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Pictured: Larry Stanton, Untitled, n.d.
5 July 2022 – 29 July 2022

The Male Gaze: From Larry Stanton to Now

Departing from the practice of Larry Stanton, this exhibition explores the male-on-male gaze through the lens of an intergenerational group of emerging and established artists from Europe and the United States: Kenneth Bergfeld, Jimmy DeSana, Cary Kwok, Paul P., Leon Pozniakow, Larry Stanton and David Weishaar. 

Pictured: Larry Stanton, Untitled, n.d.
The gaze, for all its changes and all its strangeness, so often means seeing a reflection of ourselves, whether it’s staring back, or refusing to meet us eye to eye.
— Sam Moore, 2022

The gaze is a conversation. Its power in art comes from the dynamic it creates between the figure in an image who looks out at the world, and the onlooker who gazes at the canvas. This conversation is complicated by both the Male prefix that comes before the gaze here – something so often associated with ideas of power and objectification – and the queerness at the heart of Larry Stanton’s work.

 

Stanton’s drawings are driven by simplicity and intimacy; aiming to capture the idiosyncrasies of his subjects, something that’s echoed in the work of contemporary artists influenced by Stanton. One of his Untitled drawings on paper from the early 1980s features a man sitting in a chair, a radio on a table to his side. What’s striking about this image is Stanton’s ability to focus on the imperfections of his subject in a way that makes them feel like they aren’t flaws – the asymmetry of his eyes, the bags under one of them shaded in darker.

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Larry Stanton, Untitled, 1981

Drawing on paper – 46 x 61 cm, 18 1/8 x 24 1/8 ins – 57.4 x 72.6 cm, 22 5/8 x 28 5/8 ins

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Refusing to conform to the expectations of the gaze is also vital to the photographic work of Jimmy DeSana, one of Stanton’s contemporaries. Smoke Cowboy (1985) freezes a moment that’s hard to define, between letting down one’s guard and putting it back up; the cowboy hat covering the subject’s face challenges the gaze, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers. DeSana has captured something inherently queer; the uncertain relationship between needing to keep your guard up, and allowing for vulnerability, considering a gaze that might be hostile to its subjects.

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Jimmy DeSana, Smoke Cowboy, 1985

Vintage Cibachrome print – 43.3 x 26 cm, 17 1/8 x 10 1/4 ins, image size – 35.6 x 28 cm, 14 1/8 x 11 1/8 ins, paper size

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The politics of queerness are vital to how Stanton draws his subjects – who often came from important queer locations like Fire Island Pines, Greenwich Village, and Los Angeles – is animated by the historical moment his work was created around. After the Stonewall riots, but before the AIDS crisis, Stanton captured queer life during a moment of radical possibility, able to show these men simply as they are, an act that’s at once incredibly simple, and loaded with political meaning.

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Paul P., Untitled, 2008

Oil on canvas – 46.4 x 61 cm, 18 1/4 x 24 1/8 ins – 53.3 x 67.9 cm, 21 x 26 3/4 ins framed

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Stanton approaches the meaning of the gaze itself; through a desire to show the world and its inhabitants simply as they are, finding beauty in their imperfections. Stanton’s gaze feels markedly different from that of his contemporaries; less stark than that of Peter Hujar, less haunted and empty than some of the most famous works of Hockney. Here, the gaze can reveal how an artist sees not only their subjects, but the world around them. The fact that so many of Stanton’s images have the moniker of Untitled indicates his gaze wants to focus on the quotidian, the kind of things that might not normally be seen as “worthy” of art – compared to Hujar, known for photographs of prominent figures like Susan Sontag – celebrating queerness as something everyday, but still deeply worthy of elevating to art.

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Larry Stanton, Untitled, c.1980

Drawing on paper – 42.5 x 34.8 cm, 16 3/4 x 13 3/4 ins – 51.5 x 43.7 cm, 20 1/4 x 17 1/4 ins framed

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The everyday, and simple acts of intimacy, can be seen in the work of other artists who are following in Stanton’s footsteps. Paul P.’s Untitled (2008) challenges the expectations of the gaze in a similar way to Stanton; his two figures, nude, smoking together, spotlights an intimate moment in great detail. Yet Paul P. undermines the expectations of the gaze; his figures aren’t looking out, and so being confronted with this image feels like looking at something special, something secret.

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Cary Kwok, Beguiled, 2022

Acrylic and ink on paper
42 x 30 cm, 16 1/2 x 11 3/4 ins – 51 x 39 cm, 20 1/8 x 15 3/8 ins framed
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Cary Kwok’s Beguiled (2022) echoes this; using acrylic and ink, rendered in almost photographic clarity, the work is also centred on the figure of a smoking man, who refuses to look outwards. This challenges the expectations of the gaze, taking it from a dialogue into something more rooted in projection and uncertainty. While the ideas in these images – intimacy, anonymity, and the beauty that can be found in the everyday – share a lineage with Stanton, these contemporary artists approach the gaze in a different way; less head- on than Stanton does.

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Kenneth Bergfeld, A home with no hands IX, 2019

Oil on canvas – 40 x 30 cm – 15 3/4 x 11 3/4 ins

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This challenge to the gaze is brought even closer to the limits in Kenneth Bergfeld’s A home with no hands IX (2019), where parts of a face are rendered in great detail, yet the eyes themselves don’t exist, raising an existential question: how can the gaze can function at all when there are no eyes looking back at yours? The eyes – so often called windows to the soul – are at the core of how the gaze functions; when contemporary artists challenge the gaze, they do so through the eye itself. Two paintings by David Weishaar, Boy’s Flower II and Moth Echoes (both 2022), show pairs of eyes in different colours – an echo of Stanton’s asymmetry from decades before – with the alluring, unsettling implication that each of these eyes may be looking at something different.

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David Weishaar, Moth Echoes, 2022

Oil on canvas
40 x 50 cm, 15 3/4 x 19 3/4 ins
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The gaze is a conversation. But it’s also a question, one that has a fundamental root – what do you see? – which these artists are continuing to reframe and rephrase. Stanton asks what queer is, considering the place of the male in the male gaze, situating his own eye, and the outward-looking ones of his subjects, in what was a brave new world.

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Larry Stanton, Untitled, c.1980

Drawing on paper
35 x 43 cm, 13 3/4 x 16 7/8 ins – 43.5 x 51.5 cm, 17 1/8 x 20 1/4 ins framed
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Formally, Leon Pozniakow’s work is the most direct continuation of Stanton’s; a watercolour like Nono (2021) has the same focus on the act of looking as Stanton’s drawings. Pozniakow’s work also engages with the idea of history that lingers in Stanton’s drawings; for Pozniakow, reimagining pieces of queer culture is a way of engaging with that history – both Nono and Querelle (2021) are characters from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1982 adaptation of the Jean Genet novel Querelle De Brest (1947). A painting of a cinematic adaptation of a novel; queer history echoing through time, form, and language.

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Leon Pozniakow, Querelle, 2021

Watercolour on gesso panel
20 x 15 cm, 7 7/8 x 5 7/8 ins
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One constant through the work of all these artists is the idea of the gaze as a conversation; but as well as being a conversation between the art object and its viewer, here it ex- tends into a dialogue with history, between Stanton and the artists that have come after him. These questions – about the power and limits of looking; about the place of the male, whether artist, subject, or object, within the confines of the male gaze – are continually being asked and redefined, as the scope for answering them becomes wider.

 

The changing nature of the gaze feels like a reflection of a wider culture; on one hand, there’s more room for explicit images of queer intimacy, but on the other, the authority of the gaze itself is continually being called into question. As Stanton captured a moment on the precipice of history, so do these contemporary artists, trying to define something that’s changing all around them. The gaze, for all its changes and all its strangeness, so often means seeing a reflection of ourselves, whether it’s staring back, or refusing to meet us eye to eye.

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