HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — Many women will happily tell you — if only you looked them in the eye instead of the chest — there is something deeply alienating about being reduced to one’s body parts. It’s an experience that is becoming increasingly relatable across gender lines; as women and gay men grow in visibility and purchase power as a consumer base, men become objects as well, their sex appeal leveraged in the media and advertising. Perhaps the most dramatic microcosm of this phenomenon is the world of m4m dating, where the female, as subject or object, is entirely absent. Artist Kasper Ray O’Brien grapples with the experience of the Grindr scene in a solo show, Show Me Love at Hatch Art — a body of work in the most literal sense, as most of the pieces are dismembered body parts modeled off of himself.
These plaster casts, created through a preliminary and highly masochistic process of silicon body molding without the benefit of Vaseline, are integrated with a series of generic domestic objects (IKEA bathroom bench, body pillow, shower bar), as well as apparel items that are signifiers within gay culture (Calvin Klein thong, leather moto jacket, black unitard, Timberland boots), and bits of glam, like embedded glitter, a bisected disco ball, and clusters of natural crystals that seem to grow from a neck or chest concavity.
Despite a busy assortment of materials, O’Brien’s individual works are restrained and sparse. The body parts stand alone, suggesting narratives, implying action … the very elements used to elicit right-swipes on Grindr. O’Brien characterizes this work as not only an exploration of the male-on-male gaze, but the self-on-self gaze — which stands to reason, since the work is literally based off his own body — but is also quick to emphasize that he sees the work as a universal statement arrived at by personal means.
“I think referencing is the most important part of the process for me,” said O’Brien, during an open discussion with the artist at Hatch last week, citing Bruce Weber and Robert Gober as strong influences. O’Brien’s symbolic language and imagery are perhaps not universal, but readily identifiable to anyone familiar with the visible aspects of gay fashion, club, and dating culture. He sees the work as having a backhanded sense of humor, and while its delivery is unquestionably cold and deadpan, the longer you sit with it, the more disturbing the revelations become.
The simplest, and arguably the most complete piece, “Untitled (Masc4Masc),” has four components. Plaster casts of splayed hands are joined via a metal grab bar (typically mounted in a shower for safety), and are arranged in an approximately push-up position before a full-length mirror, where on one corner a black leather moto jacket hangs. With only the presence of hands, O’Brien suggests an entire body — it is impossible not to mentally sketch in a figure at ground level, potentially working out, or on its hands and knees in a sexual context. Nearby, the most complicated piece, materials-wise, “Untitled (2Shy),” features a body from the waist down, seated atop two towels on a bathroom bench, dressed in a black body suit unzippered just below the torso and a pair of Timberland boots. The figure reclines slightly, a posture of subtle submission and invitation echoed and exaggerated in “Untitled (Pillow Princess),” a limbless torso merged with a body pillow. On a shelf nearby, “Untitled (Jockstrap)” suggests crumpled and hastily discarded underwear.
These evocative bodies trigger our fantasies and imaginations, but from the perspective of this female viewer, there is no small hint of menace. It may be de rigueur these days to solicit sexual partners through images of ambiguous body parts, but when we show up at the door for an encounter, we certainly expect to find a whole human being. While the postures readily suggest complete scenarios, in reality what is being presented is the stuff of CSI crime scenes. Objectification, even self-objectification, is a kind of violence, and the tension between making an offering of oneself and maintaining a sense of identity coalesces powerfully in the show’s outlier, “Untitled (Looking),” which renders O’Brien’s head in great detail.
“Head was the one thing that I said I was never going to do,” said O’Brien, during his talk, “because it’s way too personal.” And indeed, it is. All the other bodies can be sketched into live action scenarios; a head all by itself is hard to imagine as anything besides a decapitated head. The eyes are closed, which suggests that whoever is doing the eponymous “looking” is not the head itself. Crystals grow from the temple to the jaw and out the base of the neck, which is obscured by a black vinyl restraint collar. O’Brien is on some serial killer shit, no doubt about it, and it speaks to the deepest fear at the heart of objectification — if someone only wants a piece of you, what’s to stop them from taking it?
Kasper Ray O’Brien: Show Me Love continues at Hatch Art (3456 Evaline Street, Hamtramck, Mich.) through March 26.