doris-mae is a curatorial gem where ideas come first. At a time when many gallery exhibitions in our area accentuate artistic production over theme, artist and curator Tom Drymon is not afraid to throw out a thought bubble and see what emerges. Named after Drymon’s mother, the Logan Circle gallery’s risk-taking aesthetic gives artists a venue to showcase works and concepts, even if those pieces are not always commercially viable. We don’t often venture over to Northwest DC, but doris-mae’s latest exhibition caught our attention with its cheeky title – Man on Man – and its inclusion of artists from the Brookland neighborhood in Northeast DC and Brentwood, MD. Drymon invited East City Art over for a sneak peek before the exhibition’s opening this weekend.
Man on Man seems to ask two very interrelated questions: What does it mean to be a man, and concurrently, how do we (men) define what is masculine? As a milestone birthday came and went, Drymon found himself examining his own sense of manhood, and wanted to see how other male artists navigated their own sense of male identity. The resulting four-man exhibition features artists investigating these questions through the content of their work and/or through the choice of their materials. The result is a visual cacophony of competing ideas that needs some time and reflection to sort out.
Most immediately accessible to the viewer would likely be the works of Brentwood-based artists Tom Hill and John Thomas Paradiso. It’s fair to say that pornography and its concomitant ideation of masculinity has left an impression on these artists, but they approach this subject in starkly different ways to achieve similar findings. Hill’s neon-colored works assault the eyes with garish hues simultaneously jarring and captivating, accentuated with the dustings of glitter; all that’s missing is a disco ball and blood-pumping bpm. Drymon notes in his exhibition essay that Hill’s early work focused on formal representation of the male body; what we see here is certainly a loosening of formality! That said it would be unfair to view these works merely as farce. Stand quietly for a moment and the silk-screen effect dissolves in front of your eyes as facial capillaries rise to the skin’s surface, turning into glistening amoebas of color. Loaded adjectives such as Thick and Taste provide not so subtle references to sensuality, and are both titles to the works and hints of erogenous zones that fall south of the canvas. While sweaty and hedonistic, there is a whiff of mortality in the air. What happens to these men when the party’s over and the music runs out?
While Hill’s large-scale paintings are bombastic at the outset with lingering questions hanging in the air, Paradiso subtly flips this strategy around by appearing coy upfront before making a visual wallop. Paradiso explores male iconography with needle and thread rather than paint and canvas, taking material long viewed as “craft” and putting it to artistic use. Standing across the room from a trio of embroidered works (still housed in their hoops) the first adjective that comes to mind is “dainty”. Approach for a closer inspection and strong, masculine forms stitched in all their R-rated glory, shifting firmly into view. Putting titillation aside begins to reveal unusual artistic choices. In these works the male body, delineated and highlighted by thread, appears on background patterns ranging from paisley to camouflage. Other examples of his work in the gallery, such as Samuel Steward Ohio Star trade paper for cloth but are arranged in patterns referencing traditional quilting. In both these parallel bodies of work, Paradiso places a craft long relegated to the world of women into service examining idealized, hyper-masculine forms.
Brookland artist Frederick Nunley posits some of the same identity questions as Paradiso, but approaches them from in a more circumspect, seemingly traditional manner. Taught the art of quilt-making by his grandmother, Nunley has spent decades crafting quilts that both study formal qualities of line, shape and color while also at times serve to document major moments in his life. Where Paradiso uses the “feminine” qualities of quilting in service of masculinity writ large, Nunley focuses inward, investigating what it means to be a male artist in a milieu historically dominated by women. His Yo-yo quilt, completed in 2011, is a visual timeline of his life, using bits of circular fabric as stand-ins for people and places. Reflecting upon it another key thought comes to mind: if our self identities as males are largely the sum of our personal experiences, in what ways and to what extent do societal pressures come to play in our psyches?
That is a key question that the final artist, Dwayne Butcher from Baltimore, investigates with video pieces that examine “traditional” modes of normative male behavior. For Man on Man, Butcher’s video 2000 examines the artist’s relationship to his body. The viewer sees six images of the artist as he eats a variety of foods many would consider unhealthy, including pizza, bacon and donuts, while the phrases Be a Man and White Trash adorn the walls of the gallery. It seems as if Butcher is caught in a complex, often contradictory set of masculine expectations. While he would like to change his appearance and create a slimmed-down physique, he also hears socially-proscribed messages about how body consciousness and concern for weight are feminine traits; “real men” eat what they want, body composition be damned. On its face, this work is challenging to comprehend until Drymon provides some background context to Butcher’s personal history, including that he hails from “the South” and acknowledges the constraints encompassed by a “redneck” background. It is also germane to note that Butcher is by far the youngest of the four artists and has come of age when male gender norms are no longer as cut and dry as they once were.
Age difference amongst the artists does somewhat inform their individual approaches, as does their sexual orientations (both gay and heterosexual sensibilities are present). It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the whiffs of homo-eroticism present in the gallery, but to solely focus on sexuality strips this internal dialogue of its emotional and spiritual characteristics, which are also crucial to the formation of identity. In choosing these four particular artists, Drymon faces a challenge in moderating the conversation between works that whisper and pieces that shout. For the most part he succeeds, wisely choosing to group Hill’s works together and slightly apart from the others. I’d love to report that Man on Man neatly encapsulates the male experience (it doesn’t) but that’s an unfair expectation to lay at Drymon’s feet. Still, if you find yourself pondering these issues when you leave the space (much as I did), he’s succeeded at his mission.
“Man on Man” runs February 15 – March 14, 2014, with a reception on opening night from 6-9pm. There will also be a gallery talk with the artists on Sunday, March 2nd at 2pm.
Doris-mae is located at 1716 14th Street, NW. For more information, visit their website here.