In response to the Trump administration’s ongoing display of toxic masculinity at work, the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art has taken the unusual but vital step of incorporating a project about male identity into their “Year of Yes” thematic takeover of the museum. Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller is an inquiry into the nature of manhood, corroborated with art-historical artifacts from the museum’s collection. Inviting a group of artists of varying ages, races, and genders to draw the notorious proto-punk rocker from life, Deller positions the male body at the center of questions about bodily self-expression and autonomy. Yet this gesture is less a reversal than a restoration, pointing to the central role that the male nude has played in academic art from Classicism to Modernism.
Deller is an artist who consistently returns to themes of masculinity and its obstacles. In his 2014 installation in the UK pavilion at the Venice Biennale, he juxtaposed archival photographs from the 1972–73 miners’ strike with images of David Bowie on his final, concurrent Ziggy Stardust tour. The contrast between miners, whose rough skin and clothes bespeak a hardscrabble working-class existence long associated with masculine attributes, and Bowie at peak androgyny, is a dynamic that Deller replicates in Iggy Pop Life Class. A key difference between the projects is that the masculine and the feminine impulses of the earlier work are explored simultaneously through examination of the rock star’s singular body.
In Deller’s words from the Brooklyn Museum website, “Iggy Pop has one of the most recognizable bodies in popular culture. A body that is key to an understanding of rock music, and that has been paraded, celebrated, and scrutinized through the years in a way that is unusual for a man.” Two aspects of this statement warrant unpacking: First is the assumption that rock music has a body, and that body is male and white. The second is the assumption that scrutiny of Pop’s body tracks with the same kind of body-image policing that women and people of color experience daily.
Looking at the drawings produced by Deller’s twenty-two collaborators provides some clues to deconstruct these assumptions. A life-drawing class requires an artist to take his or her model at face value. Considering the group of drawings as a whole, the most prevalent characteristics that emerge are signs of the rock icon’s age. If the younger Pop was cast as a contemporary David, walking a line between long-haired gender subversion and rippling, virile manhood, the older Pop looks tired, heavy, and saggy. His hair, jowls, and pronounced nose take on symbolic qualities, and slip accordingly, both describing and stripping away the pop star’s allure. Surprisingly, given its centrality to his mythos, Pop’s iconic penis is in short supply. Most of the artists choose not to represent the singer’s genitals at all, while one in particular seems to see only that part and to render it a cartoonish protrusion, like Pop’s nose. One drawing exaggerates Pop’s pectorals and narrows his waist so as to nearly render him anatomically female. Despite the effects of time on his body, perception of Pop’s sexuality remains rooted in an aggression that he no longer seems to possess. Its absence suggests that age might unsex men much as it does women. This would be misleading, given that Pop continues to be lauded as a sexual icon well into his 60s, while female contemporaries like Patti Smith or Wendy O Williams are allotted either sexuality or longevity.A selection of objects from the museum’s collection enhances Deller’s discourse of masculinity and worship. Deller’s artist statement describes these as “devotional” objects, which speaks to the underlying spiritual fervor that informs even our secular and profane notions of the iconic. Works on paper by Egon Schiele and Ernst Heckel attest to the influence of the German Expressionist and Vienna Secession artists on Pop’s own self-image construction by the mid-1970s. These artists, like Pop himself, were considered radical and even scandalous due to their frank depictions of human emotion and behavior of a sexual nature. Many of the images could also be considered homoerotic, such as Horace Bristol’s photograph PBY Blister Gunner (1944) depicting a male nude manning a heavy artillery gun, which is charged with the suggestion that violence is inherent to masculine desire. Said violence is raw in an image by Robert Mapplethorpe, Derrick Cross (1982), in which the decapitated black male model is objectified without his identity or subjectivity. More challenging still is Mapplethorpe’s gesture toward provisional restoration of his sitter’s identity, by naming him in the work’s title and including a note, “for Derrick,” which suggests that the violence has been consensual—or that the photographer must believe it so in order to reconcile his desire with its origins in a power dynamic of white enslavement of Black bodies.
Sculptural objects from Gabon and Japan articulate the poles of representation of the male nude. A Fang Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri) made of wood and iron places a rounded head atop a rectangular body with short legs and arms and a fat, squat penis. Eschewing realism, the Master of Ntem who created this object highlighted the parts of the male body that carry the most importance—the mind, the sex, and the cycle of birth and death. Nearby, a rare 16th-century Ascetic Sakyamuni shows the Buddha in a state of near-starvation. Emaciated Buddhas serve two traditional functions: to attest to the triumph of Buddha’s mind over the matter of his body, and to represent and comfort the poor and afflicted, who see in the emaciated deity’s restoration the possibility of their own.
Like the Buddha Sakyamuni, the young Iggy Pop practiced a form of asceticism nearly indistinguishable from self-abuse. His unlikely survival and ascent to senior-citizen status represents a restoration as well, the image of which has been as important to poor white men of a certain generation as the Buddha was to 16th-century Japanese. Having graduated from deviant to bard, Pop maintained his signature theatricality throughout. Its absence—his stillness—is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Deller’s installation.
Both the Stooges’ name (rumored to be an homage to Larry, Curly, and Moe) and the title of their classic 1970 album Fun House position Pop’s ongoing performance of masculinity as a clown show. Clowns, of course, operate by exaggerating proportions. Today an extreme version of male arrogance, aggression, and insecurity is performed daily by the Clown-in-Chief in the White House, who unwittingly models Judith Butler’s dictum that “all gender is performance.” Our nation is trapped in a spiral of aggression, retaliation, and humiliation that Iggy Pop narrates all too well. We can only hope that, like Iggy, America will survive its current infatuation with self-annihilation.
Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through March 26, 2017.
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