Masculinities review: men laid bare from boardroom to battlefield

Sean O’Hagan
Masculinities review: men laid bare from boardroom to battlefield. Barbican, LondonFrom Taliban fighters in kohl and Hollywood Nazis to the bones of Masahisa Fukase’s late father, this timely show of photography shows maleness at its most touching, tragic and extreme

In 1972, the French singer Charles Aznavour recorded What Makes a Man a Man. Had Nan Goldin not already used it in her haunting audio-visual installations, the song would make a great soundtrack to this timely group show.

Its aim, according to curator Alona Pardo, is to explore how masculinity is “experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed” in photography and film from the 1960s to the present. It’s an ambitious undertaking, given the plurality of subversive masculinities that have have emerged since the 60s, and because of the resilience of certain forms of traditional ultra-male power, from the boardroom to the battlefield.

In the first section, Disrupting the Archetype, the military looms large not only as a place of uber-masculinity, but also as a semiotic minefield of conflicting signals. What, for instance, are we to make of Thomas Dworzak’s cache of found studio photographs of young Taliban fighters, some holding hands amid ornate arrangements of flowers, their eyes rimmed with black kohl, their heads framed by brightly coloured, hand-painted haloes? The codes are so complex that, were it not for the occasional artfully placed AK-47, one would assume that these posed portraits were evidence of an ultra-clandestine gay culture in Afghanistan.

On the opposite wall, Adi Nes’s staged colour portraits of soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces are also elaborately staged, but in a very different way. Nes evokes an atmosphere of relaxed camaraderie, the men resting, dozing, laughing and, in one instance, pissing together in the open air of the desert. Making reference to scenes from art history, Nes’s soldiers are actually civilians acting out roles that “are all grounded in his own experiences as a gay Mizrahi Jewish man.” For me, this makes them not only unconvincing but disappointing – the artifice somehow undermining a masculinist subtext that would have been as evident, and more subversive, had he used a more straightforward documentary approach.

In further contrast, photographs from Catherine Opie’s recent series High School Football appear to be staged, but are, in fact, complex portraits of image-savvy adolescent athletes who know exactly how they ought to look for the magazine spreads that may follow if they make it to the big league.

Several versions of the subversive female gaze are present. Collier Schorr and Sam Contis tackle the enduring archetype of American masculinity that is the contemporary cowboy. Schorr’s teenage wranglers are both vulnerable and macho; in some places their portraits are placed on top of images of older African American men to make a rather too overt historical point. Contis’s Deep Spring series, shot at an isolated all-male liberal college in the Sierra Nevada mountains, is evocative and questioning, the myth of the American west looming large in a narrative that moves deftly between the intimate and the elemental.

Elsewhere, there are some powerful juxtapositions. A section mischievously titled Male Order pits a wall of Richard Avedon’s austere, black and white portraits of post-Watergate US political figures – including presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush Sr – against a large grid of Karen Knorr’s quietly subversive, quintessentially English series Gentlemen. Shot in the early 80s in private gentlemen’s clubs in London, Knorr’s evocation of establishment male entitlement is acutely observed in often languorous portraits, one of which echoes Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent bout of contemptuous lounging. The accompanying quotes, all real, add layers of irony. “Men are interested in Power. Women are interested in Service” reads one above a portrait of a black man carrying a silver tea service.

In the same room, there are two more darkly humorous takes on extreme masculinity: a wall of colour portraits of Hollywood Nazis – portrayed by Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy – by Piotr Uklański; and a vitrine containing a Clare Strand’s tower of vintage Men Only magazines. It is not often you encounter the sublimely ridiculous and the ridiculously sublime in such close proximity.

Jeremy Deller’s So Many Ways to Hurt You, a film portrait of the exotic Welsh-born wrestler Adrian Street, is a study in performative high camp of a particularly British variety, while an Andy Warhol film from 1979, Fashion: Male Models, comprises a series of deceptively straightforward interviews that cast light on the ways in which fashion conforms to, as well as challenges, traditional notions of masculinity. Neither quite prepares you for the brute primitivism of Richard Mosse’s film Fraternity, which consists of young white men from Yale engaged in a guttural shouting contest for a keg of beer. Here, he who shouts the loudest also manages to shout the longest (which may yet prove to be a fitting metaphor for the Trump years).

Throughout, the exhibition moves between the conceptual and what might be called the intimate self-documentary. The most riveting examples of the latter occur in a section called Too Close to Home: Family and Fatherhood. Images by the late Masahisa Fukase are unmissable. Alongside playful but revealing portraits of his extended family are small, intimate, monochrome portraits of his ageing father that are almost overwhelming in their subtle intensity. In one, his dead father’s face is outlined beneath a white sheet; in another, we see his father’s bones after cremation. Fukase’s unflinching gaze reminds us that the ties that bind are tightest at the very moment when they are pulled asunder.

Equally affecting in an altogether more conflicted way is Anna Fox’s My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words, in which she juxtaposes “colour photographs of my mother’s tidy cupboards with excerpts of my father’s rantings”. The tension here is between the formal beauty of these miniature pictures – shelves filled with pink china crockery and rose-tinted glasses – with the often grotesque violence of the intricately inscribed words – “I’m going to tear your mother to shreds with an oyster knife”. I’m still haunted by the unsettling nature of this work.

In dramatic contrast is Richard Billingham’s series Ray’s a Laugh, full of extreme family drama undercut with moments of tenderness between Billingham’s alcoholic father and feisty mother. No matter how many times I have seen these images, their power remains undiminished. This is family life in extremis; a dogged masculinity, born of necessity, fuelling even his mother’s behaviour.

Masculinities provides much to think about, from Ana Mendieta’s subversive self-portraits as a man to Hank Willis Thompson’s series, Unbranded, which uses American magazine adverts stripped of their text and context to illustrate the ways in which the African American experience has been commodified by corporate white America. Throughout, there are tropes and parallels – some intentional, some not – that reverberate across cultures and time. Thus, Karlheinz Weinberger’s portraits of Swiss rebel youth in the 60s – all camp poses and customised DIY styles – have certain echoes with Hal Fischer’s more conceptually mischievous 1977 series Gay Semiotics, a staged documentation of the sartorial iconography of gay communities in San Francisco.

Related: Putting men in the frame: images of a new masculinity

It is great to be reminded of how incisive Laurie Anderson’s series Fully Automated Nikon is in the way it skews the casual sexism women encountered daily in 1970s New York, and how prescient was Marianne Wex’s Let’s Take Back Our Space, which nailed manspreading long before the term was invented. If you have time to linger, be sure to watch Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, an intoxicating meditation on gay desire, black identity and literary reputation that also works here as an interregnum between the rich overload of imagery elsewhere.

Masculinities roams far and wide to prove its point: that what makes a man a man is more complex and evolving than even the far-seeing Aznavour imagined in that groundbreaking 1972 song. My one reservation is that nothing here reflects the unsettling rise of a strain of “alt-right”, proudly toxic masculinity that has emerged of late alongside, and fuelled by, populist politics. It lurks in Mosse’s and Andrew Moisey’s contrasting depictions of fraternity rituals, but in its rawest, most belligerent form is absent. This seems an oversight. Other than that, Masculinities will make you think again about the meanings of maleness in a world increasingly defined by ever more extreme definitions of the same.