Stuart Mead

Speed Boat Gallery

One of the most memorable paintings in this exhibition depicts a vaudeville strip show from the perspective of someone standing backstage right: you see the stripper from behind, and by gazing past her you can look at the audience as well. In the foreground there’s a clown with a big smile on his face trying to introduce a goofy note into what he understands is a complicated but undeniably male exercise in sexual power. His face recalls faces seen in rush hour traffic, at panel discussions, on TV: a face that’s been caught looking but doesn’t want to stop, that mirrors a soul lost somewhere between desire and guilt, that transforms shame into comic gesture before registering tragic self-denial.

For years, Stuart Mead has used the vaudeville stage as a metaphor for the structure of male visual pleasure. Like most of Mead’s dramatic templates (public-bath scenes, circus scenes, scenes of men pissing through semistiff dicks), the vaudeville show combines the factual and the fantastic, twisting everyday visual reality into a philosophical discussion of what it means to find sexual pleasure in looking. Mead is exploring what it feels like to be a man whose desire and conscience don’t match, who knows that the exercise of power results in a lot of embarrassment, shame, and confusion. He’s more concerned with how the male gaze affects men than with how it affects women: with telling men that their search for visual pleasure comes back to haunt them.

Recently, Mead began a series of public-bath scenes in which men flex huge biceps and show off big dicks in angry circle-jerks while women parade by in swimsuits and loll together in pools. Even though he strips hetero-spectacle down to its lowest sexual common denominator, Mead complicates his scenarios with innocence and romantic love figured by preadolescent girls and a color scheme that’s less realistic than prismatic. Contradictory and elusive, these paintings are eyewitness accounts of sexual selves acting out—metaphysical depositions from the everyday empire of the senses.

Even though Mead is concerned with the visual pleasures of the real world, he proves himself a most faithful witness to what can only be imagined. Whether of teenage women on the moon or devils wielding paintbrushes, his works find their power in the way they create a bridge between Mead’s imagination and our own, his analysis and our understanding. Mead’s paintings don’t always present a pretty picture, but underneath all that merciless psychodrama is a stubborn belief in the morality of speaking one’s truth to the world, no matter what the consequences.

Vince Leo