Review By Rachel Pafe, Photos by Azeez Bakare
We are all familiar with the ubiquitous slew of comments, variations of “she’s fat,” which accompanied Lena Dunham’s naked debut on the HBO series, Girls. Bloggers rushed to Dunham’s defense, claiming a redefinition of the attractive body (not all that realistic, but a nice thought) and the (much more plausible) assertion that her body did represent an ideal, just an older one. Think back to the soft, small-breasted women in Renaissance paintings by Titian. As nice as it is to explore the ideals of the female body, there was something obviously missing from this debate: the male form.
If you think back to depictions of the perfect man, even if you search as far back as the Renaissance, even further back to ancient Greek and Roman art, he remains unchanged. The impeccable man, for many exemplified by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, is muscular and slim. Viewed from the perspective of objectification, the male body purely as an article of lust and desire has endured startlingly the same for centuries. Martin Swift’s newest exhibition, Paradox of Masculinity, provides a rare challenge to this archetypical sexy manliness.
On display at Above The Bike Shop, above City Bikes in Adam’s Morgan, but unique in its airy, whitewashed top floor art space, the show tugs the strings of delicate and deliberate. The evening of the show opening, open windows streamed immense pools of dappled sunlight onto massive canvases, each simply named. Luca, Oscar, Austin, Tyler, Dave and Josh nonchalantly standing in the nude, carelessly wielding small pieces of sporting equipment: an errant tennis racquet, the ghost of a golf club.
Each figure is massive and powerful, yet flabby. These thick men are rendered in pastel tones, in immaterial, loose brush strokes, which give them an ethereal effect akin to a hazy daydream. The men display their flesh unforgivingly; overflowing thighs meld with potbellies, body hair abounds, but no one seems overly concerned. The canvases stray far up on the high walls, lending the effect that the figures are watching, teasing, the viewer.
Not to completely exhaust the Lena Dunham debate, but another strand of that conversation inevitably leads back to the concept of realism. Dunham once stated that, “I’m not that fat…. I’m not super-thin, but I’m thin for, like, Detroit.” Which brings us back to our shapely men. Just as it is incredibly disconcerting to be surrounded only by beautiful waifs, it is also weird to have perfectly sculpted hunks of meat abounding. This may be what we idolize, but it is not what we typically are surrounded by.
Dunham is normal in a real city; Swift’s men would get plenty of action in DC. It is shocking because they are suddenly placed on a pedestal and we find ourselves picking out their every flaw, wondering why they have not been tortured into perfection. Yes, you still have permission to find frail women and veiny men attractive, but next time look at these images and realize we idolize them because they are unattainable; Luca’s little pouch is much more adorable anyway.
Paradox of Masculinity is on display Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday from 1 to 7 pm or by appointment at Above the Bike Shop. To schedule an appointment email Kate Warren or Micah Greenberg. Mutiny DC arranged the staging and styling of the space.