Dangerous Liaisons

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.