Men and Masculinity at Union Art Gallery

Wedding gowns and sequins aren't typically associated with masculinity.

Wedding gowns, sequins, and embroidery thread aren't typically associated with men, but all of those things are part of the UWM Union Art Gallery's current exhibit “Thread Baring: A Portrayal of Masculinity One Stitch at a Time.”

The exhibit, co-sponsored by the Women's Resource Center, opened Thursday, and ran until Friday, Dec. 19.

 “What we're doing here with Thread Baring is part of our Men & Masculinity...series of events that we've had throughout the semester that specifically focus on that topic,” said Lindsey LeFebre of the UWM Women's Resource Center.

“I still think there's a lot of pressure on men to be masculine, or what our society conceives to be masculine, you know?” said LeFebre. “I think it puts a lot of pressure on men to act a certain way...and maybe they're not comfortable with that.”

More than 30 people came to the UAG on Friday afternoon for a gallery talk with artist Adam Parker Smith, who had several pieces on display.

Male Art?

“I find myself making male art sometimes, and I think ideally I'd like my work to transcend,” said Smith. Smith's definition of  “male art” includes many of the pieces in the exhibit.

“Well, like swords, you know, severed heads, Tupac's tattoos, things like that,” said Smith. “The work is sometimes not sensitive or delicate.” Sensitive and delicate or not, Smith's work is finding an audience at UWM.

“It's been open for 24 hours and we've had over 200 people,” said Gallery Manager Andrea Avery. “Sometimes it depends when the talk is. I mean, this is right before Thanksgiving break, but this was a really good turnout for the timing.”

Common Threads

“On the Wings of Maybe,” named after a Led Zeppelin song and inspired by Ernest Hemingway's “The Old Man and the Sea,” features a bleeding, mortally wounded swordfish leaping from the water. The fish was constructed from marine vinyl, while the splash beneath it is made from vintage wedding gowns.

“I guess, like everybody, I'm attracted to violence,” said Smith “I think there's things that generally attract human interest, and two of the big ones are sex and violence. Both of those things are in a lot of my work.”

“There is certainly a history of, like, aggression. Not a history of aggression, but there's certainly this perception of aggression when you think of machoism and male and that whole testosterone-like thing,” said LeFebre. “I think it could be either making a statement about...that stereotype or... whatever the artist's perception is of men and masculinity. It also could be reinforcing the stereotype.”

“I think that I am a participant, and a victim, maybe...of this curiosity. But the work is also a comment on the whole idea of that attraction.”

Smith grew up in Northern California and now lives in Brooklyn. He has also lived and worked in Chicago, and the largest piece in the exhibit, “Bold as Love,” was created with a group of high school students  he worked with there.

Named after a Jimi Hendrix album and inspired by a scene in Ernest Hemingway's “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” the installation is a collection of severed heads on pikes, made from felt pinned to styrofoam balls. Likenesses include historical figures like Fidel Castro as well as people from the artists' own lives and imaginations, but the Milwaukee crowd didn't see the entire piece.

“Benjamin Franklin and Anna-Nicole Smith couldn't make it this evening,” said Smith, whose work has been featured in a commercial for Microsoft's Zune mp3 players.

Like “On the Wings of Maybe” and “Bold as Love,” Smith's other pieces all take their names from song titles or lyrics, and all contain elements of violence.

“Make Love Make Love Make Love Make Love,” named after another Jimi Hendrix song, is a group of battle axes, made out of fabric, which stands straight against the gallery wall, while the limp lower ends of the handles tangle in a single mass on the floor.

“Marvin Gaye Had Me Feeling Like Black Was The Thing To Be” takes its name from the lyrics of a Tupac Shakur song and consists of a set of irregularly shaped pieces of fabric, each embroidered to represent one of the slain rapper's tattoos. This piece was completed with some help from Smith's mother and her sewing group.

“My mom did all the bad words,” he said. “The other women weren't really crazy about that.”

“I think everybody loves sex and violence, whether they want to admit it or not,” said Smith. “I think it affects men and women. Maybe in different ways.”

Avery said the gallery's previous exhibit, a student scholarship show entitled “Crossing Over,” drew 1500-1700 people during its run.




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