Art "The Motorcyclist" by Maxine Olson

Published on August 16th, 2012 | by Angela Son


Identity and Sex in Man Up! No Balls About It Exhibit

The exhibition was put together by the Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA), a national organization that creates community through art, education and social activism. Suzy Lake – a native of Detroit and the first female artist to use performance, video and photographic work to explore gender – acted as the jury for the exhibition, hand-picking the pieces and American female artists featured.

On Thursday afternoon, the gallery was empty except for Brenda Oelbaum, the receptionist at the gallery and president of WCA, who greeted me from behind her desk. As I wandered through the exhibition, I was greeted with a few unexpected surprises: though each piece of art was submitted under the same theme, the exhibition was incredibly varied, ranging in talent, genre and media. I was also delighted to find a diverse array of interpretations of the theme; some of the artists focused on the transformation of identity and gender, while others examined sexualization.

A few of the artists displayed pieces with political overtones, like Priscilla Otani’s He’d Never Seen Her Out of Uniform. The piece gets its title from a famous flub by the former mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newson, when he failed to recognize Heather Fong, San Francisco’s former police chief, out of uniform at an event. As Otani notes, during her years as police chief, Fong was often criticized for keeping her private life separate from the public. This simple fact could be seen as a larger statement, bringing to mind other well-known female figures who are famous more for their controversial relationships or fashion sense than their personal achievements.

Lake herself showcased pieces that fit the theme of the exhibit, choosing – unlike Otani – to explore self identity in relation to “manning up.” Known for exploring the politics of gender through the deconstruction of identity, Lake has been showing her art since the late 1960s alongside other fantastic female artists, like Cindy Sherman. For Man Up!, she chose to exhibit Transformations, a set of six photographs showing Lake in the first three and her personal friend Jay Lee Jaroslav in the second three. As Lake’s photos progress, her eyes and mouth gradually transform to resemble those of Jaroslav. Conversely, Jaroslav’s eyes and mouth are gradually blacked out, rather than transforming into those of Lake. The photos are left open for many interpretations, possibly symbolizing the annihilation of Jaroslav’s masculinity or the impossibility of Lake becoming a masculine figure.

Jessica DeAngelo, a student on the campus, walks by the gallery quite often on her way to class. Transformations first caught her eye and enticed her to check it out even before the exhibition opened.

“It kind of reminds me,” DeAngelo said, “to be honest with you, the yearbooks where the females would scratch out the guys that have pissed them off [and] put the exes through their faces.”

Transformations is meant to play with the questions of identity, gender confusion and misrepresentation, displayed through a raw transition that is not smoothed over with digital technology. Indeed, WCA president, Brenda Oelbaum, found the true significance of Tranformations to be in Lake’s ability to produce such a polished piece before the computer age.

“Now, it’s so easily done,” Oelbaum said. “You can transform yourself seamlessly into somebody else. [Yet] here was this young artist who was playing with … morphing images and trying to make herself look more like him, and him more like her.”

Similarly, Minnesota-based painter Patricia Olson played with personal gender identity in Self-Portrait at 60 [after Beckmann], mimicking German painter Max Beckmann in his 1907 piece, Self Portrait in a Tuxedo. However, Olson changes one small but important detail: she substitutes a cigar for a tampon in her hand.

Painter and California native Maxine Olson took the theme in a different direction, exhibiting three images of men’s crotches with the intention of displaying men as sex objects in the world where women are usually in that position.

Oelbaum herself chose to depict a more explicit interpretation of the term “manning up” in Family Jewels, using glass paperweights to display photographs of strangers’ penises. Oelbaum stated that the exhibition’s theme sounded more like a “hard on” to her. Like Olson’s three paintings, Oelbaum states that she wanted to shift the paradigm of “men see, women are seen.”

Another explicit work in the exhibition was visual artist Lauren Kalman’s Spectacular, a video performance featuring two women wearing oversized testicle and penis costumes. Through the video, she critiques the fashion industry’s ability to sexualize the experience of pain, disfigurement, illness and abnormality, essentially promoting suffering as a desirable aesthetic.

After seeing all of these amazing artists’ works, I realized I have been using “man up” and “don’t be a pussy” incorrectly. Now, I know the correct way to say “man up” to a woman: “Woman up! Don’t be a dick.”


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About the Author

Angela loves the many subtleties languages carry, appreciates being bilingual and strives to be fluent in Chinese and French. She is currently working on a short story in addition to writing for the Smashion Babble fashion blog and the Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, where she studies English and Psychology. After graduation, she plans to work as a journalist and write about what she finds passionate. In her free time she loves to get buzzed on wine, play guitar and sing. She’s also an ardent advocate of vintage fashion items. Angela, herself an artist, is thrilled to discover local women artists with Art Animal.

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