Galleries

Feeling Vulnerable in Uniform

by Daniel Larkin on April 13, 2012

Ian Davis, "Wee Small Hours" (2012) (via tonkonow.com)

Two shows in Chelsea this April look at the connection between men and their uniforms. Whether it is teenage boys sweating in football uniforms, men on Wall Street hugged by dapper suits, or gays flaunting their panache inside a nightclub, a chap’s outfit is in lockstep with other members of his team. Catherine Opie’s show at Mitchell-Innes & Nash as well as Ian Davis’s exhibition at Leslie Tonkonow both probe male uniforms significance and evocate on why men crave membership in the groups their uniforms represent.

Catherine Opie, "Stephen" (2009)

In Opie’s “Football Landscape #3 (Notre Dame vs. St Thomas Moore)” (2007), the boys wear red jerseys and white tights while marching across the field. Opie’s sharp eye uses color and texture to guide the viewer’s gaze to the uniform; the intensity of the red shirts grabs the eye first. The rouge’s hue is heighted by the sharp contrasts with the white pants, green field and bluish gray sky. These prominent horizontal stripes of color — blue top, red and white in the middle, and then green on the bottom make the face the last thing to notice. It’s a subtle visual remark on how one surrenders some of their individuality for the group’s greater good. There is no “I” in team.

Whereas Opie captures photos of athletic garb on teenagers, Ian Davis paints the suits of grown men. In “Wee Small Hours” from 2012, men in indistinguishable black suits storm a pool on a hill like a swarm of ants. The jagged lines of the cliffs dominate most of the composition with the dusk sky and swaying palm tree competing for attention. Like Opie, his composition minimizes the faces and the individuality they might convey.

As in all of Davis’s work, none of the pictures’ narratives are straightforward or clear, though ambiguity weaves its own layers of meaning to unfold. The satellite trucks, late hours and official appearance of the men in black suggest a reconnaissance mission. But there is just not enough to go on. If one playfully approaches this vague symbolism as a riddle to contemplate, whether or not it can be solved, the exercise reveals more about your own relationship with suits and the masculine strength they ostensibly exude.

Both artists cast doubts on what their subjects get out of their uniforms psychologically. After all, they would not be honorable 21st century artists if they didn’t imbed a critique or insert a question mark.

Left, Ian Davis's "Thesis" (2012), and right, Catherine Opie's "David, Austin and Bryan" (2009) (all images courtesy the galleries) (click to enlarge)

Although the boys appear as a strong team in the wide-angle photographs on the playing field, Opie’s close up portraits accentuate their awkwardness. The boys strain to look tough but their tense body language and quizzical facial expressions ruin the attempt at machismo. For example, In ”David, Austin and Bryan” (2009), each boy betrays a certain sense of unease in the way he poses and doesn’t smile for the camera. Perhaps, the uniforms are just uncomfortable. But it’s hard not to read into this mixture of smugness and fragility the conflicting currents of adolescence. Twisted feelings that membership in a strong team can assuage.

Davis critiques the mindlessness of conformity and going along with the herd. In each painting, it is totally unclear what these men are doing besides standing around like a herd of sheep. “Thesis” from 2012 is a visual pun with a large wheel and the relatively tiny men who look like small cogs. But the twist is none of them are even trying to turn the wheels — that would give them too much power. Davis indicts that dangerous instinct in men to keep their heads down, follow along and to just mimic the actions of the other men in suits.

Opie and Davis both reveal the fragility that lurks beneath this desire to join a uniformed phalanx. Opie’s teenagers run from the awkwardness of their adolescent insecurities by investing in the glory of the game and the supposed machismo of their uniforms. Davis’s adults are content to sheepishly follow the actions of other men in suits — even if they don’t grasp the result or impact. In both cases, these artists expose the vulnerability that uniforms are supposed to cover up.

Catherine Opie’s High School Football is on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (534 West 26th, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 14. Ian Davis’s show Jewel Sermons is on view at Leslie Tonkonow + Projects (535 West 22nd, 6th Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 21.

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