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Good ol' boys

Joshua Brinlee examines masculinity in the South.


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'PROVIDER': In Joshua Brinlee's "Masculine Projections," Brinlee's body serves as both screen and subject.
  • 'PROVIDER': In Joshua Brinlee's "Masculine Projections," Brinlee's body serves as both screen and subject.

By Stephanie Smittle

We are all born with a body, and for most of us, it isn't too long afterward that expectations arise about what kind of person we will become, many of which are a direct consequence of what box gets checked on that birth certificate next to "sex." Those expectations tend to narrow as we grow older, taking on all the nuances of culture, family and — as anyone raised in the South can confirm — geography.

In his latest collection, "Masculine Projections," artist Joshua Brinlee puts his own face and body at the center of Southern archetypal images of virility and dominance. In "Self Portrait as Provider," Brinlee's face peers earnestly out from under a white cowboy hat, with a torso clad in camouflage and an extended right hand that offers a freshly caught fish, its mouth gaping open. In another, "Self Portrait as Good Ol' Boys," Brinlee's baseball cap is turned backward, his shirtless torso concealing most of a Confederate flag on the wall behind him. The images share a disjointed "cutout" effect, distancing the subject from its original silhouette.

Self Portrait as Good 'Ol Boys
  • Self Portrait as Good 'Ol Boys

Brinlee explains in the artist statement accompanying the show: "As a man who doesn't prescribe to the heteronormative societal expectations of Southern masculinity, I utilize my body as the screen and subject. My attempt to 'fit in' to these types is a performative illusion. Areas of the projections are unaligned, pixelated and disproportionate, while other areas blend perfectly with the appropriated imagery." The imperfectly superimposed images are symbolic, for Brinlee, of "a struggle to conform to traditional notions of masculinity, while at the same time attempting to reject them."

"Masculine Projections" is on display at UA Little Rock's Windgate Center of Art + Design through April 27, and Brinlee visits Little Rock to discuss the work at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 12, in Windgate Center Room 101. Ahead of that talk, Brinlee and I caught up via email about the collection and what inspired it.

You grew up in Louisiana and Tennessee, and now work in Mississippi, yes? Perhaps it's because I, like you, grew up in the South, but when I see these images, I think, "I know that guy." Did you have specific people in mind as you worked?

Yes. I moved from Morgan City, La., to Franklin, Tenn., in the third grade. I work in the art and art history department at the University of Mississippi, where I also serve as the foundations coordinator. I currently live in Memphis with my partner of 18 years.

These were the men I was expected to become. They were my brother, friends, strangers, relatives, enemies and lovers. Most of the images reference a particular experience I had in my past. Some of the experiences were good, some were bad. I think the familiarity comes from the conformity found in Southern masculinity. To be part of the "Boys Club," you have to be one of the boys.

Self Portrait as All American
  • Self Portrait as All American

I think what's so intriguing about these images is their immediate, visceral relevance to this moment. There's a lot of conversation — some peripheral to the #metoo movement, some peripheral to conversations around gun violence — about the ways in which masculinity can be aligned with political and social systems that perpetuate sexism and inequality. Are those types of conversations what sparked this idea for you, or did it come from somewhere totally different?

Yes, you hit the nail on the head! I started this series at the end of 2015. The conversations that you mention are the same conversations that I have had with myself most of my life. I think we have all had these conversations, or at least I hope we have. It's only now, in this moment, that they have been brought to the surface. I believe it's a direct result of the words, actions and tweets of our current president. Toxic masculinity is worn as a badge of honor.

Another thing that makes these images come alive for me is the sense of empathy in them. It'd be very hard for someone to look at these and assume they were one-note parodies of a certain type of person — most obviously because you've placed your own face in them. Why did you put yourself in there?

Growing up gay in the South, you learn quickly how to perform masculinity. I learned at an early age how to read a room. Knowing who was friend or foe was a matter of survival. If I could blend into my surroundings and play the part, my secret would be safe. My homosexuality would not be weaponized against me. I want the viewer to experience my struggle to conform to these men. I want them to feel the weight of masculinity that I and others have felt.

Is masculinity toxic?

I would have to say yes and no. Masculinity can be toxic, but it also can be intoxicating, endearing and respectable. I tried to capture this in the images. They represent positive and negative depictions of Southern masculinity.


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