Related Articles: Museums, All

Tim Gardner, Marcelino Gonçalves, and Zak Smith at SF MoMA

New Visions of Masculinity

Tim Gardner, Marcelino Gonçalves, and Zak Smith are the three artists whose pieces are featured in the “New Work” series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art -- and they have little in common beyond their razor-sharp perspective on masculinity, in all its sinewy, culture-garbled trappings. While male artists are the classical bête noire of feminist critics (for adequate reasons, mind you), Gardner, Gonçalves, and Smith articulate a keen responsiveness to the problematic discourse of male-dominated art history. In interrogating formal art-making techniques, the three effectively turn conventions against themselves.

Tim Gardner’s photo-realistic watercolors and pastels take moments of boyhood, adolescence, and manhood and freeze them in time, creating haunting images that map the trajectory of masculinity. Gardner takes ostensibly rote portraits and turns them into paintings, rendering them with an eerie, once-removed effect. “Untitled (Family Portrait I),” a monumental piece that depicts Gardner, his two brothers, and his parents in an iconic, mid-70s image of the nuclear family, is a representation of another representation (a photograph, in this case) -- a nostalgic chunk of Americana that inhabits a nearly fictitious space, given its second-hand status. Another piece, “Untitled (Brothers)” features Gardner and his two brothers as young men in suits, smiling for the camera. This deliberate, studied pose of masculinity is evocatively echoed in “Untitled (Soldiers),” a painting of a statue of soldiers (one armed with a rifle) that sits in the midst of a secluded public park—a life-sized monument to the masculine mystique.

Marcelino Gonçalves similarly explores masculine posturing in his oil on pane compositions, which are both starkly detailed and ethereal. In a series of small paintings entitled "Twelve Inches," Gonçalves captures the hyper-sexualized male body in compositions of single men and groups of men. Shrouded in recondite narratives, the images are suffused with a homoerotic subtext -- as in representations of athletes in uniform or police officers leading a young man away. While some of the images seem to idealize the pose of masculinity embodied in such figures, the undercurrent of violence is always prevalent in the pieces. In “Rifle Lessons,” two boys are given a demonstration of how to use a rifle by an older man, presumably their father, while autumnal-looking trees stand in the background in Rockwellian rusticity. Other images take on a more intimate air; “Smalltown Boy,” a vintage-looking portrait of a man nude from the torso up manages to convey a sensibility that is both pornographic and tender.

Zak Smith’s acrylic and ink paintings are the most contemporary in the show. Composed of images of men and women on the fringes of society, the pieces have a collage-like feel, with influences that range from zines to graphic novels to graffiti and other forms of urban art. Smith’s "Girls in the Naked Girl Business" series depicts individual nude portraits of sex workers - -infusing the beauty of his subjects with a textured realism that involves all the senses. “Amber” portrays a woman in a relaxed pose as she leans back into a plush mountain of pillows and fabrics. While her body is pale and flesh-colored, the piece is dotted with colorful details: the vividness of her hair and mouth; the fabrics that surround her; and the objects strewn across the room. Although the series attempts to map the changing portrayal of the sex worker from an object of pleasure to a subject of sexual agency, the preoccupation with the “empowered” female body is more passé than illuminating. Smith is most interesting in his depictions of the body as accessory -- in choosing models with piercings, tattoos, and other indications of an alternative aesthetic, (particularly in “Most Accurate Self-Portrait to Date,” which features a punkish, green-haired Smith), he examines the idea of the body as a canvas open to both interpretation and reinvention.

In various ways, Gardner, Gonçalves, and Smith uncover the convoluted dimensions of seemingly straightforward representations of masculinity. Using portraiture and images of male bodies as objects of desire and conflict, the artists are absorbed into the very pieces. Indeed, the classical concept of the male gaze is turned back on all three of them, and the male artist’s historical authority is undermined altogether by the pieces’ compellingly ambivalent self-awareness.

Exhibition runs through September 5th
at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art