Gender is one of those words that can automatically evoke contentious issues. Issues associated with anxiety and confusion, oppression and repression. Whether your personal belief is that our sexual characteristics are all down to biology or something more complex, the labels that gender carry will continue to convey potent ideas ingrained in history and sociology. These ideas have the capacity to confine an individual and continue to construct how we perceive the world and interact. Whereas these ideas can often remain immovable, gender's visual currency is much more malleable. The visual tools of stereotype allow an individual to feel the challenges of a new identity and to explore sexuality in another shell. The surface of appearance has continually provided society a plaything and to a certain extent a weapon against a world that favours the exterior.
In my last article we had a peek at one of photography’s seminal female artists and self portraitist, Cindy Sherman, so this time it only seems fair to let the boys have a turn. However, in the very spirit of this gender defying article, they will be boys who work beyond the stereotypes of masculine appearance and are rather more in touch with their feminine sides. Handsomely turned out in dresses with lashings of lipstick and charm they aim to challenge the way we perceive the performance of gender.
Lucas Samaras worked on this series of Polaroid’s from 1969-1971. He worked continually eventually achieving the variety of theatrical self portraits. Samaras look at gender is part of a wider exploration and fascination with identity. He tries it on like a costume, a disguise in which to experiment with the structure of his own identity. His work captures the camp performances of late sixties glitter rock, continuing their implication of how we can explore our identity through our appearance. The work shows that by borrowing the language of clothing and make-up we can create characters and play with rigid form of our identity.
To move onwards rapidly from Samaras to a surprisingly similar series produced by Andy Warhol in 1986. While a similar to that of Samaras it manages to convey a slightly different message. Much like his wider body of work this series appropriates the visual cues we take for granted. The stylised wig and heavy make up take the performance aspects of gender and amplify them. Whereas the experimentation in Samaras work gives the feeling of a more personal exploration of gender and identity, Warhol’s series seems to be a wider more general comment on the performance of gender identity. Warhol’s Polaroid suggests how gender identity is an artificial construct in our visual culture. That gender is nothing more than another aspect of our persona to perform, a pretence of the reality within. Our external appearance becomes a visual representation of our expectations surrounding gender and sexuality.
Beyond the similarities between the content and method Samara’s and Warhol’s work shares another technique: repetitive imagery. It’s as if neither artist can quite capture what they want to convey in one image. Whether identity is simply a performance or not, gender identity is a slippery creature. The obsessive repeated imagery is like an attempt to capture its strange elusive qualities. It presents gender as something that is created through repetition. That by performing the expected trapping of gender everyday we can hope to maintain a sense of normality. The morning ritual of applying make-up becomes a process of gender convention.
The striking thing about both series is how visually powerful they are. Using straightforward photographic tools and lighting, simple props and framing they manage to create commanding images that convey complex messages about how we wear the conventions of gender identity.