Millennial/Gen Z artists cast fresh eyes on the picture of masculinity

For as long as they have been friends, Wynne Neilly and Kyle Lasky have been photographing each other.

That’s 12 years of taking photos while seeing each other through art school, break-ups, transitioning genders and figuring out how to be Hamilton-to-upstate-New-York, long-distance friends.

How it started was as a way to practice and learn portraiture, and well, you can see how it’s going in the monumental installation photograph above.

Currently on view in my curatorial debut at Gallery TPW, the project “Have / Hold” is a series of self-portraits that warmly depicts the vulnerability, adoration, and physical closeness between the two besties.

Often mistaken for lovers, the two trans-identified artists balance their relationship on a thin line between platonic and sexual intimacy, one that we are not used to seeing straddled in male friendships, and one that immediately hooked and sunk me the first time I saw these images.

So much so that when the opportunity arose to curate an exhibition, this project was first on my wish list. I loved that it asked me to think about and question my own expectations, and that it showed me a relationship model that I hadn’t seen before.

Some of my own photography explores queerness and masculinity, and in my research, I am consistently drawn to work like this; work that doesn’t just show us what masculinity looks like, but instead challenges and interrogates it.

While such work can be found throughout photographic history, images of traditional forms of masculinity have always vastly monopolized our visual landscape, especially from the mid-20th century onwards.

Since then, across advertising, fashion photography, sports photography and photojournalism, men have most often been framed through displays of stereotypically masculine qualities — strength, toughness, bravery, stoicism, aggression, domination.

This culturally idealized form of manhood is present across contemporary Western culture, and is predicated on a straight white cisgender identity. Numerous scholars have pointed to this post-World War II period as a time of its refuelling, following the social and economic deficits produced by the war itself.

As men sought to reassert masculinity and to re-establish the patriarchal order, in her book, “Shooting from the Hip: Photography, Masculinity, and Postwar America,” art historian Patricia Vettel-Becker convincingly demonstrates how the field of photography was transformed in support of these efforts.

Behind the camera, as Vettel-Becker argues, men both reclaimed and redefined their macho position and created authoritative images of themselves. These representations glorified traditional masculinity — cowboys, boxers, athletes, military men — and stigmatized any sign of affection, intimacy or weakness in an increasingly homophobic Cold War climate.

And, well, we know how that turned out. We call it toxic masculinity now, and though the debates over that term continue, at least it comes with some growing awareness and discussion of the harm caused to boys, men and society overall.

For example, citing suicide, homicide and domestic violence statistics, the American Psychological Association recently released its first set of official guidelines for working with males, noting that “traditional masculinity ideology” was a threat to their mental and physical health.

Elsewhere, more complicated portraits of men are emerging in books and movies and television shows, and even in an ad campaign for razors. Recognizing the role that visual representation has played, these shifts are slowly happening in photographic circles as well.

Although fashion photography has been playing with gender for years, social media has pushed the limits, and GQ publishing an entire issue on “New Masculinity” marked a milestone in 2019. The year before, Getty Images identified “Masculinity Undone” as one of three trends in its annual visual trends forecast, joining several other stock photography agencies in working to diversify the portrayal of men in their databases. Sports photography is trickier, but still the world oohed and ahhed at the pics of Gianmarco Tamberi jumping into the arms of Mutaz Barshim after they agreed to share gold in the men’s high jump at this summer’s Olympics.

Not surprisingly, museums and galleries are the outlier, with photography exhibitions exploring masculinity dating back decades. Yet, here too, the frequency has increased over the past few years, culminating in one of 2020’s biggest shows, Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography, at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, England. (The show also toured to the Gropius Bau in Berlin, and is currently on view at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in southern France.)

Big as it is, based on the reviews, it seems this show unfortunately stops short of Neilly and Lasky’s generation; this overlapping cohort of millennials and Gen Z is considering masculinity on a much wider spectrum, one more fluid and often less concerned with the gender binary altogether.

Right now, masculinities are softening and hardening at the same time, and these artists are working their way through the contradictions. While Harry Styles wears a dress on the cover of Vogue, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson speaks openly about his anxiety and depression, global Trumpism is spreading and “real men” anti-vaxxers are extending the pandemic for us all.

Amidst these inconsistencies, these younger artists have much to offer us. With many of them identifying as queer or trans or non-binary, they have already reckoned with masculinity themselves, and what they’ve learned shows in their work.

With their cumulative queer and trans experiences, Neilly and Lasky openly acknowledge the decidedly nuanced perspective they bring to the issue of masculine intimacy.

“The ease with which we express our closeness is built on a lifetime of socially accepted, affectionate ‘female friendships,’” they write in their project statement. “We took this type of closeness and kept it with us.”

After 18 months of varying degrees of isolation, grief and mental suffering, this reflection on masculine tenderness couldn’t be timelier. We need to keep seeing versions of masculinity that offer possibilities of closeness, connection and yes, liberation.

“Have / Hold” is on view in the exhibition “We Buy Gold,” until Nov. 6 at Gallery TPW, 170 St Helens Ave.

Michèle Pearson Clarke is Toronto’s photo laureate. Each month, she takes a different photo and talks about why it’s important to the city and why you should take a look at it. Follow her on Instagram @tophotolaureate.

TORONTO STAR