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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Did society make men afraid of touch?

Zoë Zimmerman is an American Photographer, with a Mexican background, skill in raging antique photographic processes such as platinum prints and albumen prints.  Smithson, the author of the article regarding the artist states, that in her series titled “Of Men” the artists analyses “touch and platonic intimacy” between males, that their boundaries and how these parameters have been established by society itself. Zimmerman believes that American society, has acquired a negative view of “platonic male affection” making touch between males only acceptable if it’s in an aggressive context and not in a nurturing context. With this series the artist is trying to question why this happens, questioning if it’s due to the idea that the male touch is considered as “inheritably sexual” therefore implying homosexual behaviour, and is it restricted due to homophobia? (Smithson, 2014)

The author Aline Smithson, states that Zoë Zimmerman challenges our perception of where such physical contact between men is socially allowed. In the first group of photos, Zimmerman takes inspiration from a 1930s Red Cross First Aid Manual in which it displays men aiding men in situations of physical vulnerability, but in her series, even though there is physical contact between the two males, the facial expression and body language that is not indicating any level of intimacy. This group is basically representing the type of physical contact that is allowed by society between males, to touch but keep isolated (Smithson, 2014).

Zoë Zimmerman, 2014, Group 1. [Photography].

In the second group of photographs, Zimmerman re-enacts photos from vintage medical texts with the difference that they are more focused on a more direct and intimate type of touch. The two images are now taken out of the context of medical examination, allowing the viewer to focus more on the act of touch between the two males. The aim of this group was to portray intimacy, without referring to any type of eroticism but just as a nurturing behaviour. It reflects on the modern fear that men have developed regarding physical intimacy when it doesn’t even relate to homosexuality or any form of sexual interaction. The images serve more as an idea of example of how men could act between themselves once overcoming such irrational fears (Smithson, 2014).

Zoë Zimmerman, 2014, Group 2. [Photography].

In the third group of the series, the artist shifts her focus onto society itself, the viewers included, and the preconceived judgment we have regarding fraternal physical intimacy. A simple act of two men holding each other’s hand which may cause a sense of awkwardness and in some individuals even irritation and disgust. With a simple but effective visual message, Zimmerman is pushing the viewers to question why that might be. The models themselves exhibit, such as the two teenage boys in sports gear, a form of struggle that might be caused by the same preconceived that dictates that such physical contact is unacceptable but the images, even if the models seem uncomfortable, still draws your attention to them. With this group of photographs the artist is not trying to create a fantasy that allows males to be comfortable physically, but rather question why males are uncomfortable displaying physical intimacy in the first place.

Zoë Zimmerman, 2014, Group 3. [Photography].

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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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