Trust the advertisements and you will enter ClampArt’s Chelsea gallery as an unsuspecting victim of an artful ruse two decades in the making. The oil paintings that populate this space with disrobed, indecently muscular gymnasts and wrestlers were purportedly uncovered by the artist Mark Beard, who has curated an exhibition devoted to his great-uncle, Bruce Sargeant.
Sargeant, whose work was prized in the early 20th century in elite galleries and salons on both sides of the Atlantic, died prematurely, at age 40, in a tragic wrestling accident. His work is a celebration of the male physique. His images of athletic tussles between men recall iconography of Christ’s crucifixion, with the homoerotic subtext. Had Sargeant lived longer, Beard believes he would have joined the pantheon of early 2oth-century figurative artists, like Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer.
Had he ever existed.
Bruce Sargeant (1898–1938): The Lost Murals is a wonderfully mischievous lark that intends to tease queerness out of an art historical epoch whose scholars seldom acknowledge the homosexuality of its most famous stars. Sargeant is just one of five different personas that Beard has used throughout his career as a backdoor into the mechanisms of institutional recognition and critique. The name, itself, is a reference to the 19th-century artist, John Singer Sargent, whose queer admirers often note the reluctance or refusal of major institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, to acknowledge the homosexual tendencies implicit in the artist’s work.
The unsung queerness of art from the late 19th and early 20th centuries reveals a critical censure within LGBTQ history that propagates a popular false belief that homosexuality in America miraculously sprung into existence during the Stonewall riots of 1969. It also ignores the vast troves of evidence we have of homoerotic art from that time period, some of which is archived in the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s collection, for example.
Beard’s fanciful, fictitious paintings are recourse for a community that’s often invisible in historical texts. His approach is certainly salacious, but its unfolding over the course of the exhibition has a comic dimension. Unknowing visitors expecting an exhibition of male athleticism are greeted with figures that become gradually unclothed with each successive painting, resulting in almost pornographic tropes of brokeback mountaineers and unholy priests.
This is more than a gag, however. Many of Beard’s compositions also contain the poetic subtleties. “Handstands in a Row” recalls the famous forms of Edgar Degas’s young ballerinas. Here, Beard transposes that almost fetishistic archetype and subverts it by swapping genders and inverting the male figures, as they perform handstands. Above them, a single rope-climber in white underwear watches.
Surely, the gymnasium is a fever dream for Beard, the setting of erotic fantasies in works like “Champion Wrestling Team” and “Young Wrestler and His Mentor.” But Beard goes beyond the homocentric gaze in a few images, to incorporate female figures. Admittedly, some of these attempts are pretty lackluster (for instance, “Boy and Girl with Picnic Basket in Afternoon Sun”). But others hold their own with the wrestling wunderkinds. “Tennis Whites and Wrestling Singlet” is a prime example, showcasing the dynamism of the artist’s skill. The image, rendered with almost no sense of depth, portrays a female tennis pro in close quarters with a male wrestler; she seems to confront him as he passes by. She grips the tennis racquet’s handle with just a few fingers, demonstrating a focused inner strength. Her eyes directly meet those of the wrestler, who stands evenly on the ground, with a slightly tilted posture.
In a cultural moment when artists are expected to hold the truth in high regard and fight against “fake news,” the alternative history of Bruce Sargeant feels like a necessary exception to the rule. Through his persona, Beard reiterates an urgent need for deeper dives into history. Although fictitious, Sargeant’s oeuvre is a reminder of how little we understand — or want to understand — about the queerness of the past.
Bruce Sargeant (1898–1938): The Lost Murals continues at ClampArt (247 West 29th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 24.