Los Angeles

James Gobel

UCLA Hammer Museum

JAMES GOBEL MAKES PICTURES of what he likes: guys with protruding tummies and double chins who don't fit any of the presumed ideals of gay physical appearance, be they the Tom of Finland dream with bulging chest, biceps, and crotch, the boyish nightclub urchin, or the grand dandy. Looking at these painstaking compositions of yarn, felt, and string on panels, one quickly realizes that Gobel's men are all “regular guys,” to use a dangerous term. They sleep in football shirts, have above-average waistlines, sport woolly (though groomed) beards, and wear work clothes and baseball caps. When they dress up, you know they're dressed up; they hang out in ordinary places; and though you can't see it in Gobel's pictures, many of them probably have back hair about which they're not particularly self-conscious.

How do we know they're gay? Gobel avoids clichés in favor of hints. The pair in Bed and Breakfast, 2000, who seem to gaze placidly at the viewer, are likely just watching the tube before bed. The boxers-clad subjects lounging on the patchwork quilt (one in an odalisque-like pose) appear to have settled in for the evening in their floral-wallpapered room, complete with splashy still-life painting and matching lamps on the faux-woodgrained nightstands. The two husky guys in Camping Trip, 1999, might look like they left their girlfriends at home for a weekend of fishing were it not for their cheek-to-cheek, chest-to-flannel embrace. In other images, a hand on a knee and other small gestures provide clues, as do tattoos and baseball-cap insignias of a bear footprint. The term “bears,” along with “chubs” and “chubbies,” has come to signify the gay subculture of which Gobel's characters seem to be happy, comfortable, well-adjusted members.

These pictures are based on photographs of friends as well as strangers, but they are more than just the product of Gobel's liking these men. He likes this world, which is neither closeted nor flamboyant, but rather frank—a world where we find neither the exaggerated feyness that says “Gay” with a capital G nor the kind of coy ambiguity by which pinky movements, pronunciation characteristics, and fashion sense tease television viewers about the orientation of sitcom characters. In this world, a term like “regular guys” really is dangerous—not alarming in its political incorrectness, but provocative in its unfettered idealism. Gobel proposes his characters as not regular but gay, but regular and gay. He demonstrates his devotion to this idealism through his virtuoso handicraft—careful, delicate gluing down and subsequent decorating of his favored felt and string—which seems only the slightest touch ironic; his frank portrayals that neither play up nor play down the relationships among his subjects; and the simple pleasantness of his images, down to the last warm and fuzzy detail. People who can't accept Gobel's world should stay away from his work, because they just might find these images lovely, homey, and a bit nifty.

Christopher Miles