Boston

“The Masculine Masquerade”

MIT List Visual Arts Center

Querying a concept that, not unlike whiteness, once seemed either invisible or simply ubiquitous, “The Masculine Masquerade: Masculinity and Representation” sought to reinvigorate contemporary analyses of gender by turning its critical gaze (back) toward the male. Mounting an exhibition under the rubric of the newly resuscitated and influential 1929 Joan Riviere essay on “womanliness,” cocurators Helaine Posner and Andrew Perchuk laudably attempted to extend some of the insights of recent feminist theory in order to interrogate the category of the masculine itself. In this show, masculinity became a kind of playing field or arena of performativity, so that the pieces selected were less about the quiddity of chromosomal difference or the proclivities of the phallus than about the ideologies and rhetoric of maleness—and what teases its constructive and constrictive borders.

The work that comprised the exhibition—photographs, sculpture, video, and multimedia installations—ranged from the astonishing to the dismayingly predictable. An attempt was clearly made to provide a forum for an array of “subject-positions” circulating around masculinity: there were pieces by two women, two black men (one English), an Irish-Israeli collaborative team, a Chinese expatriate, a Scottish expatriate, as well as four Caucasian-American men. Some of the work concerned questions of social class, some addressed ethnicity, and still other pieces explicitly engaged issues of homosexual identity. This fundamentally liberal, inclusionary gesture, which ignored the evident unevenness of many of the pieces, curiously contradicted the curatorial objective of resisting reductive categorizations of subjectivity.

In this regard, it is significant that the most effective and affecting piece in the show, Mary Kelly’s wall installation, Gloria Patri, 1992, moved beyond the rutted logic of the ideological “subject-position” to produce a work of subtlety, humor, and fierce satiric bite. Kelly arranged 12 screenprinted “coats of arms,” six trophies, and five engraved shields, in what amounted to a shrine to contemporary American manhood. The trophies proclaimed such effervescent martial clichés as “Busting Our Butts To Get It Right” and “Not Enough Gees And Gollies To Describe It,” while the reflective aluminum shields, each implicating the body of the viewer, related narratives of a pensive fisherman, a man helping a woman in labor, a black adolescent, and in a deft touch, a female weight lifter. This work succeeded precisely where much of the other material in the show did not: although it emerged in response to a specific political and cultural moment—the Persian Gulf War—it simultaneously opened a kind of prism through which broader questions of language, power, and representation entered and combinatorially changed hue, shedding new light on issues of femininity as well as patriarchal masculinity.

Other similarly illuminating pieces included those of Matthew Barney and Charles Ray. Barney’s three-screen video installation, Drawing Restraint 7, 1993—depicting satyrlike figures prancing and spinning, frolicking in a limousine, or chasing their own tails—explored the cumbersome body and its urgent, troublesome drives. Variously horned and unhorned, mobile and constricted, these compelling figures alternately evoked power and social impotence. Ray’s Self-Portrait, 1990—a suburban mannequin figure complete with nerdy hat, glasses, stripy J. Crew–ish shirt, windbreaker, and boating sneakers—performed a similar critical intervention. The figure’s defeated wimpy expression and ungendered appearance called into question the source from which hegemony flows, tripping up the facile notion that power is somehow located here, in this unmanned, white-male container.

In decided contrast to these subtly engaging works, the exhibition’s less successful pieces made all too sure to hammer home their pedagogical point with deictic zeal. Keith Piper’s Another Step into the Arena, 1992—an installation of a cordoned-off boxing ring surrounded by four television screens playing loops of boxing matches involving, or news events surrounding, the iconic figures of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson—was symptomatic. Piper’s animus was directed at stereotypes of black heterosexual males. But hasn’t stereotype critique itself become somewhat stereotypical, reifying racial antagonism on the plane of representation, when, as Adrian Piper shows, racism operates more sinuously, and pervasively? Meanwhile, Michael Yeu Tong’s multimedia Red Sky at Morning, 1992, Mother Altar, 1993, and Father Altar, 1993, depicted the problematics of filial responsibility amid global political and ideological shifts. Burdened by a need to explain cultural difference verbally (through recorded text), Yue attempted to demystify “otherness” while refusing to relinquish its exotic cachet. Finally, Dale Kistemaker’s His Bedroom, 1993, a slide show projected over a child’s bed, depicted the construction of a ’50s suburban identity as a nightly process of injecting series of formulae into the psyche of a young white boy. But does ideology really work in such a direct, mechanistic, unmediated way? Did it ever?

“The Masculine Masquerade” marked an important opening in insufficiently explored theoretical terrain. But its occasional preoccupation with a schematically conceived notion of alterity tended to reroute some of its critical inroads and sap some of its interventionist drive.

Nico Israel