It is part of the American ethos to grossly champion hysterical masculinity. Within the past decade, our devotion to a grotesque and distorted idea of masculinity in the name of “freedom” has cost thousands of innocent lives both at home and abroad. The lack of rationale set forth during the aughts created a quagmire of incomprehensible proportions, and it is only now, with hindsight, that we can begin to deconstruct the meaning behind our actions.
In “Bad Boys,” a solo exhibition of mixed media and multi-genre work by Noelle Mason, historical examples of hysterical masculinity are investigated and ultimately critiqued. Mason describes the grotesque acts as “masculine drag,” a performative and over-the-top representation of what it means to embody traditional ideals of masculinity.
Nothing Much Happened Today (for Eric and Dylan), 2005 – 2009, is the most provocative and disturbing work from the show. The cross-stitch, made of cotton, depicts the haunting image of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the sadistic Columbine High School shooters who forever changed the environment of the primary and secondary school systems in the United States. The image is familiar to anyone who went through adolescence during the aughts, and most profoundly embodies the themes of the exhibition. The enormous cross-stitch took Mason over five years to complete, and yet the image is only representative of 1/30 of a second from a surveillance video. Unlike the other works in this exhibition, Mason’s cross-stitch is massive in size and daunting in youthful historicity. If there is any piece of artwork meant to confront society’s representations and expectations of masculinity, it is this one. The image — both derided and glorified — is a larger-than-life symbol for our devotion to hysterical masculinity. Despite the horrific facts associated with the image, its overwhelming presence in the media during the immediate aftermath of the events (and to a lesser extent, any subsequent high school or college shootings) was a means of manipulating the viewer and reinforcing the violence of the act while not explicitly detailing the ‘why’ of the situation.
Mason places the viewer directly in the work, making their actions as complicit in the matter as the original participants, and demonstrating how we all value (or devalue) ideas of masculinity. It is not an act solely on the part of the individual, but an act that reflects the ideals and norms of the collective. In LAN Party or National Take Your Daughter to Work Day (2005), Mason uses appropriated images, objects, and contexts to investigate the relationship between the individual and the institution. A Remington M700 police sniper rifle sits atop a white table and a white stool, situated by the table, invites the user to sit down. On the opposing wall, a tiny frame displays silent found footage taken through the lens of an American helicopter sniper targeting and killing Iraqis on the ground. Headphones are also provided and viewers can hear the voice of the sniper and the shots being fired as the footage plays on the other side of the room. The work gives the viewer the power of the institution by placing them within the immediate vicinity of the action.
In Fond (fingerbang), 2010, the viewer watches a video of Mason “violating” the felt of a Joseph Beuys sculpture at Dia: Beacon in New York, through a navel high “glory hole” in the wall. The work makes the viewer a vulnerable, rather than physically inhabiting participant in the installation. The viewer must contort their body to view the image, placing them in an adverse position within the action. Without bending down, the viewer cannot know what is happening, and by witnessing the “violation,” the viewer becomes complicit in the act.
Unlike some of the other work in the exhibition, which represents a more historical and passive engagement with the examples of hysterical masculinity, these works place the viewer “within the action.” The audience has the ability to simply walk away and refuse to participate. Whatever his or her decision to engage or disengage with the work, the video of the “violation” of an artwork, the sounds of the found footage, and the footage itself play on continuously as testament to the choices of others.
NOELLE MASON: “BAD BOYS”
THOMAS ROBERTELLO GALLERY, CHICAGO
939 W Randolph Street
April 9 – June 5