The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Written by David Folk
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an appropriate – albeit predictably appropriate – title for an exhibition focusing on the link between masculinity and language. Too often masculinity is perceived in an overly simplistic conceptualization solely as a binary opposition in gender politics. Luckily, the work of the artists in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is anything but simplistic. Through their various insights into how masculinity and language cohabitate, the artists in this exhibition begin to reveal the potential pluralities existent in masculine identities.
Kris Lindskoog’s text-based pieces are conspicuous in their noticeable lack of prescriptive interpretation. Characterized by what is missing – whether a letter, a word, or a normative context – Lindskoog’s fragments of text deny an authorial voice. Through their lack of completion and/or distortion, they become visual puns that reject structured intent. Rather, they are reliant upon the viewer’s complicity to establish meaning and provide insight. Words and phrases themselves are treated as visual devices, with the descriptive and determinative power of language mitigated through their distortion and evident manipulation.
The inherent problematic of language is that it provides insight, clarity, communication and meaning. Yet, simultaneously, it functions as a determinant to impose order and an authorial voice through the directed intent of the author. As such, this implies all of the complications associated with the establishment of the strictures of control and power. As we seek to illuminate our intent, we limit its reception. As we define, we demystify and subsequently reject the mutability of experience.
In removing its linguistic and narrative codifiers, Lindskoog’s manipulated text rejects this mono-directional ‘reading’. The interpretive text is invented through the cooperation of artist/author and the viewer’s subjective experiences and expectations. Rather than being controlled, Lindskoog subverts meaning by the intrinsic interactivity of his linguistic cum graphic devices.
In sharp contrast to Lindskoog, there is nothing vague about John Will’s work. Phrases such as “I am a sex machine” or “Filthy Beast” unapologetically promote a linkage between an uncompromising machismo and sexual prowess. The overtly descriptive, first person, narrative pronouncements do more then simply suggest a hyper-masculine identity. Rather, they position the artist/author as the ultimate possessor of his own “manhood” – especially according to perceived stereotypical norms of the masculine ideal.
Over the past twenty years or so, representations of masculinity in popular culture and media have shifted drastically. The male body has encroached upon the eroticized domain of the objectified, female body. Even more recently, we have seen the rise of the androgynous, physical body in cultural representations. And, while this shift in representation has conflated our traditional understanding of masculine norms, the predominant ideology of authority and virility still remains inextricably linked within our popular consciousness.[i]
The obviousness of Will’s work lays this bare. The treatment of Will’s textual elements – in its scale, delicacy, and execution – conveys a preciousness that is indicative of the artist’s appreciation of the construction of language and/or masculinity. Furthermore, his aggressive assertions of macho-ness function as caricatures of male identity and become acknowledgements of our cultural expectations. Ultimately, Will’s work refutes the dominant, masculine ideology through its tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.
RICHard SMOLinksi’s work is also concerned with exploring conceptions of the hyper-masculine. SMOLinkski incorporates aggressive and lurid imagery with re-configured textual elements in an evident manipulation of representation and wordplay. The combination of blatantly masculine signifiers and phallic imagery connotes the drive for control and coercion that is innately associated with the masculine imperative. And, the inclusion of re-structured text belies the ability of language to encode such dogma.
Words are not impartial in their function but, rather, language is used as a tool to mediate between meaning and influence. The ability of words to control and contain – to determine and pre-determine – action and response cannot be separated from behavior. The very nature of language is as a structured apparatus that can be used to explicate meaning and, even more so, impose upon our conduct. At its root, the link between language and power is inextricable.
In the re-combinatory efforts of SMOLinksi’s text, this linguistic apparatus is disrupted. The resultant de-familiarization severs the link between language and any possible unidirectional connection between word and meaning. Language becomes pliable and its perceived neutrality is called into question. In juxtaposing this re-worked text with blatantly hyper-masculine imagery, SMOLinksi explicates the connection between language and gender. In particular, his work reveals and simultaneously undercuts the power of language to encode and reinforce the authoritarian drive of the ruling masculine praxis.
While there is no denying its power as a force in proscribing and describing gender norms, masculinity is complex in its operations. The work in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly explores the link between language and visual representation. And, ultimately, it expands upon our understanding of the intricacies inherent in the construction of identity and gender. Each of the artists in the exhibition has interpreted this link in vastly different ways, yet each has also managed to reveal the multifaceted nature of masculinity.
David Folk is a visual artist whose work focuses on the construction of identity and gender, primarily through narrative painting strategies. He currently resides in Calgary, AB where, in addition to his artistic practice, he teaches Studio Art at the University of Calgary.
[i] See Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Male Trouble,” in Constructing Masculinity, ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson (New York: Routledge Press, 1995), 68-76. Solomon-Godeau presents an interesting parallel between the usage of the male body in contemporary media and Victorian-age representations to explore the recent “crisis” in masculinity. Solomon-Godeau proposes that, despite this perceived crisis, the underlying ideology of male representation still promotes the masculine imperative of dominance and control.