quite critical the statement I’m making. I want people to see the vulnerability” acknowledging the fact that he’s consciously taking part in activities that make man today, himself included, chaotic, showing the viewer the state of vulnerability that ensues (Caddey, n.d, p.8).

hjk Ben Quilty, 2007, Self-Portrait Dead (Over the Hills and Far Away)

Quilty also tackles the aspect of guidance, or rather the lack of.  Teenage boys acquire from boyhood to manhood, in white Australian culture, “rites of passage”, such as getting legally drunk on their eighteenth birthday, which symbolize some kind of passage from boyhood to manhood. In the “Crash painting series” the artist choose to represent, with his bold application of paint, this issue the iconic powerful cars of the 1970s such as the Torana and the Falcon, cars that “reeked of rebellion”, as a metaphor for the idea of masculinity which consists of strength, power, swiftness and intimidation. In this series Quilty depicts the powerful cars after they all had crashed, to intentionally send a visual message that masculinity is just as vulnerable to self-destruction, such as the high injuries and death rates in males caused by reckless behaviors encouraged by this idea of masculinity (Caddey, n.d, p.9).

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Ben Quilty, 2012, Crash painting 1.

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Ben Quilty, 2012, Crash painting 2

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Where my Interest in masculinity in Art Started

Before my current Interest in Ambiguity, which is now a theme I’m currently working with , the first ever theme that I was completely obsessed with was gender, specifically masculinity. In fact, masculinity was the first theme I explored through a fine art lens in my first year while reading for a Foundation Diploma in Fine Arts.

With so much talk about feminism, femininity and overcoming the boundaries set by society of what it means to be a woman, I couldn’t help but ask myself why masculinity doesn’t get the same coverage and exploration.  Back then, the way I tackled it was to look towards gender stereotypes and how female stereotypes are more tackled then male stereotypes, in turn this is what led me to find the artist Nir Arieli who, I dare use the words…Inspired me…. to continue looking into this subject.

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Nir Arieli, N.d (Image online). Matt. [Photoraph].

Nir Arieli is an Israeli New York based photographer whose concepts often related to challenging the norms of masculinity.  In the series “Men”, Nir Arieli questions and challenges masculinity by portraying these men in what society , over time,  has established as characteristics and poses which are feminine.  In the photograph above titled “Matt”, the Artist captured a moment while the male model is crying, with watery eyes and trails of fallen tears still present on his face. The image of a man being emotional, exposed and raw is not one that is very common or shown today. The Artist himself has stated that with this series he is trying to reveal the basis of a stereotypical masculinity, that has oppressed men in not  being emotionally uncensored, gentle and vulnerable, set by the  standard rules created by society, and titled unnatural when demonstrated by men (Frank. P, 2013).

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Nir Arieli, N.d (Image online). Taner. [Photoraph].

This other photograph  is taken from the other series that is titled “Inframen”.  For “Inframen” Arieli uses male dancers as his main subject matter as he believes that male dancers completely ignore the boundaries of gender in favor of art and their passion for dancing,  along with an infrared photography technique that makes visible all the bruises, scars, blemishes and stretchmarks that can’t be seen by the naked eye, to convey his concept. He uses the contrast of the strong male dancer body along with their delicate captured movements and the hidden marking on their skin that have been made visible, to challenge the norms of masculinity. It’s a unique representation of the fact that men have been restricted, not to show emotion or be emotional, keeping it hidden or repressed, but under the right light, like the markings on the dancers skin, their vulnerability becomes visible (Anon, 2014).

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In the long run what started as a question, resulted in my final project for the end of the year exhibition which was actually my first ever painting in oils. I titled the painting “Vulnerabilis” which stand for Vulnerable in Latin. Like Arieli, I wanted to show that vulnerability in men exists and that it’s completely normal for men to feel such emotions. To convey this I used a lot of symbolism composed of posture, shapes and Baroque motifs. I put a man with a strong physique in a fetal position, to show by contrast that even a man who looks strong can feel vulnerable. To continue to emphasis this, I surrounded the figure with a selection of three shapes; the circle, the triangle and the square. The circle is a symbol of protection and safety, while the square and triangle stability, to visually show that a man can also be in a state that he might need external help and protection. The shapes are then all decorated with Baroque motifs, as you might know Baroque was used as a way to show the power and strength the Catholic Church had against the Protestant Rebellion. Similar to the symbolic purpose of the shape, I surround the figure with Baroque decoration as to convey that, although a man can show physical strength through a good physique, it doesn’t mean that a male might not need other strength in a moment of difficulty.

Since that year, which was actually around 2013,  I have gained a passion for Gender Equality, especially when it comes to male social injustices, which sadly don’t get mentioned anywhere. On a bright side, we are starting to see a bit more awareness towards the topic of Masculinity and the Male Gender, a clear example of this is Grayson Perry series titled “All man” where the Artist tackles the male posterity and its effects, head on.

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I’m all in for equality! But let’s talk a bit about men rights

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This poster was inspired by an article I read online on nytimes.com dating back to 2011, in which it discusses a group of activists, which proposed banning circumcision in San Francisco. At first, many didn’t take them seriously, but they soon managed to gather 7,000 signatures to ban the “practice”. In agreement with the activists of this cause, they state that they want to implement measures to protect young boys from an unneeded surgery, calling it male genital mutilation (Medina. J, 2011).

From the poster you can already see what my opinions are, and as I stated before I’m in full agreement. I just find it funny that when it’s done on young girls it’s called mutilation, which I agree with that statement and find completely appalling…on that note watch the movie Desert Flower, but when it comes to young boys, it’s simply called circumcision. As Europeans (with most of us uncut) I find the way Americans are obsessed with circumcision strange, immediately stating that it’s for hygienic purposes, which let’s be honest, is simply a capitalist tool of making money out of parents who have been indoctrinated thinking it’s the right thing to do. I also find that statement a bit offensive, as it indicates men who are uncut are dirty….which I can assure you we are not.

Rather than focusing on that part of it, I want to bring forward the issue regarding circumcision…which is that, if it’s your body, shouldn’t you have the right to make decisions regarding it? Shouldn’t men be able to make that decision, rather than parents making it for them without their consent? I understand that due to some medical cases some young boys need to get the procedure done and with that, I see no issue, same goes too if a man is of a certain age and THEY decided that they would like to be circumcised. I have spoken to a few men, that have been circumcised as babies or young boys and all of them feel as if they had no part in a decision that regards their own body, most still feel some remorse about it and wish it actually never happened, especially when they can still remember getting the circumcision done……..Rant over.

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