“To be masculine, there’s this idea that men just are,” explains Pictura Gallery’s exhibitions director Mia Dalglish. “They don’t work at it—they just are. In actuality, though, there’s a lot of work that goes into appearing perfectly masculine.”
Dalglish and Pictura’s curator, Lisa Berry, organized the show MANMADE around seven projects by contemporary photographers, as well as vintage prints from the Kinsey Institute that examine the body as a construction site where masculinity is at various stages of being built.
“In a Gender 101 class, the first thing you do is talk about the difference between gender and sex,” says Brenda Weber, a professor of Gender Studies at IU. She was brought in to provide an essay and give a gallery talk for the show.
“Sex tends to be the kind of imprint our body has through physiognomy and hormones,” Weber explains, “and gender the social identity we enact. But one of the things that’s really critical is that gender—because it’s about how we enact our understanding of ourselves—means that regardless of the body we are born in, we can be masculine or feminine. So it’s a series of choices, of codes, of ways of deporting the body, of deliberately writing certain kinds of codes—such as musculature or clothing—onto the body in a way that’s legible to a larger culture.”
The highly male-coded portrait of Buck Angel, in a photo by Michael Grecco on loan from the Kinsey Institute, serves as an object lesson in the distinction between sex and gender. An archetypal he-man in physique, grooming, accoutrements, and confrontational stare, Buck Angel has clearly put a lot of work into being a man, as the curators’ accompanying text bears out.
Writing the masculine code on the body isn’t inevitable or effortless, these photos tell us. That’s evident in two different series of photos featuring young athletes. The ballet is the milieu for Rachel Papo’s series, Desperately Perfect, focusing on a group of dancers in Russia.
Rites Of Passage
In one photo (Ilya in Mirror, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2007), a young boy stares intently at himself in all full-length mirror, practicing his form for ballet.
“There’s a budding kind of power represented in this pre-adolescent boy’s form,” Weber notes. “Though he’s doing something that we might think in stereotype as hyper-feminine—ballet—he actually can lay claim to a whole series of masculine sorts of values that are a part of this larger art form: determination, empowerment, a certain form of in-one-selfness. He looks like he really can’t be knocked over.”
In her series The Black Eye, Michal Chelbin literalizes the evolution from boyhood to manhood as a physical contest. Chelbin has photographed young Ukrainian wrestlers at the fleeting moment of peripubescence. The images showcase that painful individual journey, while contextualizing it within time-honored rituals and a weathered setting.
“You can’t miss the larger sense that these aren’t the only boys who have gone through this process,” Weber says.
A Man In A Uniform
Men who have completed the process of development display their hard-won badges in the photos that round out MANMADE, from IU photography professor Jeffrey Wolin’s portraits of uniformed vets from both sides of the Viet Nam conflict, to Kathryn Obermaier’s black-and-whites of body builders and Sumo wrestlers.
The show’s two images of femininity are also works in progress: Phillip Toledano‘s Angel depicts a woman on the verge; Viktoria Sorochinski‘s Like Daddy shows another girl who’s trying to fill her father’s shoes.
A bit of reprieve from the show’s grueling tone comes with Samantha Contis’ photo of boys playing chess. Surrounded by toy squad cars, airplanes and dinosaurs (Games), the boys themselves are relegated to the edges of the frame, cropped out by the trappings of their prospective manhood.