On ViewBarbican Art Gallery
About a month before the UK government realized the urgency of implementing social distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Barbican Art Gallery’s Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography had just opened its doors to largely positive reviews. Impelled by the scrutiny of masculinity in the media and spurred on by movements like #MeToo, the current pandemic may have sequestered headlines, but it’s only magnified the exhibition’s relevance. Rising cases of domestic abuse during lockdown and the surge in divorce rates in post-lockdown countries are evidence of the need to interrogate binary notions of gender and reflect on the power imbalances they create.
Barbican curator Alona Pardo has united more than 50 artists of different gender identities, sexualities, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds, whose divergent approaches—spread across six themed sections—challenge a singular, prescribed definition of masculinity. Rigorously exploring how it has been imagined, socially constructed, and performed from the 1960s to today, this timely show is an ambitious testament to the breadth of male experience.
At the exhibition entrance John Coplans’s Self-Portrait (Frieze No. 2, Four Panels) (1994) immediately subverts expectations, its four vertical panels displaying the artist’s soft, paunchy body in scrutinizing detail. Adi Nes’s “Soldiers” (1994–2000) broadens the visual lexicon of heterosexual Western masculinity: his staged scenes of Israeli military life, utilizing a carefully lit, intimate mise-en-scène, emphasize male vulnerability and the emotional bonds of military association. Meanwhile, Catherine Opie’s “High School Football” (2007–2009) eschews the testosterone-fueled representation of athletes for individualistic portraits of adolescents: shy, uncertain, or brazenly confident. Particularly astute is Devin (2008), which posits conventional masculinity as a socially imposed mold. In juxtaposition with the subject’s gangly frame, his shoulder pads appear oversized, his kit constrictive.
The notion that particular characteristics are exclusive to either sex is regularly contested, a point effectively made in the representation of hypermasculinity. Robert Mapplethorpe’s camera worships Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bulging musculature (1976), and Akram Zaatari’s archival images (2011) show Middle Eastern bodybuilders enacting great feats of strength. But these ostensibly male displays are destabilized by the adjacent works. Lisa Lyon (1980), Women’s World Pro Bodybuilding Champion, hyphenates two images of Schwarzenegger posturing, while Time Lapse (2011), a series by transmasculine artist Cassils, attests to the fleshy malleability of the body.
The first room of “Male Order: Power, Patriarchy and Space,” in its uniformly imposing presentation, conveys how hegemonic masculinity is maintained by the exclusion of women and non-White “others” from positions of power. Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen (1981–83) documents the opulent all-male members clubs of St James’s Park in London, while Richard Avedon’s homogeneously styled portraits of America’s key political, economic, and cultural figures (1976) illustrate a corresponding patriarchal elite across the Atlantic. In the following room, Mikhael Subotzky’s “I was looking back” (2004–2012) evokes the oppression and violence that White masculine power can inflict, in particular on the Black body, by carefully breaking the glass on images from old series of photographs.
Segueing from political to personal but still interrogating paternalistic control is “Family and Fatherhood.” In Larry Sultan and Masahisa Fukase’s visual narratives, old age becomes synonymous with emasculation: aptly portrayed by Sultan’s Fixing the Vacuum (1991), in which the artist’s elderly father—a retired businessman—labors over the household chores. Meanwhile, the nuclear family is represented as dysfunctional in Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh” (1996) and Anna Fox’s “My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words” (1999). Domestic abuse is implied in the former—a likely consequence of social deprivation—but it’s chillingly foregrounded in the latter: the misogynistic words of Fox’s father accompanying her claustrophobic images.
Upstairs, artists respond to a history of marginalization that has seen Black individuals exoticized and objectified but rarely the empowered authors of their own identities. In Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968-2008 (2005-2008), Hank Willis Thomas deconstructs the imagery of adverts produced by white men for African American audiences. With the text removed, the racial significations of the photographs become clear: reinforcing stereotypes of Black men as aggressors or gangsters. Samuel Fosso and Elle Pérez champion the fluidity of identity, while Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Paul Mpagi Sepuya provide visually rich examples of queer Black sexuality. In Darkroom Mirror (_2080162) (2017), Sepuya both denies and returns the viewer’s gaze in an erotic exchange of looks: the photographer and his friend intimately watching us through their camera’s viewfinder.
The final two sections offer individually appealing appraisals of masculinity, but their concerns become noticeably narrower. “Queering Masculinity” presents an almost exclusively White, Western narrative of gay liberation—lacking the complex intersectionality of “Disrupting the Archetype”—and whose focus revolves almost exclusively around New York City and San Francisco. The black-and-white documentary images are handsome, though, while George Dureau’s collaboration with double-amputee B.J. Robinson stands out, his images (1978–1979) reinvesting the disabled body with virility.
We conclude with “Women on Men,” comprising work that emerged from, or was part of, second-wave feminism, and questioning a visual dichotomy between the active male and the passive female. Tracey Moffatt’s Heaven (1997) provides an amusing reversal of the male gaze by filming surfers in various states of undress, thereby highlighting a power imbalance that makes it socially acceptable for men to objectify women but not vice-versa. But wall quotes from Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), such as that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification,” feel belated at this point in the exhibition. From the outset, in the fetishized soldiers of Fouad Elkoury’s Militiamen: Portrait of a Fighter, Beirut (1980), for instance, there are numerous examples of men being displayed for the viewer’s pleasure.
But these are minor quibbles in what is an impressively executed show; a vibrant agglomeration of artists and media that overflows with ideas. It may have benefited from more contemporary work, given the increasingly amorphous concept of gender today, but mostly it feels comprehensive, judiciously deconstructing the cultural ideal of masculinity and representing, if not exhausting, a broad range of its embodiments.