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a solo show at the Worcester Jean McDonough PopUp Gallery

Artist Statement

As a gay man I’ve always been disappointed in the ways that gay sexuality, intimacy, and relationships are portrayed in contemporary media. With little exception, contemporary media such as TV shows, films, theatrical productions, and music neuters the experiences of gay characters and strips them of all sex appeal or romantic interest for the appeasement of heteronormative respectability politics. To put it more bluntly, to appease straight-laced heterosexual and cisgender audiences and their sensitive sensibilities when it comes to what happens in the privacy of the bedroom. This neutering relegates gay men to perform caricatures of themselves and what it means to be gay. I find this tremendously problematic as media is one of the foremost ways in which humans learn what it means to be human and the lack of representation leaves gay men without any roadmap in which to navigate the complex world of sexuality, intimacy, and romance. Even in the hallowed halls of education, gay romance can barely be uttered—never mind gay sex. A prominent example of this is the lack of comprehensive sex education in our schools by trained professionals.

         When creating this show I set about with the idea of exploring a dichotomy of loneliness and intimacy as it was something made readily apparent throughout COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines. One either had a partner to embrace, or they didn’t.

         As I worked on assembling the visual images to compose my collages I realized that this dichotomy wasn’t something unique or new. Rather it was something that gay men have seen throughout the decades and as I dove deeper into my research the more similarities I found. Early gay men, even some gay men currently, have had very few opportunities for romance or sexual contact because of their geopolitics of their town, county, and state. As they lacked a common meeting ground happening upon another gay man was like getting struck by lightning. That is to say, a very rare occurrence. When spaces for gay men to meet to have sex—cruising spots—did appear they would often become heavily policed and the chances for being arrested and public humiliation also increased. In the early '50s and ’60s, these gay men instead turned to pornography as a way to fantasize about what they couldn’t have.

         Though their use was pornographic the actual images were far from explicit due to United States Postal Regulations forbidding the mailing of obscene material. These magazines were instead titled physique magazines and showed muscular men in tiny little posing cloths. These ended up becoming the backbone for my choice in imagery as I felt the historical connection between isolated gay men in the 1950’s and 60’s and the current era of lockdowns as especially relevant. What is also interesting to note of the imagery used is that there is a hegemony between the images from the 1950s and ’60s, and the images from today in the men portrayed: muscular, toned, tall, and even similar shorter haircuts and the way they’re photographed: the poses, the camera and angles. There is very little deviance of the imagery found and a model from 2020 could easily be placed in an earlier magazine or vice versa.

         As for my medium, collage, it supports these ideas of loneliness, intimacy, and historicity as the tradition I’m building upon is gay collage practices. These practices essentially used the figures from pornography and other media as paper dolls and allowed them to physically visualize the enactment of their fantasies instead of envisioning them in their mind. This is perhaps best seen in the work of the West End Avenue Collection at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art as the partner of the artist said in a letter to the curator there: “All [of these works] are masturbatory fantasies, compensatory daydreams, expressions of wish fulfilment.” That’s not to say that my work is necessarily a masturbatory fantasy but instead builds upon the idea of longing and wish-fulfilment and seeing myself represented in romantic settings where straight-society has deemed gay men non wanted.

         Other influences for this body of work include Ingo Swann, the famed psychic of the FBI, who envisioned gay men in various domestic settings. His work envisioned gay men living life in suburbia while rejecting the straight-lacedness of the American middle-class. Oftentimes in his work there are bondage scenes being enacted in the center of an immaculately designed living room or some other domestic setting. My other influence is Worcester-native John O’Reilly. O’Reilly is another one of the leading gay collage artists of his time though sexuality is but one of many themes found in his work. From his work I take inspiration primarily in the surrealism found in them as he takes a multitude of works and splices them together: self-portraits, gay pornography, images from textbooks, and more recently images from coloring books, into a perfect seamless assemblage. While other artists aren’t so militant about the seamless quality of their works, O’Reilly is, and I also take inspiration from that as each of my works is like a jigsaw puzzle with no gaps between images. O’Reilly was also my first experience with gay collage and all of its possibilities and for that, it holds a special place in my creative work.

         While this work does a great deal of looking back to the past it also looks forward and works to envision a gay utopic where love can be freely celebrated and gay sexuality isn’t offensive or outrageous. The show is titled lift off and references the idea of a rocket ship taking flight in the future as this is my first show and the launch of my professional career as an artist. One day hopefully gay men will be able to be unabashedly themselves without the fear of being bashed by homophobic passerbys. 

Press Coverage:

Last Call with Nathan Manna, collage artist (Worcester Magazine, December 9 2020)

Lift Off: a solo show: Text
Lift Off: a solo show: Gallery
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