Go to a random gallery in Los Angeles or New York and there is a 70 percent chance that the art you’ll interact with is the work of a man. Compelling or mediocre, gay or straight, white or black, the majority of the art we encounter is fueled by testosterone.
In the real world, 50 percent of humans are female. More than half the people studying and pursuing art professionally right now are female. What we see in galleries is an unequal, inaccurate representation of reality.
Walk into co-LAb, Kristin Hector’s small Highland Park gallery, and the odds are typically much higher that you’ll encounter the work of women artists: Around 90 percent of the artists co-LAb regularly shows and represents are female, and the majority of the prints and products for sale in the space were handcrafted by women.
Which is why co-LAb’s current show, “Hey Man,” which runs through Jan. 8, is so perplexing. The show features only male artists, and is dominated by figurative paintings featuring men’s faces and bodies.
Given the realities of gender inequality in the art world, it seems hard to justify a show that features men’s representations of themselves. Haven’t we heard that voice ad nauseam already?
Hector points out that while men created all the art for “Hey Man,” the show was conceived and curated by a woman. Spurred by conversations surrounding the presidential election and both Trump’s and Clinton’s campaigns, Hector has been contemplating feminism, masculinity, male/female relationships and ideas surrounding gender and progress. She came to some of the same conclusions that Jill Filipovic did in her pre-election New York Times op-ed: namely, that while feminism has propelled women forward, men are at a standstill.
Hector thinks a big part of the problem is that men aren’t being asked the same questions as women. While feminism has pushed women to re-evaluate their traditional roles in society, Hector thinks “there’s been a lack of having similar conversations with men.” She’s curious about how men talk and think about themselves.
To get the conversation started, Hector generated an extensive list of questions and sent them to a racially diverse group of both straight and gay male artists. She asked the men to consider society’s expectations on them. Do they feel pressure to have a certain kind of picket-fence house, high-earning job, wife, husband or family? She asked them if they felt stereotyped as men and whether they feel free to express themselves emotionally. She asked them if they think society should change its approach to raising boys, and how they feel feminism has affected their relationships and their perceptions of themselves.
“It’s interesting,” Hector says, “a woman asking men these questions. I like seeing men be uncomfortable with their feelings.”
The week before “Hey Man” opened, I asked Hector if, given current political realities and the fact that the male gaze and perspective has dominated art for centuries, putting on an all-male show feels ill-timed, insensitive or tone-deaf to her.
“There was an element of me that did think about that,” Hector admits. “Am I turning away from the fact that what we do here at co-LAb is to mostly represent women? What does that mean to the art community? I also think maybe it would feel different if Hillary Clinton had won.”
“But,” she adds, “I do feel in some odd way that men have been marginalized. Women have been pushed to grow outside of their traditional, nurturing roles, but the reverse hasn’t happened. I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had. You can’t uplift one part of society and not think about the effects on the other side. Plus I’m just curious about the answers to these questions.”
I asked two of the artists in the show if they felt marginalized or disadvantaged as men.
Painter Noah Emhurt admits quite honestly that he does worry about his place in the art world. “Sometimes I feel like people care more about who the artist is than the work itself. So I do worry that because I’m just some average white guy, my work doesn’t have as much of a punch to it.”
Kalen Dawson, whose small, tongue-in-cheek illustrative drawings are on display in “Hey Man," says he gets that fear, but also, “Fuck us, dude. The truth is, we’ve had it good. We need to give up something for everybody to feel better. We should be throwing bottles and burning stuff down if it helps others. It’s time for my friends [who aren’t white men] to feel as safe in this world as I do.”
Hector says her goal is to get people talking about these issues. “That’s what hopefully art and exhibits are supposed to do,” she says. “Piss people off or make them intrigued or inspire conversation.”
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But while Emhurt's and Dawson’s perspectives are interesting, and Hector’s questions certainly valid, until gallery representation is equal across the board I’m more interested in shows that pose these kinds of queries to artists of all genders. In the context of co-LAb’s offerings, men may be the minority, but in the art world at large, men’s perspectives, progressive or not, are still the ones most often on display.
co-LAb Gallery, 5319 York Blvd., Highland Park; through Jan. 8. co-labgallery.com.