Cydney Payton, director of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, has often said that one of the most important things an art show can do is to create controversy. The exhibit that's there now, Will Boys Be Boys?, is not really controversial, but it does raise a lot of issues -- and is thus thought-provoking.
I couldn't stop thinking about it after I went through, but I'm certain what crossed my mind was not what was intended by Shamim M. Momin, the New York-based curator who put the show together. What I was thinking was how deeply flawed Momin's ideas must have been to have led her to do what she did.
Before you get the wrong impression, I loved a good deal of what was in this show, and it was more engaging than most exhibits I see. What I didn't like was Momin's conceptual framework, which is essentially anti-male. Not overtly so, mind you, but the notion is there, nonetheless.
Momin is an associate curator at Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art, but Will Boys Be Boys? was sponsored by the Independent Curators International, a non-profit group that promotes contemporary art. The show is subtitled Questioning Adolescent Masculinity in Contemporary Art, but clearly, that's really not what it's about. Instead, there's a palpable neo-feminist subtext that invites viewers to leer at the boys depicted in the artwork, and that strikes me as patronizing. That's right -- a show about masculinity with a patronizing feminist sensibility. And just as I was starting to think that irony was running out of steam!
Contradictions abound in Will Boys Be Boys?, the most profound being the double standard that applies to the sexes in our society. A woman, in this case Momin, examines teenage boys through art that features sexualized and violent imagery. A similar show being done by a man about teenage girls would be so politically incorrect that no one would mount it.
The best evidence of the double standard, though, is Chloe Piene's "Little David," a DVD projection from 1999 that's installed in its own gallery at the MCA. In this piece, which is very creepy, Piene records a prepubescent boy strutting around in his jockey shorts acting macho -- clenching his fists, swinging his arms through the air, and so on. Piene has also altered his voice so that the boy sounds like a man. Now imagine a similar piece in which a male artist recorded a prepubescent girl dressed in bikini underwear strutting around acting fem. Instead of discussing a work of art, we'd be talking about prison -- even for those who'd only glimpsed it on the Internet.
Piene's projection is probably the piece that most indicts Momin for her anti-male agenda, but there are other pieces that give it up, too. Most obvious among the runners-up are the erotic photos of an older woman from Lilah Freedland's "Hebrew School Pin-Ups" series. The photos, meant to confront the patriarchy, at least according to the artist, are self-consciously feminist, despite the fact that female nudity is the topic. The woman in the photos is old enough to be the mother of the boys who are the subjects of the other pieces in the show. As a result -- especially in light of current events involving female teachers and their students -- the photos seem to reveal Freedland's psychosexual fantasies about boys still finding large, older women appealing.
These issues of female sexuality in Freedland's photos overshadow anything they may have to do with adolescent masculinity. Thus, even though the show purports to be a look at young men, it's more about how women see boys, which skews the whole thing to one direction: bad boys. Because it's from a woman's point of view, the bad boys are not romanticized -- as they would be in a Quentin Tarantino movie or a John Hull painting -- but are stigmatized. They're seen as being from another species, creatures to be sneered at, or, better yet, feared, while they pose shirtless and bloody.
Momin's focus on bad boys allows her to ignore the true range of youthful masculine experience. Except in a couple of cases, Momin has not included work about sports or about boys who are serious regarding school, religion, work or anything else.
No, her show's downright "naughty," being a cross between the sensibility of photographer Larry Clark, a specialist in eroticizing teenage boys, and that of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, which goes for the same thing. Add one more important element, what could be called the Jackass quotient, and you've got Momin's whole concept. If you've seen Jackass and its progeny, Wildboyz and Viva La Bam, you can skip the videos on the mezzanine, because you've seen the same thing before, only with much higher production values. No, I take that back: Julia Loktev's video, "Press Shots," from 2000, is pretty fresh. Loktev films from above the faces of weightlifters doing presses, but they look like they're having orgasms -- making the piece not only fresh, but pretty funny.
Clark was not just an obvious inspiration for Momin, he's been included as the only genuinely famous artist in the show. Among the Clark pieces in Will Boys Be Boys? is a 1980s montage called "Untitled (Cory Haim)," in which the artist appropriated three images of '80s heartthrob Haim found in the pages of magazines aimed at teenage girls.
Another Clark is "Dice 42nd Street," also done in the '80s, which depicts a partly nude male prostitute in a black-and-white shot. Interestingly, "Dice" is the only optional piece in the show, by which I mean that museums on the tour could elect to leave it out. It's hardly a surprise to find Payton including it on the Denver stop because she staunchly opposes censorship of any kind. On the other hand, it's not hard to understand why Momin made the Clark optional: The subject of the photo is not only gay, but his semi-erect, uncircumcised penis hangs out for all to see. That could certainly cause trouble for some host institutions, especially in the Bible Belt.
Other than an impromptu performance by a young man who conspicuously fondled what is euphemistically called "himself" as he went through the show, the Clark photo is the only piece that refers to the penis even obliquely. Penises, like sports, are something that teenage boys pay a lot of attention to, and you'd expect to see more of them in a show like this.
The Clarks are not the only homoerotic pieces in the exhibit. Dean Sameshima's five photos from 1998-'99, which were rephoto-graphed magazine fashion spreads, also fill that same bill. The heads of the boys have been cropped out, and they're partly nude above the waist, which makes the photos look more like porn than fashion. But it's of the soft-core type: All the vital parts are covered up by baggy pants.
Like penises, sports, as I noted above, are barely seen, but they haven't been completely banished from the show. There are four portraits of high school jocks by New York photographer Collier Schorr. These photos are exquisite; however, they do not show the boys in moments of physical prowess, but rather as vulnerable and maybe even helpless. The boys pictured are exhausted after their matches, or, in the case of 1998's "Bloody Nose," injured; it depicts a good-looking kid with blood coming out of his nose. Another rare sports-related piece is Anthony Goicolea's computer-altered swimming scene from 2001, a Chromogenic print called "Poolpushers II," which is one of the best works in the show.
Will Boys Be Boys? really irked me, I won't deny it. Like Momin, I'm interested in bad boys, too -- I myself was one of those kids smoking pot behind the school -- but unlike her, I'm not prone to hold them up to ridicule. As I drove away from the museum, I thought of a show that also took up the topic of young men. It was called Horse and was put together five years ago by Ron Judish for his now-long-gone gallery. Horse was perhaps a hundred times better than Will Boys Be Boys?, and that begs the question as to why the MCA has never tapped Judish to be a guest curator. The institution could do worse, as was proved with Momin.
Warts and all, I'm still glad I saw the troubling exhibit. If you haven't seen it, I urge you to do so before it comes down on April 17, a little over a week from now.
One of the most hotly anticipated shows in the coming months is the MCA's 2005 Biennial BLOW OUT: Beyond Comfort, Beyond Representation, which opens on July 8. The show is the third MCA biennial; former director Mark Masuoka established the series in 2001. For the second biennial in 2003, current director Cydney Payton took over. This year it is guest juror Kenny Schachter, who's an independent curator, critic, gallery owner and art consultant based in London.
Schachter had his work cut out for him, because there were more than 750 submissions, from which only ten artists were chosen for inclusion. Because of a change in the eligibility requirements -- previously artists had to reside in Colorado, but this year artists living throughout the Rocky Mountain region could enter -- only six of the ten are from this state. There was no good reason to make this eligibility change -- plus it's been a public-relations disaster -- so I urge the museum to go back to a Colorado-only show for the 2007 version. Many feel that local artists have been largely ignored by the Denver Art Museum, so it would be a real shame if the MCA were to go down the same sorry path.
The six Colorado artists included in this year's exhibit are Louisa Armbrust, Patti Hallock, Susan Meyer, Jason Patz, David Sharpe and Jeff Starr. Artists from elsewhere are Angela Ellsworth, Denis Gillingwater and Jessica James from Arizona, and New Mexico's Sherlock Terry. Of the six Colorado artists in BLOW OUT, I've written about five of them, so I know that no matter what, we're in for a show that will be at least half good.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.