by Julie Chae
Many commercial gallery owners shy away from presenting ‘controversial’ art, especially those located outside of New York and LA. In St. Petersburg, Florida, Owner/Director Mindy Solomon of the Mindy Solomon Gallery regularly organizes exhibitions that challenge cultural norms and institutions, often with candor and humor. Such exhibitions as “Undressing the Feminine” (July 3 – August 14, 2010), “Hero Worship” (August 6 – September 17, 2011) and “Contradictions” (September 24 – November 5, 2011) questioned social definitions of femininity and masculinity, and treated topics like sex, politics and race with irreverence and irony. And recently on April 14, 2012, Solomon opened “Explicit Content” (on view until May 19, 2012), an exhibition that challenges the notions of what is permissible behavior related to sexuality.
Most of the gallery’s photography artists exhibited work in at least one of these ‘controversial’ exhibitions. These artists—Muir Vidler, Generic Art Solutions, Becky Flanders, Aiden Simon, Sean Fader, Jeremy Chandler, David Hilliard, Barbara DeGenevieve and Scot Sothern—question societal values through their art and show us how we can explore or define our own identities.
Muir Vidler’s body of work involves capturing the spirit of individuals who refuse to be confined by social expectations. While traveling to different countries throughout the world—often on assignment for clients like The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Time and Sunday Times Magazine, London-based Vidler finds time to seek out vibrant lives with character for his personal work. Vidler’s images inspire me to ask questions such as:
- Who says you can’t wear pristine white and flip off a guy with a camera?
- Must someone who feels like a woman be a man? What does being a prostitute mean in a country with strict codes of sexual and gender behavior?
- How do we define beauty?
- Who decided tattooing “Bacardi” across your lower back is a bad idea? Who cares?!
Generic Art Solutions (“G.A.S.”), a team of the multimedia artists Matt Vis and Tony Campbell, create sculpture, video, photography and performance art pieces using visual vocabulary from advertising, marketing and art history. G.A.S. reinterprets some of the well-known masterpieces of Western art history with present-day scenarios, questioning the cultural values represented in canonized works of art. For instance, the Church with its wealthy and powerful past has supported art throughout history that glorified God. In works by G.A.S., biblical characters praised for unwavering religious faith appear as if they could be those “crazy” folks from reality TV shows, settling family disputes with whatever happens to be within reaching distance, or buddies on a hunting trip gone bad due to a little too much alcohol.
For several artists in the program like Becky Flanders, Aiden Simon and Sean Fader, debunking what people consider appropriate behavior for men and women, or even how people expect men and women to appear, is a fundamental element of their artistic inquiry. The images created by these artists challenge the ways in which society defines male and female identities.
Flanders depicts iconic women like the Virgin Mary or Marie Antoinette doing something regarded as strictly male behavior—urinating while standing up.
Like Flanders, Aiden Simon also questions whether society should define maleness strictly by the presence of male genitalia.
And in his “I Want To Put You On” series, Sean Fader digitally modifies his photographs of male and female friends to appear as if he is “trying on” their bodies, blurring identities and sometimes genders.
Other artists, such as Jeremy Chandler and David Hilliard, engage in more subtle questions about masculinity in current society. In a series of photographs on hunters wearing ghillie suits for camouflage in the woods or fields, Chandler examines men’s relationship with nature. And in exploring personal relationships such as his own son-father relationship, David Hilliard delves into the meanings of these male roles as they exist in our current society—as archetypes and as lived by real persons.
Barbara DeGenevieve and Scot Sothern—whose works appear in the gallery’s current exhibition, “Explicit Content”—explore the concept of sex and sexuality when money is involved. In addition to sexual trafficking, these artists deal with the complex issues involved in how society values people, especially those who have pretty much nothing else except their bodies. DeGenevieve pays homeless men to go to a hotel room with her, clean off and pose nude for her pictures. It is amazing to me that some criticize DeGenevieve for “exploiting” the homeless, when the men in her images look more humanized and happy than any homeless person I have seen. Scot Sothern’s photographs of prostitutes in LA recall the raw and penetrating portraits of the downtown “Piers” scene in New York during the 1970s and 80s by Alvin Baltrop, and constitute the opposite of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s theatrical, stylized images of prostitutes and strippers in LA from the 1990s.
The artists in Solomon’s photography program produce provocative images and challenge deeply-entrenched values with honesty and frankness. Some use humor or narrative as well. In doing so, they continue a tradition in art of artists showing us images that make us rethink our society’s values and what is possible.