February 16 – March 25, 2018
What if we just let boys act like boys, and girls like girls? It’s a straight question, posed as provocation by the curator of Quinn Likes Trucks, Carl Gunhouse. The answer, of course, is that we already do. We’ll not hash out the list of assumptions he reveals in posing this question as the genesis of an exhibition, because the artists—Kyle Kogut, Jennifer Sullivan, and Michael Marcelle—answer with another, more pressing question: Why wouldn’t we want to? Let them list the ways.
Kogut and Sullivan imbue the psycho-emotional fallout of being raised under strict gendered expectations with a ready humor. Kogut’s Hörgr installation is a family-dinner-sized table where the Ford logo has been painted to read “Lord,” a pentagram made of tobacco lines the tablecloth, and bottles and goblets of un-cut booze stand at-ready. It’s a humorous coming-of-age for a boy, cast as a quasi-religious ritual of masculine tropes. A severed ponytail resting at the top of the pentagram confounds an otherwise straightforward association. Are we supposed to read it as a totem of the heavy-metal aesthetic, a trophy stolen from a girlfriend offered as a commitment to misogyny, or is it the subject’s own hair, cast off with the entrance to manhood? In Kogut’s world, where demon offspring in Weekend (Get Rich Quick) exhale cigar smoke in the backseat of dad’s car, there is never an illusion that femininity holds any place in a man’s life. He leaves us only with the evidence that the ponytail existed once and the unanswered question: What if it had been left to grow?
In Sullivan’s comedic performance Letter to Julian, the artist dances in her underwear while footage of Julian Schnabel at work plays in the background. Her disembodied voice considers the unwavering self-assurance he’s embodied since the beginning of his career, with half-jokey gravitas while she dances. She references an article that investigates the relationship between professional gender inequality and the general disparity between men and women’s confidence.1 “Did you happen to read it?” she asks. “I’m sure you haven’t, I’ll paraphrase…”
In her painting Couple, the bride leans in to kiss her Technicolor groom. With eyes open and teeth bared, she seems to be searching for hesitation, or double-checking that he’s there and really going to marry her—looking to find validation either for herself or for the anxieties that keep her eyes open. But if Sullivan’s subjects fret in public life, in private they have no trouble sorting out what they innately enjoy from what gender norms teach them to like. The woman in Solitude and Intimacy sets the self-help book she was reading facedown on the bed and masturbates instead. Like Kogut, Sullivan assumes there’s complicity in her subjects’ angst. One could refuse to offer the ponytail, or, in theory, never leave the bed.
Marcelle’s subjects have no such agency. His photographs of rooms and landscapes seem to be geographies of the mind. They represent alterity as an internal condition—one that does not go away in the absence of domineering parents or public figures. His photos are intimate and disorienting: Two hands cup froth in a puddle, but the hole of dark water in the palms’ center reads like the kind that you might fall into, and not reemerge. A bald man in a chair fidgets with a sleeping mask while an arm holds a toxic-slime-green plastic bag above his head. There’s no sense of immediate danger in Marcelle’s pictures, neither does there appear to be any way for a subject to escape. In this sense, Marcelle responds to the curator’s prompt more dangerously than the other artists do. His subjects are not only controlled by the artist’s choices, but also by the world in which he places them. We see only the hands of the figure who casts the shadow puppet on the unfurnished wall in Blue Bird. Marcelle provides no comfort via the recognition of who makes the puppet. The subjects are outsiders to the world and distinct from their bodies and minds, their agency. Their acceptance in Marcelle’s suburbia is contingent upon social condonation.
Sullivan’s bride in Couple might be mad that she’s been made to feel that marriage is a measure of her worth, even as she enters into it. Kogut’s subject might be bitter that he felt pressured to cut off his ponytail, or steal it from another. Both of these angers are valid, and the artists work them delicately into funny, hmm true considerations. Marcelle’s subject, on the other hand, might be scared shitless that the next shadow puppet will depict a man wearing a dress, and that he’ll like it. To accept such scenes as true is to admit that expectations of either/or gender police us from the inside, too.
- Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, “The Confidence Gap” in the Atlantic (May 2014).
JOHN CAPPETTA is the social media manager and a contributor at The Brooklyn Rail. Their writing has also appeared in Civil Eats, Hakai Magazine, Maine the Way, and Sartle.