Why is a good man so hard to find?
It is an age-old question with answers that have seemingly become more elusive in the digital age. At a time when dating websites and social apps instantly connect us across continents or down the block, why does it sometimes feel like we are more emotionally isolated than ever before? For Dafna Steinberg, Jennifer Towner and Jenny Walton—three artists in the prime of life—the internet has proven to be both a social boon and maddening obstacle to forming romantic connections with the opposite sex. #THISISWHYIMSINGLE, their three-artist show now on view at Flashpoint Gallery, puts a darkly-comedic face on the anxieties spawned by internet dating.
Though they work on different coasts (Towner is based in Seattle, WA; Steinberg and Walton share the same studio address in Takoma Park), the three artists seem to share similar tribulations as they investigate the intersection of gender roles and sexual autonomy in the online dating arena. Towner’s Failed T-Shirt Designs for Today’s Modern Woman figuratively airs her dirty laundry for all to see, highlighting the unsettling emotions that arise as she asserts her sexual congress. While some individual t-shirt slogans like “Penguin Is My Safe Word” and “One Date Wonder” provoke amused chuckles, seeing them en masse underscores the anxiety a modern woman might feel in defining her romantic autonomy. The work’s motif—laundry hung to dry on a clothesline—highlights the slow slog out of prior generations’ gender roles and sexual mores.
Steinberg’s series I’m Willing to Lie About How We Met demonstrates that today’s modern man does not make these assertions easy. Here the artist juxtaposes collaged imagery reminiscent of harlequin book covers with ribald snippets of sexually-charged conversations from popular dating apps such as Tinder. The dating landscape hinted at in Failed T-Shirt Designs… becomes a minefield pitting the men’s assumed sexual appetites up against the artist’s determination to harness her own erotic imagination. The text, depicted literally as texts, induces several laugh-out-loud moments (disclosure: I also laugh at her similar postings on Facebook) but it is humor tinged bittersweet. I certainly wouldn’t want to date these oafs, and I get the sense that Steinberg views these would-be suitors with a fair amount of disdain. The overarching question implied (and unfortunately not fully fleshed out) is why the internet seems conducive to these types of advances; how can it be that the World Wide Web brings us together while simultaneously rendering us anonymous in the eyes of others?
If Steinberg causes us to question the honor of the male species, Jenny Walton’s Match/Enemy presents a more nuanced view of how modern masculinity is formed. Walton’s outsized work is comprised of two hundred individual water color “portraits” of men that the website OKCupid identified as compatible (or not) based on her answers to the website’s dating questionnaire. The resulting tapestry literally reads as a mosaic of the modern man. Intriguingly, many of the individual images examine the male physique, demonstrating that objectifying the body isn’t solely a masculine phenomenon. At the same time, it is apparent that the men took their own snapshots and thus played a willing role in allowing an erotic gaze to fall upon them. Just as powerful are the images that capture snippets of the male mind—glimpses of pets, nature and the like where men attempt to give weight to their emotional passions. Walton views this as a wall-sized portrait of her own persona (as informed by OKCupid) and while it may shine a light on how she views her womanhood vis-à-vis the men she seemly attracts (or doesn’t), it more vigorously argues for an expansive understanding of the masculine psyche in the modern age. As gender roles and norms change for women, surely they must change for men as well.
And therein lies a powerful observation that I’m not sure the artists’ fully appreciate: as they and millions of their sisters, nieces and “besties” chart a more robust expression of female desire, the self-imposed constraints around masculinity and male desire begin to erode as well. In this context, the internet becomes an elaborate stage-set for both the sexes to try on new costumes and rehearse new dialogues. The three artists have certainly turned the gallery into a theater for modern love; perhaps their compatible thespian is but one more right swipe away.
#THISISWHYIMSINGLE runs through March 19, 2016 at the Flashpoint Gallery. For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.