Loring McAlpin

In his show of sculptural assemblages, entitled “Purple Men,” Loring McAlpin assays a critical examination of the constructions of masculine identity and desire. The persistent current throughout this excursus is homosexuality, as it is affirmed, sublimated, and denied. In the interstices of a dominant white male cultural matrix, McAlpin seeks to retrieve the threads of a gay subjectivity as it is created both in collusion with, and in revolt against that culture.

McAlpin seems particularly hung up on the admittedly grotesque spectacle of male bonding as it is enacted in sports and leisure. Many of the accessories that the artist marshalls to make his case—athletic lockers, wrestling mats, and cocktail bar implements—derive from the iconography of male heterosexuality, yet the rituals they suggest all have mocking correlatives in the life style of the obsessively self-regarding gym queen and barfly. These objects all pretend to speak the language of a straight stud, but, as McAlpin points out, the recurrent sous-entendu is “faggot.”

This is interesting material for investigation, but McAlpin’s presentations are exasperatingly diffuse in their aims and effects. Almost all of the works in this show are parodies of established, conceptually inclined artists, and part of the fun is picking out the references to Allan McCollum, Haim Steinbach, Richard Prince, Chris Burden, Nayland Blake, Annette Lemieux, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Unfortunately, often that’s all they are: references severed from the meanings that the plundered works sustained. In this respect they evidence little real critical engagement with the sources. Sodomites (all works 1990) is an arrangement of pictures after the manner of McCollum’s surrogates, but McAlpin has replaced McCollum’s empty rectangles with portrait photographs of smiling gay men and lesbians, all of them looking assured and well-adjusted. What is the point of playing this apparent cheery plenitude off of McCollum’s dour voids? The brunt of the joke is evidently directed at the recent generation of artists who answered the demands of capital by prostrating themselves before the tyranny of the system, but the nature of McAlpin’s antidote remains irritatingly simplistic.

McAlpin is a member of the AIDS activist artists’ collective Gran Fury, a group that has successfully bent naked appropriations of certain artists’ styles (among them Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger) to its own didactic political purposes. But the shift from direct action to the arena of the art market may pose problems for this kind of ends-justify-the-means theft. Neither making a convincing statement in terms of established art discourse nor achieving his stated purpose of probing the fictions of masculinity, save in an extremely superficial manner, McAl-pin’s appropriations seem mannered and less urgent than one might hope. The varying qualities and merits of the different artists cited are leveled as sight gags for the in-the-know gallery-goer. These appropriations play fast and loose with two kinds of recognition: on the one hand, that of a viewer accustomed to the art world’s current infatuation with conceptually derived strategies; on the other, that of one versed in gay subcultural argot.

McAlpin is quoted in the press release: “There are two kinds of men—driven souls and tasteful consumers. If you’re looking for tasteful consumers, go to another (show). I’m driving to push my hang-ups on guys.” This is an odd statement, as McAlpin’s objects are, in fact, overwhelmingly docile. Humorous to a degree and agreeably produced, the McAlpin assemblage ultimately constitutes the very prototype of the tasteful consumable.

David Rimanelli