If you listen to Canadian smart-guy-lots-of-people-despise Jordan Peterson, we are facing a crisis of masculinity in this country. But, beaten down by feminazis, identity politics and even a kinder, gentler NFL, a testosterone-fueled wave of manliness is cresting in opposition, led, of course, by that mighty my-button-is-Yuge phoenix rising from the ashes of male emasculation and suffering.
That is not the takeaway from “Photographs of Contemporary Masculinity,” a wide-ranging survey of Los Angeles-based photographer Amy Elkins’ work. In fact, one of the more remarkable aspects of this engrossing exhibition, the second Tyler Stallings-curated show in his tenure at Orange Coast College (OCC), is that the one photo that suggests more masculine-ascribed traits such as competition and arrogance is that of a 12-year-old Danish ballet student. But it isn’t compensating attitude that’s etched upon his porcelain-doll-like facial features, but rather, it is unrestrained ferocity and commitment to his craft, something any kid in his sixth year of training at the Royal Danish Ballet no doubt needs.
The rest of the portraits, which fill about half the gallery space, are as varied as the subjects pictured—from Ivy League rugby players to cisgender and transgender male-identifying subjects—and convey things not typically associated with the fuck-or-fight syndrome: vulnerability, introspection, emotions other than anger. Hell, more than a few times, Elkins captures her masculine subjects projecting that most feminine and ineffable of qualities, mystery.
That notion of masculine vulnerability infuses every one of the portraits drawn from four of the six series on display. The first is Wallflower, which Elkins worked on from 2006 to 2008 (joined by Wallflower II, which she began in 2016 with men in Atlanta and rural Georgia) while studying in New York City. Her cisgender male-identifying subjects were shot in Elkins’ bedroom, with colorful fabric and wallpaper as background. The feminine touch helped her achieve what she set out to do in the first place: explore the idea of “masculine vulnerability [which] is not necessarily looked at or celebrated,” Elkins told an art class of OCC students last week. “The quiet nuances, the beauty, rather than the macho,” tough-guy aura. Working with a female photographer in a feminine setting seemed to strip from them any sense of macho pretense. Some seem haunted, others serene, none seem particularly happy, but whatever they project, it is all through the eyes, the male gaze for once not fixed upon woman as object, but rather upon their own subjective nature.
The grace and elegance of ballet, as well as its young subjects, a discipline more commonly associated with women, as shown in her 2012 Danseur series is juxtaposed with selections from Elegant Violence, her 2008 series on rugby, as violent a sport imaginable. There’s a vivid contrast, as well as an undeniable connection. Whether prim and proper dancers or bruised and bloody rugby players, a fire seems to burn in all of them, though it’s more the focused flame of a welder than a raging wildfire.
The final two series are markedly different—and show off not only Elkins’ extensive artistic range, but also her compassion. The portraits that are part of Black Is the Day, Black Is the Night and The Golden State have been digitally augmented. The first features computer-tweaked images of landscapes and portraits of men serving life and death-row sentences. But through rendering their portraits and the images of places they told Elkins they would never see again into something vague and indecipherable (the portraits are digitally distorted based on the ratio of how much time the men had spent in prison, so the longer, the hazier), she somehow humanizes them. Seeing these elusive, immaterial images of real people living life in prison is powerful, the visual significators reminding us that just as memory cannot sustain itself when it is pulled from place and time, even a person’s self gradually evaporates when isolated for so long.
Golden State is a large section of a much more massive project, in which Elkins separated the 746 men and women on California’s death row by last name. She laid each prisoner’s portrait atop another, in effect creating a new person from the composite. What is eerie is that whether the last letter is A, which 80 inmates shared, or a less common letter, when layered together, the 12 faces that comprise this wall mural resemble—big surprise—people of color.
Like the rest of Elkins’ work, the piece speaks very clearly about contemporary masculinity in the context of gender, athletics and incarceration, without sounding noisy or loud or brash. As you stare into the eyes of her portraits and feel the flickering insubstantiality of a life dwindling toward nothingness in prison, it’s easy to realize that her subjects aren’t the only ones contemplating themselves and their place in this world.
“Photographs of Contemporary Masculinity” at Orange Coast College’s Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-5738; www.orangecoastcollege.edu. Open Mon.-Wed., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., noon-4 p.m. Through Dec. 1. Free. For more info about Amy Elkins, visit amyelkins.com.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???