At ArtCenter/South Florida show, eroticism and gender identity blur

Erotic, including homoerotic, imagery has been part of Western art since its inception, often cloaked within religious trappings. More often than not the creators have been men, from Donatello and Caravaggio to Warhol and Mapplethorpe.

At the ArtCenter/South Florida, Cuban-born curator Marivi Veliz decided she wanted us to look at highly sexualized art of the male body, from the view of a woman. The result is a fascinating exhibit titled In His Own Likeness, which includes photographs, a video, painting and one huge sculpture. They are made by artists from Central America and Cuba, and all but one is male.

So to follow with the conceit of this show, it might be best to start with the 1999 painting from Rocio Garcia, who still resides in Cuba. Her painting depicts super-sculpted male figures in Greco-Roman wrestling poses, with one man shining a light on their naked antics. Even in the 21st century, when issues of gender and sexuality have become far less controversial than they were in the past, many observers will still be taken aback that this amazing portrait comes from the hands of a female.

Turn to the back wall and a five-minute video unspools, called Blow Job en el Cinema from Guatemala native Eny Roland. It is a nod to the 1964 Andy Warhol film Blow Job. It starts with the face of a stunningly handsome man erotically engaged, then moves to images of sexually suggestive clips — mostly heterosexual — from movies over the past 40 years, ending with a brief image of the original actor from the Warhol film.

Roland’s photographs in the front of the gallery are equally mesmerizing. Again, he has posed men who look like they came from Calvin Klein ads in seductive situations, but this time with clear religious undertones. One man with the telltale stigmata on his feet wears a halo of gold thorns, and a loincloth. Another has real thorns encircling his forehead, while exposing an elaborate tattoo on his chest. Veliz explains that these portraits are based on the men who carry statues of the saints during Catholic street processions. They are erotic and steeped in dark, Medieval ritual.

Another Guatemalan, Mario Santizo, uses himself as a model for strange portraits that are dispersed around the gallery. In his staged photographs, his face is disguised in masks, while his genitalia is crafted from cloth, almost emasculating him entirely.

Veliz says she didn’t want this exhibit to be about gender identity, but more basely about how both men and women view masculine eroticism in art. But lines can start to blur, such as with the huge sculpture in the middle of the room around which the show was created. Titled Staging Desire, it comes from ArtCenter resident and Mexico native Othon Castañeda. It may be the biggest plush toy ever. You can walk into the huge brown sculpture covered with a velour-like cloth, and it feels like a womb. The masculinity here dissipates, but the sexual nature of the experience is still concrete.

This is a daring show for reasons that are not sensational. There is no explicit nudity, and no real political agenda. But the artists all hail from south of our border, where religion so traditionally dominated and radical exploration of sexuality was not the norm. It’s an interesting view.


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