By Melina Paris, Arts and Culture Writer
Entering the exhibition, The Beauty of Men: Celebrating Tenderness, vibrant rust colored leaves leapt off one composition while lavender petals popped subtly in juxtaposition to a soft, wintery palette on another. Both works depicted a scene of tenderness between men.
The Beauty of Men is a new media art exhibition that transforms pornographic images into lush contemplations reimagined through the admiring eye of Queer PostPhotography artist John Waiblinger.
Although the exhibition just concluded its monthlong premiere at Long Beach’s Hellada Gallery, the impact of Waiblinger’s images have left a wake that continues to elicit responses both intellectual and sensual. The artist purposely helped generate this buzz with a closing reception that included a discussion of the exhibit and a talk by Gregory Mattson, an adjunct anthropology professor who teaches at East Los Angeles College and Los Angeles Southwest College. But the resonance of the show also comes naturally, from a convergence of its theme, its approach and its genre.
New media art is created with new media technologies. Its resulting cultural objects and social events can be seen in opposition to those deriving from old visual arts. Waiblinger considers his work in The Beauty of Men to be PostPhotography, or making a new photograph specific to his internal point of view.
Using found images from “the internet’s vast store of gay pornography” ― each man in the compositions is a sex worker ― Waiblinger combines them with his own photographs to articulate a relationship with those men. He places these figures in the midst of wildflowers and flora, combining sensuality and nature. The results are intriguing, teasing out long gazes from the viewer leaving much to absorb ― joy, beauty, tenderness. Waiblinger is adept at creating seamlessness between the figures and the natural world they dwell in. Blooms drape genitalia and show as much life as the figures themselves. Bursts of color pop like an applique in Waiblinger’s, Gently-I-Hold-You or La-Petit-Mort and soft dreamlike blossoms, leaves and even wheat are as much the subjects as the men.
Mattson spoke eloquently about Waiblinger’s images as the merging of paganism and the Greco Roman (Western) idealization of the male body. The Beauty of Men diverges from the typical Western art canon, where masculinity and sexuality are inextricably linked, and illuminates a softer side of men. The merging of male bodies with nature, “instead of virile culture or civilization,” as Mattson wrote in his blog post, Fauns in the Paradise Garden, additionally undermines traditional masculine roles.
Mattson emphasized these are images typically saved for the feminine form, within the realm of nature. This distinction adds a freshness to the compositions. Waiblinger lets us look at a different possibility in these captivating works, which Mattson described as “on the verge.”
Waiblinger said, “In a world where masculinity is often framed in terms of hardness and strength, I celebrate softness and vulnerability. I believe it’s crucial to explore the nuances and complexities of being a man. Queer art is essential to such exploration.”
PostPhotography, the softer side of men
Pornography is about objectification and Waiblinger challenges that by honoring tenderness and beauty and by looking for connection instead of objectification. In the gallery discussion, it was asserted that men are hurt by patriarchy, too. It limits their experience for tenderness, not only with women but with men.
Waiblinger added, in our society men have difficulty relating to each other. The biggest insult is, “fag.” And men are raised to protect themselves from that label. There is a lot of hiding who men are. Ultimately, Waiblinger said the exhibit is about connection and the human desire for relationship. And art can help us look at things in a different manner. There is so much more that men could experience.
This show created a space for it.
Waiblinger arrived at this point honestly. After a career in academia, with degrees in English, Women’s Studies and Library Science, he redefined himself as an artist in his early 60’s, first exhibiting work at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Arts or LACDA, in 2014. Waiblinger first exhibited The Beauty of Men at LACDA in 2018 as his first solo art show.
At the same time,Waiblinger said it’s expensive to be an artist. But most important to him is for people to see his art. When asked how he measures his success as an artist, he said, in our society, the expectation or supposed goal for an artist is “To be Andy Warhol, to be famous and to make money.”
In The Beauty of Men, Waiblinger has created a persuasive theme, one not often looked at openly. He pushes back on society’s expectations of an artist, diverging from common themes. He brings a humanness to these images that celebrates a softness and a different type of edge instead of the common virility and masculinity. In a broad view, this connects to Mattson’s description, “On the verge.” in that society can look differently at the traditional masculine roles.
Concepts of human sexuality in Western culture are evolving and becoming increasingly understanding of fluidity. Though, there is still a ways to go. It is Waiblinger’s intent to investigate and illustrate how this juxtaposition he portrays can expand understandings of masculinity.
The exhibit and discussion provided an opening for exploration. People in attendance said they would like to see more salon conversations on these subjects. Just such an event will take shape this summer, June 29, in Long Beach at Queer Futures the 2019 LGBTQ+ art festival presented by OUT LOUD, where Waiblinger serves on the visual art committee. The vision of OUT LOUD is the creation of an annual arts festival that will complement Long Beach’s long-standing PRIDE Parade, and enforce the historical power of the arts to both agitate for, and encourage, social justice and equality.
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