Friday, September 18, 2009

Skivvies and sexuality

“…there was one subject who must have been ‘going Commando’ when the photographer approached him.”

Last night was the opening of Ana de la Cueva’s El Paquette, an installation of faux underwear packages featuring the artist’s male friends, relatives and past lovers as models. At JANE KIM/ Thrust Projects in Manhattan’s Chinatown, these cardboard boxes in plexiglass cases showcase men in contrived poses against neutral backgrounds with sexually suggestive text. The promotional image, for example, says ‘double support for maximum appeal’ on a package of twins modeling briefs.

Although not all of the subjects have a sexual history with the artist, their sexuality seems to be the intended focus, since the press release notes that the text on the packaging is gleaned from interviews about the subjects’ fetishes and favourite positions. There is a disturbing ambiguity in some; a reference to ‘papa’, for example, connotes paternal relations as well as who’s-your-daddy proclivities. With the figures cropped fairly consistently from nose to knees, keeping the focus front and centre, they should seem sexy. After all, it references the art historical practice of objectification through truncation.

Nonetheless, there’s something about the subjects that doesn’t strike me as overtly sexual. Maybe it’s the lighting, or the spontaneity of the photo shoots, as the artist photographed the subjects wearing the undergarments they had on at the moment of confrontation. Most are utilitarian, though there was one subject who must have been ‘going Commando’ when the photographer approached him. I wonder if my failure to read the figures as sexualized is because the emphasis is on clothing. Men have a smaller range of undergarment options than women, and they aren’t faced with the same social pressures to incorporate sex-specific clothing into their erotic personas. How many men have excused themselves to go slip into something more comfortable? With the focus of El Paquette being on men in their underwear, the viewer cannot tell whether the figures actually felt sexy at the time of the shoot. Were they women, however, the presence or absence of lingerie would be a clue. (That causes me to wonder, would a male heterosexual artist get away with mounting a show like this? Would the female subjects oblige, or would they be stopped by insecurities about their bodies? Would representations of past lovers be interpreted as trophies?

I had to search a little too long for meaning in the work. I can see merit in contrasting the idealism of advertising with realism and relative lack of objectification, but it might just work against the series. In typical advertising, the subliminal message would be “buy this underwear so you can have sex.” In these photographs, however, there is no sexual tension between artist and subject since all are former lovers, presumably platonic friends, and relatives, thus the message reads as “some of these figures had sex with the artist and they trust her enough to be photographed in their underwear.” That, to me, doesn't carry the same intrigue as was implied by the 'double your pleasure, double your fun' promotional image. Ultimately, the installation feels more like art, and less like advertising. That is to say, if these packages were snuck into a store, the difference would be obvious. Appropriating the advertising aesthetic is not an easy thing to accomplish in art but to be convincing, it has to be head-on. Pun intended.

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