By Jonathan Marx
Three male artists explore gender, sexuality
Male identity functions as a recurring theme in the work of Jonathan Bouknight, Adam Davis and John Trobaugh, the three artists featured in Ruby Green’s latest exhibit, The Axe and the Spade. Our own culture tends to define manhood narrowly through a series of clearly established “masculine” traits, and each of these artists seeks to unravel these commonly understood perceptions, many of which revolve around sexuality.
The show’s title refers to a Native American practice in which children are tested to see if they gravitate toward gender-appropriate tools — a bow and arrow for boys, an ax and a spade for girls. When boys are found to prefer the ax and the spade, or girls are drawn to the bow and arrow, they are designated as a unique gender, known as two-spirit or berdache.
Far from being pejorative, these terms suggest a kind of transcendence or special knowledge. For the artists at Ruby Green, though, their inability to conform to gender norms has induced a whole range of feelings and responses, and these are expressed deeply in each man’s work.
Bouknight, for instance, has created a series of photographic prints, drawings and sculptural installations gathered together under the title Integuments. Skin, hair, prostrate bodies and phallic forms figure prominently, but viewed in context, they seek to convey a humanity that goes beyond questions of maleness and femaleness.
Davis’ Yard Sign series, on view at Ruby Green, is a shrewd exploration of attitudes toward same-sex attraction, drawing on the legend of John Henry and the language of personal ads to incite responses from random viewers. Trobaugh’s photographs, some of which capture male dolls in intimate poses, explore the mystique of homosexuality with a mix of humor, forthrightness and eerily quiet contemplation.
The Axe and the Spade runs through May 17 at Ruby Green, 514 Fifth Ave. S. Hours are noon-6 p.m. Saturday or by appointment. For more information, visit www.rubygreen.org or call 244-7179.