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October 20, 2017
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Michael Halsband's Klaus Nomi; E.V. Day's Spidey/Striptease; Nir Hod's Genius. Source: salomoncontemporary.com.

The Salomon Contemporary gallery's latest exhibition, Ladies & Gents, is a provocative exploration of gender perception through painting, print, sculpture and even a puppet. Featuring the works of 16 artists including Deborah Kass, E.V. Day, Michael Halsband, Dennis Oppenheim and Scott Hunt, "the exhibition fuses a wide range of styles and tones, with some more serious and critical, and some lighthearted and humorous. Various works depict the figures in a more traditional sense as 'ladies' and 'gentlemen,' while others challenge just the opposite." 

Laurel Nakadate, Lucky Tiger #1 and Kurt Kauper, Man Lying Down
Laurel Nakadate's Lucky Tiger #1
Kurt Kauper's Man Lying Down
Source: salomoncontemporary.com.

Each artist was asked to select a single piece they felt represented the exhibition's theme. While the scantily-dressed woman straddling a blue pick-up in Laurel Nakadate's Lucky Tiger #1 and Kurt Kauper's Man Lying Down might not push the boundaries of social expectation very far, something in these pieces undeniably provokes. Perhaps it's the grubby marks on Nakadate's photo, or the simple style of Kauper's suited man lying stretched out in the park; but both take a subtle stab at the respective gender proprieties.

The "ladies" pieces in the collection all appear to have a strong female identity - whether it's an element of struggle in a male-dominated world or a sense of liberation. The pieces represent at least one element of what the title "female" means to the artist. Occasionally there are more humorous examples, like Amy Cutler's less-than-feminine, corrective-shoe-wearing Edna or Judith Hudson's Bribe - a female torso covered with pearls said to represent "women's love and sacrifice for another feminine accessory - jewelry." 

Deborah Kass presents a collection of coloured Barbra Streisand photographsFour BarbrasSix Red Barbras and Four Barbras from The Jewish Jackie Series. The style of these works is influenced by Andy Warhol and the subject matter is representative of her Jewish female identity and her desire to break the "boys' club" reputation of the art world.

Several pieces in the exhibition confront various perceptions of masculinity. E.V. Day's deconstructed Spiderman costume, Spidey/Striptease, alters the superhero's strictly masculine image through red heels and fishnet tights. The work is similar to Day's Divas Ascending exhibition, a collection of shredded garments suspended from wires. Day claims, "I make sculptures that transform familiar icons of women's empowerment and entrapment into new objects that confound conventional readings of these clichés, and constellate meaning in a range of emotions: anxiety, ecstasy, liberation and release." Day's work is theatrical; the combination of exploded garments held in place with wires creates an oxymoronic feel to the pieces - there is both a sense of freedom and restriction.

Installation: Nir Hod, Kiki Smith, John Sonsini, Amy Cutler, Jocelyn Hobbie and Dustin Yellin. Source: salomoncontemporary.com
Installation: Nir Hod, Kiki Smith, John Sonsini, 
Amy Cutler, Jocelyn Hobbie and Dustin Yellin. 
Source: salomoncontemporary.com

Kiki Smith uses similarly feminine subjects with a masculine twist. Her piece, Daisy Chain, is a heavy bronze and steel chain (over two meters in length), connecting molded feet, hands and a female head. When laid out on the floor, the piece can be arranged into the shape of a daisy. The manipulation and evolution of the piece over the course of the exhibition is a powerful symbol of female restraint and manipulation - quite literally a take on a woman in chains.

While the female artists as a whole are bolder in their interpretations, the male artists in the exhibition don't seem to have the same charge, although they still provoke. The "gents," more obscurely than the "ladies," challenge ideas of traditional masculinity and take on themes of male sexuality, anti-sexuality, toils of the working-man and his physical gender.

Your reaction to Michael Halsband's black-and-white photo of Klaus Nomi could range from intrigue to unease. In an interview with style.com, Halsband talked about how his un-sexed image of Klaus came into being: "I used to see Klaus around. He stood out but was very refined... He had this plastic, vinyl contraption that he designed and had made by a Broadway costume maker, and he wore it for the first time in this photo. I have twenty rolls of film of him subtly adjusting his whole posture and attitude so that it looked just right."

Dennis Oppenheim's silver-suited puppet Theme for a Major Hit, creates a similarly intriguing but unsettling piece. The original work is a two-hour recording of suited puppets with the tag line: "It aint what you make, its what makes you do it." Perhaps with a similar intention to Day's wires and Smith's chains, the puppet comes to represent the social restraints of daily life.

Another particularly interesting image is Scott Hunt's Jacob's Pillow - a charcoal drawing of two men lying down in the snow. While initially the image seems simple, the way the two figures have been cut off at the bottom of the page creates a sense of obscurity; we question why they're there and what they're doing. Hunt's charcoal prints are detailed enough to resemble photographs, and many of his works have a strongly sexual element, including nude men and women in underwear. The images are gritty and mysterious, making you feel like you've walked in on something you shouldn't have, but can't look away.

Scott Hunt, Jacob's Pillow, 2008
Scott Hunt, Jacob's Pillow, 2008. Source: 
salomoncontemporary.com.

Nir Hod's collection of Genius paintings all have a similar concept: child-like figures with grimaced faces and cigarettes. According to the artist's website, his "work illustrates a less literal usage of the word 'Genius,' wherein extravagant behaviour creates a cult of personality, like the ones surrounding dictators, celebrity eccentrics or Mafioso." The gender of his narcissistic-looking figures is obscured, as their faces and proportions are stretched and enlarged. The Genius included in the Salomon Contemporary exhibition depicts a melancholic child, wearing Elizabethan clothes, smoking a cigarette. In an interview with style.com about the painting, Hod claimed "That's beyond gender. If you asked me if this was a boy or a girl, I couldn't even tell you."

But I suppose it doesn't matter; the quality of the art is in the feeling it evokes, and not necessarily in the subject or in the artist's skill. What the Ladies & Gents exhibition really does is remind us what it is to be individual. There is no stylistic uniform between the male and the female artists, each one is unique, with their own interpretation of what their gender means to them.

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