Earlier this year, a friend and I decided to finally take the plunge and do something we had wanted to do for a long while: get a tattoo. And when I started to contemplate just what image or symbol I could live with having on my body for a good long while, it seemed clear that it had to be 'art' and it had to be 'me.' In the end, I had Michaelangelo's David placed on my back. It seemed like a natural choice to have the most beautiful man in Italy crawling all over me. And, it seems, there is a renaissance of sorts happening with the male form, with an innovative artist from New Jersey leading the way.
The Return of Men as Art
The Biblical passage I probably most agree with is from Genesis, which states that "Man was perfect, made in the image of God." Throughout early Catholic Europe, the words were taken to heart as (mostly gay) artists filled cathedrals, churches and public squares with stunning images of the male form. In stark contrast to the modern church, there was no shame or modesty about admiration of the human body. Beauty was a thing for public display.
Yet, during the past century, the correlation of man as art began to disappear. Robert Mapplethorpe ignited controversy when his most daring male images went on display. And even Annie Leibovitz began to do more and more photography with her subjects draped in regalia, rather than exposed in vulnerability and shadow. Art, and with it the male form, started to enter into the world of the burqa.
Mercifully, E. Gibbons, a striking artist from New Jersey, is helping to deliver us from the dark ages. Gibbons puts men in a box - literally - measuring 3 x 3 feet, then captures their image in luminous oil paintings that reverberate with the very spirit of Michelangelo. The result is astonishing. Gibbons exhibits an unwavering commitment to "reaffirming the power and sensuality of the male figure," and to allow "viewers [to] bring their own packages of prejudice and background to their experience of the work."
Gibbons' paintings, which are often displayed in groups, can transform their meaning by transplanting their pairings. As a recent press article about the artist noted, "Like the AIDS Quilt, a single painting can be touching and meaningful, but when seen with its counterparts, it takes on additional signficance. . . . A figure listening to a wall could be paired with a figure playing music, but would have a different context if paired with a figure weeping . . ."
In any pairing, the paintings provide whole new opportunities to re-consider the role of men and masculinity in art and the association of the male form with a wide array of emotions and associations.
If the world were ready for a post-modernist Sistine, Gibbons would be the perfect choice to adorn its ceiling. For now, though, his work will be a welcome adornation of gallery walls. His paintings (like the photographs of John Dugdale) may at last herald a return to the idea of men as art.