The Freeport Art Museum’s current exhibit is called “The Nature of Masculinity.”
Tommy Reyes co-curated “The Nature of Masculinity.” He’s an artist and the owner of Gallery 19 in Chicago, and a member of the arts group the Exhibition Project. Reyes says the idea for the art photography show came as the group looked at Antonio Martinez’s pictures of amateur mixed martial arts fighters and, against that, Mariah Karson’s montages of men of a wide range of body types, posed classically, like Michelangelo’s David. Different as they were, Reyes says he saw the germ of a show.
“What I was really interested in is this idea of construction. Gender identity is constructed. Sexuality is constructed, and so is masculinity,” he says.
Reyes found two artists -- Tara Bogart and Adam Holtzman --whose work he felt complemented and expanded on what the others had done, and “The Nature of Masculinity” was born.
Jessica Modica is the Museum’s director. She says she was referred to the exhibit by a mutual friend. Once she saw the show, she knew it had to come to Freeport.
“The images are all just brilliantly executed. A number of them are quite beautiful. And immediately the narrative spoke to me," Modica says.
Photographer Martinez is an assistant professor of intermedia arts at Southern Illinois University. He says his contribution arose out of two years immersed in a sport that seems an exaggerated version of stereotypical masculinity.
“What drew me is the level of compassion that actually is hidden in the sport. At the end of the fights, the victor would pick up the person that he had just beaten, and immediately raise their hand, and these two men -- two strangers -- would hug,” he says.
Martinez says the thousands of pictures he took of the men gave him an appreciation for that camaraderie and what it meant.
“It’s one of those spaces where men are allowed to be close,” he says.
So, in his pictures, Martinez says he tried to convey that unexpected mixture of toughness and softness.
Dr. Kristin Myers recognizes what Martinez is talking about. She is a sociology professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. Myers says the exhibit points up the contradiction in a notion of ideal masculinity that all men are measured by, even though most will never attain it. Nor Myers says, should they.
“It’s not good for society if everybody, you know, is David or He-man or whatever, and so in reality most men do masculinity in a really varied way and even by setting, she says. ”
Myers says, even as there’s growing recognition and acceptance of a wider range of behavior, the work and, indeed, the very topic of the exhibit, reminds us of the tremendous amount of baggage we all, men and women, still carry.
“Touching is so verboten among men in most circumstances. Showing emotion is still really prohibited, so crying is, humans do that, but men aren’t supposed to. So we’re not even talking about fingernail polish or dresses or something like that. We’re just talking about a full range of human expression that still is provocative, ”Myers says.
Add in the fights over same-sex marriage -- and, lately, transgender rights -- and this exhibit suddenly seems very timely. But, Modica says, she doesn’t necessarily think of it as controversial.
“But I do think the images confront the viewer. The people that have come to the show, it’s interesting, how sometimes, they are uncomfortable. But it’s more they’re confronted with their own notions not just of masculinity, but who they are,” she says.
Reyes says that, if people look for answers, they may not get them. But that’s okay. The goal is something more open-ended, and where geography matters.
“It’s questions and conversations about what it means to be a man in contemporary times. That’s what is important about this exhibition -- and that it’s happening at the Freeport, which is really great, because, if you were to have that in, say Chicago, the conversation would be completely different,” he says.
Modica says if that happens, the show will be a success: for the artists, for the museum, and for the public.
The exhibition runs at the Freeport Art Museum through August 6. The museum hosts a panel discussion on the subject of the exhibition at 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 9, and the Winneshiek Players will present four short reader plays based on the topic of the exhibit on Saturday, August 6, from 6:30-8:00pm.