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Curated by the indomitable Alona Pardo, Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography is The Barbican’s latest mammoth photography exhibition, and is part of its Inside Out season, which explores the connection between our inner lives and creativity. This time, our attention is turned to men, and the result is a nuanced exploration of the presentation and construction of modern masculinity.
Pardo’s aims were to highlight how photography and film have been key to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture. The works on show are collated from some of photography’s most recognisable names; Catherine Opie, Richard Avedon, Isaac Julien, and Robert Mapplethorpe are just some of 50 photographers whose works have contributed to the exhibition.
In one well-known image, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, a bodybuilder named Lisa Lyon poses completely naked like a statue, bearing her muscles atop a rock. The photograph was taken in 1980, after Lyon was crowned the women’s world pro bodybuilding champion, and is surprising in its juxtaposition of a typically male pose with Lyon’s feminine body. Dismantling the preconceptions of male archetypes such as the wrestler, bodybuilder and athlete is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. Alongside Mapplethorpe, Jeremy Deller and Rineke Dijkstra also offer alternative views of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.
Elsewhere, similar myths surrounding modern masculinity are disrupted and destabilized. Highlights include the work of Israeli photographer Adi Nes, who has consistently challenged stereotypical representations of masculinity. Growing up during the aftermath of Israel’s Six Day War, Nes always felt like an outsider, until he joined the Iraeli Defence Forces, embraced his sexuality and attended art college. His resulting series depicts his subjects, who are soldiers, in ways that allow them to be sensitive; in one image they doze on a bus, and in another a soldier extends an arm to his comrade as they collectively urinate.
The exhibition also examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. In particular, Karen Knorr’s series, Gentlemen, which was shot in London between 1981 and 1983, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race, and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s reign. The series is comprised of 26 black and white photographs, taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in London and accompanied by texts which transcribe snatched conversations, parliamentary records, and contemporary news reports. One image reads simply: ‘Newspapers are no longer, Coins no / longer boiled So far have standards fallen.’
As well as presenting works that have formed ideas of masculinity, the show also highlights lesser-known and younger artists, some of whom have never before exhibited in the UK, including Sam Contis, Karlheinz Weinberger and Elle Perez. Bringing together such an extensive range of works, from such a varied group of artists, adds to the importance of the exhibition. With so many photographers grappling with themes of masculinity in their work, it feels as though they should have been brought together in one place much sooner.
By Sarah Roberts
Masculinities: Liberation through Photography
20 February – 17 May 2020
Barbican Art Gallery, Silk St, Barbican, London EC2Y 8DS