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Artistic passions turn to 'Girl on Guy'

October 5, 2007

Since the 1960s, it's been largely uncool, if not taboo in some circles, for female artists to express their attraction to males. There wasn't always enough room, in the midst of feminist art's drive to assert women's equality and right to self-definition apart from men, to celebrate the opposite sex. And for some women, to depict a man as the object of erotic desire was to stoop to the strategies of their own oppression, albeit in reverse.

But a new generation of postfeminist artists has different ideas. In "Girl on Guy: the object of my desire," a terrific new exhibit curated by Marci Rae McDade at Columbia College's A + D Gallery, 23 women artists (including several from Chicago) show their appreciation and longing -- playful, romantic or just plain lustful -- for the men in their lives.

While the exhibit does feature a number of male nudes (including, prominently, Jane Fisher's exquisitely rendered oil painting "Brendan in the Tub" from 1988), it's far from the spirit of Playguy. Although the show's offerings are diverse in media, tone and outlook, what's strikingly consistent is that what the artists find beautiful in their male subjects is not their machismo but their vulnerability.

"Girl on Guy" is a love letter not just to men, but to men at particular moments when they arouse the artists' admiration or, more often, a tender and very nearly maternal protectiveness. These include when they're unconscious (as in Melanie Schiff's photograph "Sleeping Boy #1"), lost in their favorite rock songs (as in Julia Hechtman's "The Air Guitar Series") or in the midst of various emotional meltdowns (as in Stacia Yeapanis' cross-stitched tributes to volatile TV characters such as Agent Mulder from "The X-Files" and Spike from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer").

There's a notable element of a self-protective kind of voyeurism in this trio of works (which form the exhibit's philosophical and emotional core), of the artists catching the men unawares, in a state of almost childlike innocence. There's a sense of each artist keeping her subject at arm's length, without which some essential spell would be broken; if any of these real or fictional men returned their viewer's adoring gaze, you suspect a host of tiresome psychosexual power games would quickly ensue. Pay me no attention, boys, you're sweeter that way.

Elsewhere the exhibit finds women artists continuing to dote on men, but again from a psychologically safe and rather bemused distance. In Orly Cogan's droll "Size Matters" (2007), amazons marvel at the charms of the naked male Lilliputians they hold in their hands like favorite pets. In Stephanie Brooks' series of photographs, "Boys Who Drive Their Mothers' Station Wagons" (1998), slightly sheepish young men pose with the symbols of their dependence. And in Claire Rojas' "Man Walking in a Field of Lilies" (2006), the tradition of male-created landscape paintings dotted with female nudes is affectionately turned upside down.

The show's penchant for smile-inducing gender-role reversals reaches its zenith in some of Pia Guerra's original panels from "Y: The Last Man," a popular comic book series positing the disappearance of every male on Earth -- except one, an unemployed slacker named Yorick Brown. Although the book scores plenty of points about gender inequities, it also notes that circumstances have placed poor Yorick in a unique relation to the future of the human race, requiring him to be extricated from various scrapes by a superheroine.

Fortunately, she's up to the job.

NOTE: "Girl on Guy" is a featured event of Chicago Artists Month, which continues throughout October, and Schiff -- also represented in "Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock 'n' Roll Since 1967," ongoing at the Museum of Contemporary Art -- is one of the month's featured artists. (The others are Theaster Gates, Antonio Perez, Tiffany Holmes, Benjamin June, Meredith Winer, Audrey Niffenegger, Riva Lehrer, Shawn Stucky, Shirley Hudson, Lialia Kuchma, Sharon Bladholm and Erik Sosa.) For a complete listing of Chicago Artists Month events, visit or call (312) 744-6630.

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