New artist-run gallery space 808 Projects recently launched its first exhibition, a shot across the bow of self-defined, oversimplified, American masculinity. And with its pitch-perfect personification now occupying the White House and a particularly reinvigorated, toxic iteration gaining confidence across the country, such a playfully sharp examination arrives at a timely moment. Because artist Dini Dixon, through a small collection of paintings, ceramics, videos and installations guest-curated by Sophie Lynn Morris, doesn’t just skewer capital-m Masculinity, she effectively muddies the waters of representation itself in modern, multifaceted ways.
One way to view Dixon’s art is to assume that masculinity, enthralled as it is in its own preening, muscular, bold performance, is a stable identity, and one ripe for a playful dressing down. Placed throughout the gallery are sculptures that look like manly belts wrapped loosely into small towers. They’re studded, gunmetal black, the kind of belt you see at heavy metal shows, the kind of stud you see on truck-bed toolboxes, and their slightly precarious, unnatural pose strikes that masculine balance of looking tough while not wanting to come off as trying to look tough.
They’re actually ceramic, though. And while the literal subversion of a tough-looking material actually being fragile is fun enough, there’s further subversion in using a material famous for its relegated role in modern art. If they were stand-alones, these sculptures would be pointed, if obvious, statements on masculine insecurity and the particular fragility of the male, hetero-anglo worldview.
Situated as they are, however, in front of brightly colored mixed-media paintings, the masculine target and the targeting itself gets complicated. The repetitious brush strokes are loosely arranged in abstract patterns and resemble all-American landscapes: the warm colors of green grass and summer popsicles, the shapes of playing fields and suburban tract design. It’s in the titles too: “The Main Drag,” “Highway Glide.” They have the mark of innocence, of childhood, and from blue and green to pink and yellow, the full spectrum of expression such an idealistic innocent time allows. But these landscapes frame a darker, more realistic representation, of identity marked by more distinct and desperate definitions. Some have metal studs applied to the paper itself (“Snakes on the Grass”), while others frame sculptures of belts and trophies and toy trucks, marks of masculinity.
And everywhere: the sometimes playful, sometimes more sinister, undercutting of those marks. In “Monster Wave,” a ceramic-studded wave envelops several brightly painted surfer figures, a happy, youthful beach-boy vibe about to succumb to the powerful/fragile inevitability of manhood. Or maybe they’re simply riding it out? In “Clubs of America,” two wrestling, clay men appear literally deformed by their masculine performativity, and just behind them, a leaning, ceramic tower of trophies, precariously close to toppling to the floor and shattering someone’s (perhaps the wrestler’s?) masculine achievements.
Even the most uniformly masculine piece shows its cracking facade. “Big Stud” is a square expanse of studs applied to high density polyurethane foam. It’s aggressive, it’s loud. But you can see some acrylic peeking through in between the studs, not all of which are arranged uniformly.
These don’t look like polished, meticulous artworks. They look, at times, cobbled together, with too much glue and excess paint. This too, of course, is a performance, and one that belies a meticulous ceramicist, but it allows you to see the construction, the work of performance, and it’s there where masculinity burns. Look closely at any performed identity and you’ll begin to see what goes into constructing that performance: a complicated mess of influences and desires and insecurities. Masculinity, especially, tries to hide that mess, and that energy can be benign but silly or dangerous and violent.
And for such a small show, it’s a delight how much ground Dixon’s works cover in connecting those two poles and collapsing the distance between the two. She allows masculinity and its overbearing presence in America to be a thing worth skewering, yes, but also a concept rife with insecurities that we can all relate to: the work of performing who you are. And best of all, she allows it to be messy, so that when you step into the little room beneath the stairs strewn with spray-painted poster board and clay trophy shards and watch the one-minute, forty-five-second “Clay Punk,” you can connect femme-shaped vases being squeezed by belts to snakes lying in ballpark grass waiting to corrupt and punk music to watching kelp grow, peacefully.
Masculinity wants to tell you that doesn’t make any sense. Dixon, and Morris, and 808 Projects, are too smart to listen.