Several months ago, I saw a show that smartly investigated the performance of femininity through the accoutrements associated with costuming. It’s a bit more difficult to catch and observe masculinity in action outside of the arena of organized sports, which normally has its particular uniforms and gear, training and in-game behavior, which often read as stereotypically manly. But then athletic contests are really just slightly less consequential versions of military combat, a populist version of masculinity at play — with all its smug self-regard and a love of violence that affirms a sense of dominance. Marianne Vitale’s exhibition at Invisible-Exports, Equipment, cannily alludes to this preening masculine vanity that comes to the surface through the machinery of military power, but also gets at the slightly menacing playfulness with which it is intertwined.
Vitale has created a fleet of handmade wooden torpedoes, each one painted and embellished with unique insignia. They are hung together in the gallery like a three-dimensional rendering of a flotilla of ships. The torpedoes are decorated with jokes and swaggering signs, some with historical, sexual, or religious references: one has the black-and-white pattern of a cow with the stamp “USDA Prime,” as if it contained a packet of meat; another, with “I want you” against a background of the US flag, brings to mind the famous WWI-era recruitment poster; another features a checkered flag scheme, tongues of flame, and a reference to a bible verse that promises damnation by fire to anyone perceived as other. A torpedo with a pin-up model and the phrase “How’m-I-doin?’” painted on one side and “Never Mrs” on the other plays on the sounds of the words, but also on the sine qua non of masculinity that promises violence always and forever. Mind you, the work doesn’t necessarily represent a historical practice of actually decorating torpedoes in these ways; I found no evidence of that occurring. Rather, Vitale alludes to the practice of decorating WWI fighter planes with “nose art,” a practice that helped to identify friendly units, allowed for the personalization of equipment in a largely depersonalized endeavor, and also provided visual correspondence for the attitude of aggression and forceful dominance often required of soldiers in war time.
The work is meant to be humorous, playful. But the teasing and taunting nature of the torpedoes stays with me as a view into the type of masculinity I’ve inherited with coming of age in the US. I think of the typical schoolyard bully who likes to joke and taunt before physically brutalizing a victim, performing the role of dominant to the victim’s submissive. Vitale demonstrates that adult games of aggression don’t deviate very much from this juvenile script: we like to toy with our prey; impress upon the antagonist our power and our irresistible control, enjoying our part in that dialectic. There’s something of that joy in the other’s potential or realized misery wrapped up in our populist brand of masculinity, which comes to full flower in war. But its spirit is deeply embedded in our culture. Sure, most everyone likes to win, but it’s particularly manly to enjoy seeing someone else defeated.
Marianne Vitale: Equipment continues at Invisible-Exports (89 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 9.