The Unflinching Gaze

November 24, 2017
George Platt Lynes, 'Blanchard Kennedy' (1936)
George Platt Lynes, 'Blanchard Kennedy' (1936)

In the entire history of Australian regional galleries there has never been a show like The Unflinching Gaze: Photo Media & the Male Figure. Retiring director, Richard Perram, has decided to go out on a high note with a exhibition that has been years in preparation. Despite the double entendre in the title Perram doesn’t want this project to be type-cast as a “gay” show.

While most of the 200 items in this survey are by gay artists, or openly homoerotic, apparently that’s not the point. The Unflinching Gaze sets out to map the many and various ways the male figure has been portrayed by the camera from 1865 to the present day. The range of work takes us from colonial portraits by Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss to specially commissioned images by contemporary artists, Liam Benson and Owen Leong.

In line with current thinking the exhibition posits masculinity, and gender itself, as a kind of performance – a social construct that is acquired rather than biologically determined.

This idea has its limits, with most people happy to accept anatomy as destiny. Nevertheless, there is much we view as ‘natural’ that might be more accurately described as ‘cultural’. In an exceptional catalogue essay, Peter McNeil refers to Jonathan Ned Katz’s book, The Invention of Heterosexuality, which notes that the term “heterosexual” was first published in the United States in 1892. This is a remarkably late entry for a concept often viewed as a cornerstone of social orthodoxy.

A condition doesn’t require a word to make it a reality but it sure helps. Wittgenstein’s famous dictum: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” reminds us of the power of naming and categorisation.

To establish anything as an unquestionable norm is to stigmatise other views as abnormal. From the perception of abnormality comes the fear and hatred that surfaced during a same-sex marriage postal survey that revealed more about political cowardice than it did about Australian social attitudes. Although Perram has no qualms about celebrating gay sexuality his chief concern is to encourage a broader, more inclusive understanding of masculinity.

Baron Wilhelm von Golden, 'Unititled', (c.1900)

Baron Wilhelm von Golden, ‘Unititled’, (c.1900)

In bringing this show together he has drawn on numerous sources, particularly the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York, which has been generous in lending pieces by artists such as Baron Von Gloeden, Horst P. Horst, Arthur Tress, George Dureau and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Horst P. Horst, 'Male  Nude/NY' (1952)

Horst P. Horst, ‘Male
Nude/NY’ (1952)

It is the sheer variety of approaches that makes this event so much more engaging than the Mapplethorpe survey at the Art Gallery of NSW. Instead of focusing on one iconic photographer, we also see the work of Mapplethorpe’s precursors, his peers and influences. In other words we see Mapplethorpe in context, not as some isolated genius. It makes him more understandable but also exposes the limitations of his classicising mind-set.

Pardon me for mentioning it again, but if a gallery in Bathurst can stage a world-class show with numerous international loans, and publish a catalogue with original essays, why can’t the AGNSW manage this feat?

One of the most striking moments in Perram’s show is a juxtaposition of Mapplethorpe’s 1983 portrait of gay porn star, Roger Koch, aka Frank Vickers, wearing a wig, bra and fishnets, his hands clasped demurely over his groin. The feminine coyness is at odds with Vickers’s musclebound torso and biceps which are fully on display in his self-portrait of the same year, along with his semi-erect penis.

The photos may be two versions of camp but the comparison shows how an individual’s sexual identity can be reconfigured with the appropriate props and body language. In the case of performance artist, Leigh Bowery, captured in a series of photos by Fergus Greer, the play of fantasy transcended the simple binary opposition of male and female, to create monstrous hybrids that question the limits of what it is to be human.

Fergus Greer, 'Leigh Bowery, Session VII, Look 34, June 1994'

Fergus Greer, ‘Leigh Bowery, Session VII, Look 34, June 1994′

These images, along with photos such as Christopher Makos’s portraits of Andy Warhol in drag, are among the most eye-catching inclusions, but it’s the historical material that lingers in the mind. There are prison photos of three unnamed Germans who died in Auschwitz because they were homosexuals. There is also an 1879 prison portrait of one A.G.Scott, otherwise known as Captain Moonlite, a gay bushranger who was executed for murder and robbery rather than his sexual preferences.

Christopher Makos, 'Altered Image: Five Photographs of Andy Warhol' (1982)

Christopher Makos, ‘Altered Image: Five Photographs of Andy Warhol’ (1982)

In truth no-one can be certain that Captain Moonlite had a sexual relationship with his young protégé, James Nesbitt, or whether they were ‘just good friends’. The same question arises in a series of archival colonial portraits featuring men who seem conspicuously fond of each other. The curatorial method was not forensic, more a matter of a practised eye. I can almost hear the cry: “He’s one! And look at these two!”

Gregory Collection, 'Dan Cullen & Charles Gornall' (date unknown)

Gregory Collection, ‘Dan Cullen & Charles Gornall’ (date unknown)

We know the Victorian era wasn’t the fortress of propriety it is often reputed to have been, and that passionate male friendships were not only accepted but encouraged. We know the population of colonial Australia was overwhelming male, and that circumstances forced many to share rooms and even beds. What we don’t know is the percentage of cases in which a higher form of mateship was achieved. The queerness of colonial times seems destined to remain a mystery and a talking point.

Less mysterious but no less startling are the photos from Casa Susanna, a resort in upstate New York during the late 50s-early 60s, where men could indulge their fantasies of dressing in women’s clothing. The photos are professionally done and highly convincing. It may be surprising to learn that most of the clientele were middle class family men, and homosexual customers were actively discouraged.

Casa Susanna shows how dangerous it is to assume that sexual identity can be contained within the tidy categories of male or female, straight or gay. Even within these categories generalisations are fatuous, as shown by the way gay culture adopted the ‘butch’ stereotype in the 1970s. The moral of the story is that there are many different ways of being “male”. Sexuality, as explored in this show, is like a poker game that requires luck and guile, rather than a team sport in which one side triumphs over another – until the competition begins again.

The Unflinching Gaze: Photo Media & the Male Figure
Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, 14 October – 3 December, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 November, 2017