On the Terms of Their Own Achievement: The Male Gaze: From Larry Stanton to Now at The Artist Room

Review / July 2022

On the Terms of their Own Achievement: The Male Gaze: From Larry Stanton to Now at The Artist Room

By Mark Harley

       Sometimes art is just good. That is to say, the various rubrics we superimpose over our viewing experiences can at times become extraneous when they add little to the conversation. In more notable cases, the quality of the work breaks out of the need for a rubric at all. This, I hope, is a good way of understanding The Male Gaze: From Larry Stanton to Now, on at The Artist Room on Brewer Street until July 30th. Examinations of the queer male gaze are no doubt valuable, but the topic—particularly when its subjects are largely white—isn’t laden with the transgressive edge it might have once had. Still, it is as good a banner as any under which to gather wonderful works of art.

The nature of the space limits the extent of the exhibition, if only discreetly—in a multi-level walk-up on London’s Brewer Street, wall space comes at a premium. Hence, along with the nominal theme of the show, a secondary point of union lingers in the background: the smaller scale shared between the works informs the viewing experience. At this intersection, the intimacy of the queer male gaze, and the historical violence of its erasure, takes shape. Images as both token and tombstone, alluded to in their plaque-like dimensions, heighten the viewer’s sense of historical import. Stanton’s faux-naïf style doubles down on this effect: his works appear, perhaps preemptively, articles of sentimental remembrance.

Yet, the show’s most successful works cast this facet into the background. Paul P’s Untitled (2008) and Cary Kwok’s Beguiled (2022)—two outstanding works no matter the context—are just as easily read as along less politicised/sexualized lines as they are along queer ones. Kwok’s image, for example, admittedly the less homoerotic of the two, is an image of a man lighting a cigarette. It’s pseudo-photorealistic in that it mimics the visual trademarks of popular photography: a short depth of field with the subject in focus, while the background, a nondescript metropolis, blurs into the background. There is a passing sense of intimacy (a stolen glance during an otherwise unremarkable moment) but more intriguing is the intersection of photographic mores with painting; is this a painting of a photo? Or is this using the visual language of photography to connote a version of contemporaneity, and by extension, a particular subjectivity?

To be sure, the contemporary nature of the works does them no favours in this context; aside Stanton’s work and a single photograph by Jimmy DeSana from 1985, the oldest work is from 2008, Paul P.’s Untitled, an Obama-era testament to the relative freedom of expression and public acceptance of the time (an ironic turn, taking that it depicts two 70s-era beatniks). This need not take away from their (erotic) power, but casting them into a lineage, a necessarily socio-temporal mode of comprehension, perhaps asks too much of them, causing them to stand strongest on the terms of their own achievement.

When these are the terms of discourse—whether the excellent works are made more or less excellent by an exhibition theme—can’t we be forgiven for enjoying them purely on the basis of their aesthetic achievement? As I walked back out into the Soho heat, I may not have been consumed by the historicity of the male gaze, but I also didn’t need to be: Wojnarowicz, Hujar, Fassbinder, Waters, Mapplethorpe, among plenty of others, are rightly celebrated as paragons of male queer art, all of whom bear legacies large enough to sufficiently impress their weight on me. As far as I was concerned, my visit to the gallery had been an afternoon well spent, and that’s more than enough of a return when it comes to contemporary art.

Image Credits:
1-4. Courtesy of The Artist Room