November 3, 2005

The Boys Next Door

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“Boy” is a term that we tend to dismiss with unaffected ease because it is at once ubiquitous and commonplace. Not a provocative designation of any kind, it is biological classification rather than performative identity. In modern society, it is exclusion (think “Too Much” by the Spice Girls: “I want a man not a boy who thinks he can”), inclusion (the notoriously closed “boys club” of Hollywood) and differentiation (if a boy then not a girl). Or is it? The Johnson Museum’s newest exhibit, “Will Boys Be Boys? Questioning Adolescent Masculinity in Contemporary Art” takes a different approach with the subject of “boy.” Here, “boy” is deconstructed, dissected and reinvested with meaning among fifty works of art ranging from traditional paintings and sculptures to photographs, installations and video works.

A compilation of 48 pieces from 19 nationally recognized artist teams, the exhibit is a traveling project organized and circulated by Independent Curators International (iCI). Founded in 1975, iCI is a nonprofit organization dedicated to constructing traveling exhibitions guided by the hand of various established curators for the purpose of showcasing efforts from a mixture of artists young and established, domestic and foreign.

After having circulated over 100 exhibitions from the efforts of more than 3,000 artists in over 500 museums to an overall audience of more than five million people, iCI still stresses the importance of education and innovation that characterized its original founding purpose. Curated by Shamin M. Momin, associate curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art as well as the branch director and curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altraia, “Will Boys Be Boys?” with its representational yet contemplative look at male adolescence exemplifies this tradition.

Andrea Inselmann, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Johnson Museum had stumbled on the exhibit while planning to curate a completely different show called “Bad Boys and Pretty Girls.” Said Inselmann, “[I] came across this show and felt that it address[ed] half of my thesis already; that there is a different attitude in the air about sexual identity than there was 10, 20, or 30 years ago.”

The exhibition approaches its subject almost methodically as it construes “boy-ness” as a whole dependent on the sum of its parts. From physical appearance in terms of clothing and hairstyle to actions in terms of pastimes and behavior, “Will Boys Be Boys?” it not satisfied with the typically passive reception of “boy-ness” as a basic identity without room for interpretation. Echoing this theme of meticulous examination, the exhibit is divided into three sections.

We start off with what is considered normative action for “boys,” from raving to wrestling to weight lifting. This performative section includes the photographs of Collier Schorr, whose work can be considered one of the first artistic productions, which addressed the exhibit’s conceptual approach to adolescent masculinity. In pieces like “Bloody Nose,” we see at once the dangerous mix of youthful vulnerability with sharp aggression in the pallid features of a freshly wounded adolescent. The boy’s candid expression is offset by the deep blue of his clothing and surroundings and we can’t help but notice the incomplete word, “wrestling” printed on the school-issued shirt he is wearing.

Schorr’s penchant for this slightly alienating, yet intimate look at male adolescence is also evident in “Smoke Ring,” an imperfect portrait of a young, male subject whose face is obscured by a cloud of cigarette smoke. Arched brows and hooded eyes mark the constructed cool and attempted maturity exhibited by the boy in the photo. Here is the unabashed, naïve arrogance that has existed alongside “boy-ness” since the term’s creation.

From performance, the exhibit moves us along towards physical identity. It is in this second section that we are introduced to Nikki S. Lee’s “The Skateboarder’s Project.” Known for her participatory photography, Lee’s artistic works are unique in that she is always a subject. This trend proves no different in “The Skateboarder’s Project,” where Lee freely infiltrates the realm of a clique made up of young male skateboarders. Appropriating this traditional component of “boy-ness,” Lee does not evoke discomfort or apparent discontinuity with her presence, proving that the right ensemble, the stance, the right expression, and the right equipment can communicate a conventionally closed-off identity even when its proprietor is one from the opposite camp of femininity.

And where would the concept of “boy-ness” be if it didn’t include toys? The exhibit’s final section concentrates on the objects and symbols of adolescent masculinity. Presented here is the crossroads of hip-hop, fast cars, loud music and gunplay. Luis Gispert’s sculptures specifically address these socially constructed components of the modern-day “boy” identity.

A unique look at “boy-ness” as we know it today, “Will Boys Be Boys?” dares to suggest that gender identity is not a concrete, isolating mechanism for reduction. “The artists in the show respond to and work within contemporary culture. They are in tune with the constructed-ness of sexuality, male or female. The boundaries between the sexes are much more fluid today than they were 20 year ago,” explained Inselmann. “Boy-ness” is instead a relative experience, a space for creation rather than a confinement. Less essential and more fluid, “boy-ness” can exist as a state of transition, an open personality to be negotiated and filled with a lasting connotation of choice and a dependency on one’s own brand of expression.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang
Arts and Entertainment Editor