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The Male Subject: Johanna Tesauro's photograph 'The Pool'

The male animal poses in 'Female Gaze'

By Ann Elliott Sherman

WHILE PROVIDING a historical counterpoint to the age-old tradition of male artists focusing on the female form, the new show at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, The Female Gaze: Women Looking at Men, is a far cry from Shana Alexander dishing it back to James Kirkpatrick.

If this relatively staid exhibit is any indication, women might just be the fairer sex after all, looking upon men with far less projection and fantasy than they get in return. It's as if the act of looking at men made most of these female artists muse rather than turn their subjects into idealized muses.

Some of the artists do, of course, deliver studies of the male form, but rarely is that all that is being studied. Johanna Tesauro's quietly assured black-and-white photographs place their solo subjects within a dramatically textured, elemental setting: in front of a woodpile or on a sand dune. Because none of the male subjects returns the camera's outward gaze, and because the scene is framed to give the place and the man equal emphasis, these backdrops offer clues to the men's internalized, essential selves. It is almost as if a man is his place in the world.

Another photographer working in black-and-white, Brigitte Carnochan, cleverly turns the power dynamics of the traditional odalisque upside down. Instead of being passive, unattainably aloof objects of the artist's and viewer's desire, these male models are shown unself-consciously looking at the works in progress, while the artists themselves are focused only on their creations. The casual, matter-of-fact mood of these photos totally deflates any notions of symbolic stereotypes being projected onto the models. They're just guys who happen to be naked.

In her color prints, Beth Yarnelle Edwards perfectly captures the affectionate "stranger in a strange land" perspective of a woman living in a house full of boys and their toys. Whether it's the 6-year-old posing proudly with his toy rifle amid various cartoon merchandise or dad in full motocross regalia surrounded by cycles of all types, it is clear that guys never outgrow playing with their things.

There is a bit of tit for tat--or perhaps, more accurately, "all that" for tit--where a phallic fetish replaces the more common focus on the female breast. Ruth Eckland's multimedia installation features some interesting slide images of men that effectively fade in and out of focus. Unfortunately, the audio component was either completely or nearly inaudible on every visit to the gallery.

Sarah Ratchye's beautifully executed parodies, PEnis Wallpaper and the embroidered PEnis Tablemat and Napkin, spoof the commonplace use of the female form as a decorative theme by putting male genitalia to similar use. The gender switch of replacing the familiar nymph or goddess with the rarely encountered penis motif does highlight our social conditioning and the ultimate absurdity of focusing so much attention on any one body part, but it also has the deflating effect of most rim shots.

With a robot of the domestic male persuasion housing speakers that play a variation of the familiar routine about a woman trying to have a conversation with her male partner who's more involved with a football game, Nancy Tector's Talk-Talk is the Mars vs. Venus shtick in 3-D, albeit done with deft comedic timing.

A more subtle and complicated exchange is portrayed in Pat Sherwood's psychological narrative The Game. In this piece, the often-demoralizing process of getting one's work shown has the additional dynamic of a female artist requiring a male gallery owner's approval. The humiliating imbalance of power is perfectly captured. The artist is "dressed down" to her underwear while showing her canvases to a tweedy middle-aged male who leans against the wall with just the right amount of casual arrogance. His cur threatens to attack her painting, while he can't even be bothered to reach for the 10-foot pole propped next to him. Just as the symbolism needs no explanation, Sherwood's oils have a bright, smooth clarity well suited to her cinematic style.

It's easy to understand why the curatorial committee specially invited Willa Briggs to participate in the show. Regardless of the media employed, her work has the nuanced immediacy of insight. From the Old German Stamp Collector to the shirtless males in Many Rivers, Briggs gives expression to a rare kind of objective wonder. She captures in intimation and line the fascinating, unknowable riddle of what, beyond muscle and bone, makes a man.

The Female Gaze: Women Looking at Men runs through May 30 at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, 451 S. First St. (408/283-8155)

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From the May 14-20, 1998 issue of Metro.

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