There was a moment in the late ’80s and early ’90s when artists started appearing in Gap ads and fashion spreads. Somewhere there is a photo of me in L’Uomo Vogue holding my Cairn terrier, Rascal. Rascal is wearing a patent leather raincoat that cost more than the Paul Smith suit I wore for the shoot but did not get to keep. This was all pre-Internet, so only a handful of people really knew who we artists were. An idealized image of “The Artist,” rather than an image of any particular artist, was what the fashion industry was after. It was a huge misunderstanding. We thought they liked our art, and they thought we wanted the lifestyles they were selling. It was all a symptom of the postmodern condition, an early and non-media-savvy collision between sectors of the culture industry. Meanwhile artists were learning to project a public image, a skill long practiced by those in the entertainment industry, but alien to the mythic integrity of the artist. The Hans Namuth film of Jackson Pollock was of interest. Nina Leen’s 1950 photo of The Irascibles was of interest, as were Cecil Beaton’s fashion photographs of models posing in front of Jackson Pollock paintings. A history of the artist as brand was beginning to be written.
Two large photomural self-portraits in Bill Hayden’s recent exhibition at Real Fine Arts present him as a model in one of those fashion shoots—like the Levi’s jeans “Go forth” commercials shot in dying Braddock, Pennsylvania—that are mistakenly called “edgy” but are usually merely tone-deaf. He is wearing a preposterously of-the-moment, decoratively patched suit that looks good on him. This is not parody. These are convincing images that do not announce their lack of connection to the rarified world of fashion. In one photo Hayden walks two goats on leads through an urban wasteland, while someone who is dressed as a cop, but who is clearly not a cop, looks on. In the second image he is lying on a junked sofa looking at us languorously as his hand creeps down his pants. Works for me. And it’s fair to say, “it works for me,” because he obviously wants it to. It also worked for a woman I was with.
This show adapts a familiar ’80s feminist approach to self-representation—one that embraces stereotypes rather than rebels against them. Replacing the sexualized woman with a sexualized man says a lot about the state of male vanity these days. Male vanity used to consist of a series of retentions. What men chose not to present was the display. Now male vanity is becoming a series of displays that ape cliché notions of female vanity; hypergrooming, the use of fashion as costume, and a projection of one’s self not just as a sexual being, but also as a sensual one. There is a stylish barber shop on every corner of my neighborhood in Williamsburg; within these establishments men are fetishizing every element of grooming with great nostalgia for earlier times when masculinity meant a lot of primping. Monocle magazine is the new Men’s Health—men’s new path to self-hatred. Now you can not only hate your body, you can hate your glasses, your hair, your tote bag, and the fact that you aren’t having a coffee somewhere nice in London or Helsinki.
Set into the walls of the gallery are obsolete telephone bells and other rusty doodads. For me these are, among other things, metaphors for the very obsolescence of masculinity. If we remove vanity from the list of sins against our maleness, we can gain an understanding, perhaps not of where we are going, but of what we are leaving behind.
Lee Maida’s solo show at Joe Sheftel contains five doctored enlargements of a photo, taken by Brassai, of Henri Matisse drawing a nude model. Maida has daubed and scribbled over the image with paint and charcoal; in a sense she has layered abstraction over a portrait of a figurative artist who, in his own time, flirted with the still nascent form of non-objective art. She has also attached a pair of handmade ceramic eyeballs to each piece that cover the eyes of the model, Wilma Javor. These make Javor stare in different directions, depending on how they are attached, and they make her look completely crazy. It’s as if Matisse is sketching a model who is turning into a Picasso. The combination of paper and ceramic is counterintuitive, and with the colors, brushstrokes and scribbles it was all really satisfying. I have to admit that for a moment I thought the man in the photograph was Freud. I have pretty terrible facial recognition skills, but I also have a good sense of narrative. A vision of Freud analyzing a studio miracle in which the face and body of Javor are being violently transformed by the tortured bromance of two modernist icons flashed into my mind like a glitter bomb.
Even writer and artist Victor Burgin never let his critique of the male gaze spoil modernism for him. In the end, critique leads to good advice if it’s on the right track. The advice here is, don’t lose your objectivity and mild contempt as you watch a heterosexual ritual drag itself over the scorched earth of gender relations again and again. But also, the product of such relations can still be Manet’s Olympia, so let’s not get crazy. Think of weddings. Weddings are stupid and ridiculous but that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy for your friends who feel the need to participate in this cultural burlesque. It’s just a temporary form of insanity that you hope your friends will look back on without an excess of sentimentality. Also, antiquated absurdities are perfectly good starting points for art as long as there is some acknowledgement that one knows what one is engaged with. In other words, Maida recognizes the absurdity of the image but isn’t using it to condemn. She is engaging in a generative form of cynicism.
While looking at these pieces, and realizing that Freud was actually Matisse, the distorted figure of Javor began to remind me of the character of Ilana from the TV comedy “Broad City.” In the script in my head that is based on these pieces, Ilana gets a job as an artist’s model. The old man artist has put her in a preposterous pose, one that’s impossible to hold. She can’t stay still and the awkwardness of the situation is showing on her face. She isn’t rebelling; she is trying to do a good job. But she is comically failing. She is the embodiment of the absurdity of any ritualized performance between a man and a woman.
Satire does not always age well. But this is where the formal trappings of a work of satire help it to travel more confidently into time. Preston Sturgis films get old with incredible grace, but to say that ten percent of SNL is still funny is to be generous. These pieces will continue to be fun to look at in the future when a single-sex population scratches its collective head and wonders what that gender nonsense was all about.
These works have an un-American balance of intelligence and instinct. It’s difficult to discuss instinct without using words like “sincerity,” “honesty,” and “subjectivity.” Good art is never sincere or honest and it never admits to being subjective. It is curious that Maida chose an image of a moment in time when there was an extraordinary balance between concept and signature. Did Americans, with our need to create binary rivalries, create the Protestant divide in art between mind and hand? Did we create the lack of compatibility between what used to be called “painting” and what used to be called “conceptual art” so we would have (I’m being optimistic here) something to fight about? I think that what is most pleasing about Maida’s pieces is that they sit so confidently between the two.
Lee Maida, “Lit End” runs through May 24, 2015 at Joe Sheftel Gallery; “Bill Hayden” ran from April 11 to May 10, 2015 at Real Fine Arts.