Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ask, Tell

“Ask, Tell” 2009

Analysis of Symbolism

"Ask, Tell" 2009, (37.5" x 26.5") is a mixed media piece by artist Jeff Stevenson incorporating oil on canvas, altered books, curled book pages, found objects (figurines, metal address holder), and wax.

The altered book in the center of the piece is opened and exposes pages that have been cut away to reveal various images within the book: maps, and text on the left and circular patterns on the right consisting of the book’s inside cover design, a reproduction of a fine art piece from the Western Art tradition, and a collection of African masks. The page with the images of the African masks is cut to fit within the circular shape, but also is cut into a common “party mask” shape. Within this page a smaller party mask shape is cut through to the Western Art image several pages deep exposing the eyes of the figure depicted there.

By utilizing the image of masks and the shape of a mask in this way, the piece explores the ideas of masquerade, ceremonial functions of masks, and altered or shifting identities. The title “Ask, Tell” in the context of the year 2009 creates an unavoidable connection to the United States military policy of “don’t ask don’t tell”.

African masks create mythology and stories of those cultures such as warriors, spirits, and ancestors. The mask that the U.S. is asking for its military to wear is also of mythic proportions: the male, heterosexual hero defending family, hearth and home. This ancient tradition that reaches well beyond our nation’s history has connections to sexuality and identity. Indeed a man’s definition of “manhood” is often focused on his ability to compete with other men, dominate other men, and kill other men. Our cultural model of our warrior has little room for men loving other men and relies on this model of competition, dominance, and willingness to kill in order to gain men’s commitment to the cause. By threatening the individual man’s sense of belonging to the larger cultural group, his status within that group, and indeed his very manhood, this man can be convinced to fight, kill, and die for the cause. This model also excludes women from this status as warrior because women and children are historically held up as the reason for fighting, defending and protecting. This cultural model manipulates people’s deep love and affection for family in order to fulfill its needs.

This mythology was also used to oppress racial groups thereby reserving the heroic role of warrior for those most valued by the system, the white, heterosexual males. By men openly loving other men this paradigm is turned on its head. By women fighting along side men, and possibly also fighting for the “enemy”, this antiquated model is forced to change. Racial equality was fought for through claiming the symbolism of the military myth, the role of the worthy warrior. In our modern world this outdated mythological warrior culture is not serving us well in any regard and must be changed. Our military will be stronger without it.

Party masks used in a masquerade unleash secret persona the wearer has hidden within. Throughout our history, celebrations are imbued with deeper meaning by tapping into the imagination through the use of masks. Changing one’s identity can have positive, creative, and transformative effects. When we imagine our future around the issue this piece is exploring, we realize that we can be whatever we want to be. Our greatness is not limited by who we are now. We can choose to put on a new persona and celebrate our inventiveness.

The maps are not easily identified as a particular location and therefore refer to the idea of location: finding home, traveling to new places, and our history of where we have been. They also refer to our need to understand our world and our place in it. Mapping is an activity that seeks to find specific facts of the natural world. Because the maps in this piece are interrupted, it implies that this knowledge is fragmented and in need of unification, connection, assimilation, and integration.

The figurines are framed by the cut out of the maps. Although they are two male figurines they are difficult to identify quickly as such. Part of the androgyny is a result of the original purpose of the figures; they are decorative representations of cliché nostalgia and a generalized idea of a romantic notion of days gone by. They also were created with female counterparts because in a heterosexist culture, one cannot exist without the other. One figurine is a Dutch youth carrying a yolk across his shoulders with a water bucket. The other figure wears a tri-corn hat, ruffles, and finery of a beautifully trite past era. His hair (wig) is full of curls and the way the figurine is painted, could easily pass as female. These two figures appear in the oil paintings incorporated into the piece and they are shown in close proximity as if asking or telling one another something. This close proximity could also be interpreted as an intimacy not unlike that prior to a kiss. By using androgynous porcelain figurines the viewer is provided an opportunity to examine their own feelings about same-sex closeness and intimacy without immediate discomfort that might be felt from a human depiction of the same subject. There is also a certain amount of good natured humor as we are invited to imagine the secret lives of these two little guys inside the curio cabinet when the collector isn’t looking.

The curled pages connote a book transformed and silenced. The book in the center of the piece has been altered to a new purpose. It can no longer be read as it was originally intended and now stands as a stationary object symbolizing the information, beliefs, and knowledge it contains. So then, the curled pages extend this analogy of the book to a representation of inaccessible knowledge and lost history, presumably of gay people who have actively been excised from history. A people who’s silence has been demanded, who have been threatened with exclusion from the group to which they rightfully belong, who the dominant culture makes invisible by exclusion, oppression, and omission, and who are steadfastly demanding equality.

The size of the piece is almost human size but not large enough to dominate the viewer. The viewer is provided an intimate proximity to the piece in order to contemplate it in the privacy of their thoughts. The colors are harmonious and warm particularly the creamy tones of the paper and wax that also creates a translucent visually pleasing effect.

The visual elements are open to many different reads and interpretations of this piece. They provide enough clarity to communicate a message and enough mystery to evoke thought.

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