Tuesday, September 7, 2010

FROZEN IN THE ACT


Thomas Eakins, "The Swimming Hole," 1884-1885


George Bellows, "42 Kids," 1907
Thomas Eakins, "Salutat," 1898
Cathy Opie, "Josh," 2007
Cathy Opie, "Football Landscape #5," 2007

Thomas Eakins Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins, Los Angeles County Museum of Art / July 25 - October 17, 2010
Cathy Opie Figure and Landscape, Los Angeles County Museum of Art / July 25-October 17, 2010

One might well argue that all representational portraiture is a kind of frozen art, a work documenting a second in the life of the individual or individuals portrayed. Even surrounded by the objects and costumes of a entire lived life, or represented with emblems that suggest the ideals or behavior of that life, such painting is, as the early abstract experimenters so entirely perceived, basically "dead." Yet there is something about the works of American artist Thomas Eakins as gathered in the titled "Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins," brilliantly curated by Ilene Fort, that particularly evokes a sense of freezing instantaneousness of that moment that makes one almost want to look away because it is so revealing of the painter's own sensibilities.

Eakins, as we know, was also a photographer, and that obviously effected his paintings. But it is not just the snapshot quality of the paintings here on display, but what lies behind these images which all, in one way or another, represent the male body at the moment of its greatest beauty and muscular display in the form of swimmers, boaters, wrestlers, and other male pairings and groupings, most represented as images of male desire and, symbolically speaking, lovemaking itself.

One need only compare the mix of young and older swimmers in Eakins's The Swimming Hole (1884-1885) with George Bellow's 42 Kids of 1907. For Bellows the children, painted as something closer to sticks than real-bodied beings, represent a series of ideologically-loaded statements, including their social status (these children have no pool in which to swim), their pastoral enjoyment in the act, and the simple joys of being children. Eakins' is a far more complex image in that the bodies are most definitely men of flesh and blood, and gathered as they, young and old together, the artist flirts with numerous suggestions of sexual interconnections. In the Bellows' painting the children gather in a near-mass forward-leaning motion as they ready to throw themselves from the broken-down pier. Only two of Eakins' figures have dived into the waters, the rest gradually wading in or standing almost relaxed poses upon the solid brick wall, demonstrating their beauty and prowess, one rising figure seemingly reaching out for another's ass.

The latter is basically a study in youthful innocence, while the Eakins is a representation of a kind of Arcadian world in which the men and boys enjoy not only the water, but one another's company and, by extension, their bodies. In short, while Bellows' work may freeze the motion of the energetic children, Eakins' painting catches them in a moment that is closer to something suggesting love or even lust.

Similarly, the far more innocent moments, such as those depicted in The Biglin Brothers Racing, captures the sexual energy of James and Bernard Biglin against the backdrop of the large number of spectators the brothers drew to their events. In one race these world champions gathered a crowd of more than 20,000 to watch their physical expertise. So attracted was Eakins to the brothers that he painted them in a series of eleven works.

So too is the crowd essential to Eakins painting of 1898 Salutat, where a handsome boxer salutes the mostly male gatherers with a joyful extension of the hand, somewhat like a Roman gladiator, influence obviously by Eakin's teacher, Jean-Léon Gérôme. Here, the homoeroticism of the scene is made even more apparent, particularly given the water boy's attentive gaze upon the boxer's buttocks, and the overall joy of all the attending males for the gifts evident in the boxer's thin physique.

Wrestlers, acquired recently by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, even more clearly demonstrates what I am attempting to describe. In this work Eakins actually addressed the action of the event as he had done in The Biglin Brothers, but here the highly homoerotic grappling of the two fighters freezes them in the sportive act that might just as easily be perceived as a sexual embrace. In short, he has fixed them in the "act" itself, however one wants to define it. But there is no question that in these manly pursuits, there is little separation between body and act, the fact of which Eakins clarifies. To love the sport one must love the embodiment of the sport, the man. It is not just that these paintings point to Eakins' homoerotic desires (anyone who has read his biography and seen his many photographs can attest to that); rather what matters in these works is that in freezing the image of these sportsmen's bodies he makes that desire apparent; he clarifies what all the attention and the applause is truly about.

The act or action about which I am speaking, accordingly, is always simultaneously a representation of the sport and of the body, the object of love. That he accomplished this within a Puritan culture terrified of the body itself, speaks volumes about his own lack of recognition in his life.

A smaller "sideshow," one might call it, consists of a series of photographs by Los Angeles artist Tad Beck, strongly influenced by Thomas Eakins as a representative of queer history. Like Eakins, particularly in his Grafly Album, Beck arranges his male nude students in various choreographed scenes that suggest both an enactment of sports and, even more apparently than in Eakins' work, homosexual gatherings. Here the photograph is not only "frozen in the act," but frozen in time, representing a nostalgic look back upon the American artist and his period. Like Eleanor Antin's photograph representations of a nurse in the Crimean wars, so Beck's aesthetized images contain an element of camp in their own restatement of Eakins' more subtle depictions.

Accompanying these shows is photographer Cathie Opie's show "Figure and Landscape." Her images, mostly of young high school football players, are also about "manly pursuits," and cover much of the same ground as Eakins. But in the direct stares of her young players we do not see their sexuality as much as their adolescent fragility. These boys, particularly in photographs such as Adam and Josh, may wish to see themselves as sex heroes or at least highly masculine beings, but their youth and the immediate ferocity with which they face the camera belies deeper confusions and fears. Unlike Eakins, I would argue that here, even if caught "in the act," so to speak, the emphasis is on the spectacle, on the group rather than the numerous individuals we witness. Each individual presented appears fragile out of the crowd, so to speak, while Opie's larger images of the games themselves, all lit up against the nighttime landscapes, provide the true image of these games and their theatrical settings against the backdrops of small-town America. The several individual portraits portray boys caught "outside the act," and, accordingly represent males filled with confusion and doubt. It is only when they join the others "in the act," that their performances gather meaning, perhaps even a veneer of sexuality.

Los Angeles, August 30, 2010

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